by Morris Sullivan
Moses Lake, Washington: February 2, 1996--a 14-year-old boy enters his algebra class carrying a hunting rifle. He shoots his math teacher and three other students. All but one die.
Pearl Mississippi: October 1, 1997--Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old high school student, stabs his mother to death, then goes to school and shoots nine of his schoolmates. Two die.
West Paducah, Kentucky: December 1, 1997--14-year-old Michael Carneal rides beside his sister on the school bus, carrying a blanket wrapped around some large objects which he tells her are props for a science fair project. The "props" are really two shotguns, two rifles, and a pistol. He enters his school lobby and begins firing the handgun into a group of students who'd assembled there for a prayer meeting, killing three and wounding five.
Jonesboro, Arkansas: March 24, 1998--Two cousins, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden, commandeer a parent's van, load it with their own guns, those of their parents, and a rifle stolen from a grandparent. Dressed in camouflage clothing, they drive to a wooded area near their school to lie in ambush. They set off a fire alarm and begin picking off students filing out of the building. They kill four girls and one teacher.
Edinboro, Pennsylvania: April 24, 1998--Andrew Wurth, age 14, shows up at a graduation dance and, in front of a roomful of students, shoots a teacher to death and wounds three other people--a teacher and two teenage boys.
Springfield, Oregon: May 21, 1998--Kip Kinkel, age 16, kills his parents in their home. He then goes to his school's cafeteria, where he shoots 20 students. Two die.
Somewhere in America--right now, as you read this--a teenage boy is planning a mass murder.
You won't recognize it by looking at him. He's not an inner-city child--a product of an out-of control urban war-zone. Like the kids listed above, he lives in a suburb or even a rural community. He's not the product of poverty, neglect, and deprivation. He seems, in most respects, to be a pretty normal kid. His school picture shows a cherubic face beneath neatly-combed hair; he is smiling.
His friends and parents may have noticed that he's overly interested in guns and knives, but lots of boys are interested in guns and knives. He may torture small animals, or he may like to hunt. Lots of kids like to hunt, and many boys go through a sadistic phase. He probably flies into a rage sometimes, but who doesn't? Certainly, most kids in their early teens do; their hormones raise hell with their brains for a couple of years. He may express hatred for his parents, but most kids go through a rebellious stage in which they do that--it's a normal part of growing up.
Most kids, however, won't walk into school with loaded firearms and shoot their classmates. This one will. Afterward, the media will play the news of the shooting over and over while a shocked America looks on and desperately wonders--"Why?"
As the news of the events in Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Oregon portrayed America's schools as places of violent mayhem, news anchormen, psychologists, law enforcement officials, educators, and parents repeatedly asked themselves and each other what caused the shootings and how it could be kept from happening again. They attributed the shootings to a host of causes, including video games, violence on television, lack of family values, poor parenting, and too-easy access to firearms.
While all these explanations have merit, none provides an adequate answer. Probably the best reason is the one given by a friend of Luke Woodham, who said, "He was simply pushed to a pivotal point in his life in which the world had spit on him for the last time, and he was fixing to spit back."
Over the past two years, the number of teens arrested for violent crimes has actually fallen. However, as Charles P. Ewing, State University of New York professor of law and psychology, pointed out in a Washington Post interview, "While the number has gone down, the nature seems to be getting worse. We've graduated into the era of juvenile mass murder. You're seeing more violent killings, cases where kids are desecrating victims, more senseless killings, more killings that involve mutilation, that involve sexual acting out towards victims. I think what we're seeing is that kids are catching up to adult murderers."
FBI profiling of serial killers and mass murderers has taught us that adults take their rage to those extremes only after they have endured horrendous pain and suffering--child abuse and/or neglect, pressure-cooker working environments combined with personal catastrophes, and the like. According to one expert, "Whatever increases impulsiveness and irritability, engenders by hypervigilence or paranoia, and diminishes judgment and the ability to recognize one's own pain and that of others, enhances violence...The ingredients known to promote violence (are) isolation, discomfort, pain, exposure to other violent individuals and general insecurity."
President Clinton has asked for a commission to study the violence, trying to learn what the incidents have in common. However, the explanation is obvious, even without a study. The cultures in which these children lived created high-pressure, traumatic environments extreme enough to create 13-year-old equivalents of Charles Manson. The tougher question is not "Why?" Rather, we should ask, "Can we do anything about it?"
This year, Orlando teenagers Megan and Christine will enter the 8th grade and 10th grade, respectively. Christine thinks that one reason behind the shootings is "probably because guns are easier to get now. Guns are everywhere--all over the streets. Anyone can get one." In the aftermath of these incidents, gun-control advocates have appeared en masse to appeal for tougher gun laws, as they do every time a firearm is used in the high-profile death of a child.
