It is difficult to imagine a more horrific introduction to the new millennium than the unspeakable violence that overtook America in the final years of the twentieth century. Teenage boys, sometimes in pairs, sometimes acting alone, carried weapons into their own schools and committed acts of random mass murder against their peers. An allegedly wiser generation of similarly unlikely killers, comprised mostly of law-abiding middle-age men, had already attacked their workplaces with the same vehemence, also transforming themselves into mass murderers and setting the standard for a unique brand of insane violence that has remained unmatched in other late-twentieth-century societies. Teenage moms, who inexplicably managed to hide their pregnancies from everyone around them, including their parents, secretly gave birth to their infants and promptly murdered them in acts of chilling brutality. Kids, sometimes as young as eleven or twelve, came together in public places to murder for no reason at all—simply for the thrill of watching another person die. Supposedly loving sons and daughters struck out against their parents in a moment of deadly fury, slaughtering them for reasons that were completely incomprehensible, often even to themselves.
These scenes of viciousness and cruelty have been repeated across our country in the past few years, in every conceivable venue, in big cities and sleepy, supposedly safe towns. They have created a national mosaic of exceptional violence—a legacy of senseless murder by which we will forever remember the final years of the twentieth century. They may also be a foreshadowing of the cruelty that we will all experience in the new millennium. Standing just beyond the threshold of the twenty-first century and surveying our recent past, there is every reason to foresee a coming time of mayhem and death that will be wrought upon us by our own sons and daughters. It is a frightening future to behold, and one from which we cannot turn away.
As Americans, we live in a society that is nourished by soundbites. In fact, this kind of information gathering is both a national addiction and an important contributor to why we have become so violent. Each day, we collect much of our essential information in fragmented, typically vague packets of chilling images, riveting sounds, and captivating, well-calculated phrases. When we encounter wrongful death in its many forms, the tragedy typically invades our homes in tightly encapsulated bits of information that have been designed to fix our attention, not enhance our understanding. For too many years, wars have been relegated to “conflicts,” and the enormous destruction wrought by our Armageddon-like weapons has been played out in our homes like so many insignificant video games in which we are always the victors. When our kids kill, we are offered images of the mayhem, pain, and death of their victims, but only from afar. The names of the fallen are read with solemnity, then promptly forgotten in favor of the next soundbite. The images of the killers, usually with faces so young and common, are washed away in a flood of sensational reporting, speculation, and cries of uncertainty, confusion, and blame. The reality of the tragedy—the true agony inherent in the crime—remains distant, depersonalized, carefully hidden, denied, and largely unexamined. It happens elsewhere, in someone else’s home or school, in someone else’s soundbite.
From time to time, despite the shallowness of this kind of information gathering, many of us continue to ask “why?” There is a part of us that desperately needs to understand this kind of violence, to come to grips with the chaotic, terrifying images that ripple so frequently yet briefly through our lives. In many ways, we want to learn from this kind of horror, and to look forward to a time when it has passed permanently from our lives. We want to understand why these tragedies happen. Why do our kids kill, especially those kids who seem to have no reason, no propensity, for such extreme cruelty? We want to know what has gone so terribly wrong with them, with us, and with our society. Sadly, the answers that we seek must fit the two-minute soundbite rule, regardless of the enormity of the issue, or they are never offered to us—they are never heard. In the end, we can find no satisfactory answers to this dilemma for the simple reason that such a far-reaching, unparalleled challenge to our national health and sanity can never be addressed in a soundbite, despite the knowledge, persuasiveness, and flourish of the latest “talking head” who turns our way.
When the topic is why our kids are becoming killers in record numbers, here is something about which we can be sure: Beware of the man or woman who claims to be an expert in the ways of the exceptional violence that currently plagues America. This is not an accomplishment that any of us can legitimately claim, regardless of our experience or credentials. At best, we can only claim to be students of this kind of violence. This is especially true when it comes to understanding why some of our kids kill with such apparently senseless abandon.
Although our national accomplishments are many and great, especially in the sciences, technology, and communications, we are neophytes when it comes to understanding our darker natures, and those of our children. Too many of us opt to look away from the crimes of our kids, and their potential to wreak havoc in their lives and ours. It is more comfortable to secretly deny the tragedies that confront us constantly in the media, to find a reason why these crimes are anomalies, odd occurrences, exceptions, and nothing more. In this sense, too few of us are genuine students of violence. Too few of us are willing to look at the core of our society, our families, our children, and ourselves, and ask why our schools and workplaces have become murdering fields.
Although it is true that none of us are experts in the kind of cruelty and viciousness that has befallen America in recent years, all of us must be willing to make an effort to understand it, especially if we are parents. If we do not, then we must be willing to relegate ourselves to the role of the victim in the years ahead. The choice is that simple.