Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore.,
Fayetteville, Tenn., Edinboro, Pa., and last week–Littleton, Colo. Seven school shootings
in less than two years.
And after the avalanche of tragic images and endless CNN expert
commentaries, what have we learned about the seeds of this horrific violence?
Our health professionals offer no easy answers, only a litany of
problems: easy access to guns, violent pop media, permissive parenting, absentee
parenting, ignorance of warning signs, inability to talk about feelings, lack of adult
But something is missing here. The very glaring reality of all the
recent mass shootings at schools is that they were committed by boys–to be specific,
Genes and biology, of course, do not make boys perpetrate heinous
acts of violence. So what is it about our American culture that pushes and pressures boys
toward a breaking point where mass slaughter becomes acceptable?
There is much truth in the old saying, "violence is as American
as apple pie." From the nation’s genocidal westward expansion to the Nato bombings in
Yugoslavia, the USA has touted the glories of violent aggression. Our competitive
socio-economic structures also encourage aggressive, competitive behavior in every realm
of social interaction. And in this generally aggressive value system, boys and men,
compared to women and girls, have long been rewarded for being "extra"
However, in the last three decades, with working hours getting
longer and family and community ties continuing to erode, the aggressiveness of white boys
seems to be taking on a new lethal twist. Missing adult and parental authority, many young
people turn to peers, music, movies, tv and video games for values, support, and role
models. And those feeling particularly abandoned and victimized seem susceptible to
Some aggressive and troubled youth learn how violence works through
physical and emotional abuse in the home. Others learn from media violence (mainly aimed
at boys) that shows a simple and successful strategy for gaining power. The common thread
is that kids who kill feel abused and mistreated.
But with boys, there is also the issue of "being a man."
Mistreatment to most boys is a slight to manhood. And for many, the expression of fear,
pain, loneliness, or vulnerability of any kind is an act of humiliation. In short, some
thirty years after the emergence of the modern women’s movement, most boys still have a
hard time expressing any emotions except anger. And unfortunately, this means that
redemption of the male ego comes through aggression and violence.
An old problem for sure. But in the recent wave of school shootings
there is something new. The unhinged boys committing cold-blooded mass murder all seem to
fit the same profile. In the vernacular of schoolyard trash talk, these guys are
"losers" and "geeks." They are not tough or popular or athletic. They
are boys who are not very good at being boys.
Ostracized, picked-on, and ridiculed (mostly by other boys), they
tend to be loners. Some connect with other lost "outsider" kids. There is often
obsessive interest in death and dark themed movies and music. There is talk of murder and
suicide. Sometimes there is racism and misogyny and overtones of fascism. All in all, an
identity expressing anger, hurt, and the desire to get even.
Obviously these boys, kids like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, are
damaged goods. Their personalities are mangled and confused in ways that make it
impossible for them to pass through the normal socialization rites of their gender. Still,
they are not aberrations. The scary backdrop to the Littleton school shootings is that our
culture seems to be producing more and more disturbed, aggressive boys.
Though statistics can only hint at the depth of the problem, recent
surveys by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should be alarming. According
to government estimates, 1 in 5 children and adolescents have serious behavioral and
emotional problems and roughly two-thirds of these kids are not getting any kind of help.
Not all of these kids, of course, are committing mass murder. But
statistics on youth violence indicate a disturbing level of everyday aggression. The
Children’s Defense Fund reports that 11 American children under the age of 20 are murdered
each day. And daily, across the nation, another 18 kids are arrested for violent crime.
In the aftermath of the Littleton shootings, such statistics are
being used in arguments to push the criminal justice system to get tough on youth crime.
School officials around the country are talking about new security measures: metal
detectors, surveillance cameras, on-campus security officers, and student psychological
profiles. And once again, the debate about gun control and easy access firepower.
But the roots of youth violence remain largely ignored. To begin
with, the problem is not "kids" or "children." What we should be
talking about is the fact that virtually all violent crime in our society is committed by
males. Does this tell us something about our parenting, schools, communities, workplaces
and mass media? If we put any stock in the notion that it takes an entire village to raise
a child, then we might begin to realize that there is something desperately wrong about
the way our culture raises boys.
However, even now when the images of screaming kids and horrified
parents is fresh in our eyes, few seem interested in focusing on the "normalcy"
of male violence. So the lines between victims and victimizers continue to blur. And you
can bet, the worst is yet to come.