Better gun control legislation is probably a good idea. However, no amount of gun control short of government confiscation of all firearms could prevent another school shooting. Most of the guns used in these incidents had been locked away; some were even stolen during break-ins. Furthermore, American kids have always had access to guns--they just haven't used them to commit mass murder.
Others reason that tougher penalties against juveniles would prevent some violent crimes, then call for harsher sentencing. However, it's hard to imagine that tougher laws would have deterred Kip Kinkel, who killed both of his parents before shooting 20 schoolmates. In fact, he probably did not intend to survive the morning. If a child believes his circumstances are that hopeless and out of control, it will be irrelevant to him whether he may receive a "light" sentence as a juvenile versus trial and conviction as an adult.
Family values and parental involvement may provide part of the solution. However, "bad parenting" alone did not create the kids who committed these atrocities. Kip's parents were still married, very involved in his life, took him to counseling, and by all accounts did everything they could for their son. While one of the Arkansas boys had just lived through the divorce of his parents and each had a parent who had experienced a run-in with the law, their parents and extended families seemed to have been supportive. They even attended church together. Michael Carneal was a B student, member of the school band, and the son of a prominent attorney. No evidence has yet surfaced that any of these kids were subjected to the ritual abuse or extreme neglect usually required to turn an otherwise normal person into a psychopathic killer.
So what did?
According to Megan and Christine, "Kids are like...they don't have any authority. It's no big deal if they go to jail or whatever. They think, 'I'll be out--my parents will come and get me. And even adults--people are just not as civilized as they used to be. They don't care any more. Like, there's all these crazy people out there, and kids are watching TV and seeing people doing crazy stuff and they're thinking, 'Oh, that's cool,' you know?"
In the last few years, America has been the scene of violent acts that until recently would have been restricted to backwards third-world nations--government-building bombings; terrorist acts against civilians; and even an armed madman marching unabashedly into the Capitol.
This trend of more and more dramatic violence is probably fueled by a combination of factors: increasing distrust of authority; an endless stream of ever-more-incendiary media violence; increasingly arbitrary rules and regulations enforced by impersonal and unmanageable bureaucracy; the disappearance of the American dream as the income gap widens and the connection between work and reward becomes more and more vague; diminishing standards and the vocational-school orientation of public education; along with the long-treasured American belief in violence as a means of conflict-resolution. Capping it all off are two relatively new and growing phenomena--a culture in which the responsibility of the individual over his own actions has been replaced by a near-automatic and pervasive tendency to lay blame; and a growing tendency to focus on short-term rewards at the expense of long-term success.
Our children are raised on a steady diet of sex and violence, with heaping side dishes of fear and paranoia. While they should be learning to respect authority and the consequences of misbehavior, they are instead learning distrust. In the wake of sex scandals involving high-ranking military officers and even the president, no man's honor and dignity are safe from media attack. No matter how many good things a leader accomplishes, he always faces the risk that his human foibles will be exposed and used to discredit him, and one of the most popular shows on television, The X Files, hammers home the message that the government cannot be trusted. If a child cannot respect and trust the highest authorities in the land, then why would he respect and trust his teachers and local leaders?
Meanwhile, movies such as Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers turn sociopaths into cultural heroes. When a child turns on the television or the radio, goes to the movies, buys a CD, or plugs himself into a video game, there is a good chance that he will enter a world in which people are either two-dimensional, subhuman "bad guys" to be used for target practice by powerful, superhuman "good guys" who use their physical and intellectual superiority for one of the basest, least healthy of all human motives--revenge. Even talk shows such as Jerry Springer's, with its gleeful displays of family fist-fights and screaming matches, depict the adult world as one peopled by uneducated boobs who totally lack ethics and self-control.
Media depictions of real-life catastrophe contribute to the growing fear, as well as the belief that violence is an acceptable means of conflict-resolution. Following the Oregon shootings, law enforcement officials asked the media to downplay coverage, hoping to reduce the risk of copycat incidents. One television network mentioned this several times during an hour-long news magazine show devoted to the event.
To a great extent, our society has turned its back on its children. Education and programs that should promote child welfare repeatedly fall under attack, and rather than creating bureaucracies that will nurture and support our children, we try to merely control and "manage" them. Not only does this leave them poorly equipped for adulthood, but it clearly tells them, "We don't care about you."
Legislation aimed at "getting tough" on juvenile offenders repeats that message. Instead of attacking the drug problem at its roots, for instance, by weeding out the causes of despair and hopelessness that many young people feel, we try them "as adults" and "get tough" (as in the Plano, Texas roundup of small-time juvenile heroin dealers).
Meanwhile, children must endure the arbitrariness and unmanageability of the same mindless and ineffective bureaucracies we adults face. Teachers get blamed for a child's failure. Parents get blamed. A student harms another, and the school gets sued. Afraid of litigation, afraid to dispense even an aspirin, even the school clinic has disappeared in many states. None of this blame-laying does the child any good; it just confuses him. In the face of mindless bureaucratic control by apparently heartless, fearful adults, children have nowhere to turn.
A network news magazine show aired the story of a teenage killer who brutally killed a four-year-old boy, then sexually defiled the body. All through the story, you wonder--where were the adults? Where was the bus driver who let the child's bus ride turn into a daily nightmare of taunting and teasing? Where were the teachers who should have noticed that his birth defects were connected to his learning disability, and instead of merely holding him back to repeat the fourth grade, should have gotten him special help? Why was it so easy for all the adults in the boy's life to say simply "teasing is a part of growing up," and allow him to live in a growing state of hopelessness and rage? Why didn't his neighbor report his torture of animals? Why didn't his mom drive him to school, why didn't his dad go down and threaten to kick the principal's ass if he didn't protect his child better, why didn't someone see what this kid was becoming before it was too late? He was ignored and neglected by us until it was too late. Then we tried and convicted him as an adult.
Kip, Luke, Michael, Mitchell, and Andrew committed horrible, tragic, criminal acts. However, they are not "evil," and they are not criminals. They are horribly, tragically mixed up children. When you decide that the solution to juvenile crime is to prosecute children as adults, in effect you turn your back on them all, not just the offenders. The message you send is that children no longer deserve our protection.
The sign at the entrance to an Orange County high school proclaims the new rules. "No guns. No knives. No weapons of any kind." Many school boards have developed "zero tolerance" policies towards possession of firearms on school grounds. After the Oregon shooting, said Megan, "We got our lockers checked."
"And," said Christine, "The last week of school there were cops all over school--in the halls and at the entrances. One of the teachers told us that you should listen all the time for kids saying crazy stuff, like they're going to kill somebody, and no matter how stupid it sounds, you should take it seriously. And if you know someone that has a gun at school, you can tell somebody and they won't let anyone know who told, so they don't get mad at you."
Christine thinks "A lot of kids do it for respect. Some kids if they get picked on all the time, they think if they get a gun, they'll get respect. We should let kids be aware of what's out there, what to look for, and let them know there's other ways to get respect besides picking up a gun."
Children need respect, and they need to believe in heroes. They need to believe that hard work and integrity will lead to success. They need to be able to respect us--even if it means keeping our skeletons in our closets until they are old enough to know that people don't have to be perfect to be "great." They need our protection, not our disdain. They need to learn that if they do well, they will succeed, and that if they don't, there will be penalties. They need to understand that justice and revenge are very different things. Most of all, they need our care and protection.
This is the legacy of the alternative--of the action film and the cinema antihero; of Doom and Mortal Kombat; of presidential sex scandals and arms-for-drugs scandals; of overblown, out-of-control corporate and government bureaucracy; of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots; of the choice to value the student's ability to conform and become a willing cog in the machine of consumerism above his ability to think, reason, choose, and act responsibly.
This is the legacy--a 14-year-old gets taunted at school and no adult can help him because the bureaucracy no longer handles that--it's already over-burdened with too many students, too little money, and too great a fear of liability. So he feels ignored. He has a tough time making good grades, for which his teachers blame his parents and his parents blame his teachers. His state has enacted legislation that will, in effect, make it impossible for him to graduate from high school, and without a diploma, it will be impossible for him to "amount to anything" in our materialistic, money-driven society.
His only real outlets are violent, isolating ones. He watches television and movies about violence. He listens to music that sends him messages of hopelessness and despair, and that glorifies acts of violent rebellion. He plays video-games, which are designed for his mind, which already is virtually incapable of absorbing any information that doesn't come to him in 20-second bites. To win the game, he must kill electronic representations of humans one after another.
We know all this about him, yet we will still wonder why he feels hopeless, why he doesn't value human life, and why he gets violent.
He walks calmly into his school, re-enacting a scenario he's watched over and over on television and at the movies. His weapons are loaded as he enters the hallway full of students and teachers. He has reached a pivotal point in his life in which the world has spit on him for the last time, and he is about to spit back. At the moment, his schoolmates are little more to him than blips on a video screen--two-dimensional symbols of the repression he feels.
He raises the gun to his shoulder, squints down the barrel, and begins to fire.
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