After Littleton 

A bad time for teens to be a little weird

A bad time for teens to be a little weird

Two weeks ago a couple of privileged boys from intact families killed 13 people and themselves in a phantasmagoric display of violence that hasn’t yet been satisfactorily explained.

The most obvious reasons for teen violence—poverty, victimization, parental abandonment—aren’t applicable in this particular round of carnage, and people have been left grasping for abstractions to blame.

Among them: video games, Internet access, inadequate gun control, inattentive parents, clueless school administrators, inept policing, cliquey teen society, nihilistic song lyrics, a mainstream culture that deifies victims, and a media that routinely makes celebrities of vicious psychopaths. Topping the list, of course, are sick teenagers.

Whose fault, whose fault, whose fault? The question plagues us because we desperately need a moral to this all-too-postmodern story. If we can check off the right answer on this quiz, we think, maybe we’ll be ready for the big test later on. If we toughen gun-control laws now, or start to regulate the Internet—before our own kids run up against a set of armed weirdoes lurking outside history class—then maybe we’ll keep them safe.

I’m absolutely in favor of making it impossible for most people, and for all kids, to get their hands on guns, just as I’m perfectly willing for the Internet to become subject to at least the same regulations that govern other media outlets, but let’s be honest here: Such changes may significantly improve our culture, but they won’t necessarily prevent other kids from going haywire.

In a free country, anyone truly hell-bent on destruction can find a way to create mayhem. Outlaw guns and there’ll still be pipe-bombs for the truly obsessed. Take bomb-making instructions off the Internet, and wackos will head for the classifieds in any number of newsstand magazines. Unless we’re willing to turn our country into a police state, we have to accept the risk that disturbed people will find the means to destroy themselves and others besides.

I was as horrified about what happened in Littleton as the next CNN addict. But it’s been two weeks now, and I’m beginning to see that instead of wringing our hands about youth gone amuck, we as a society ought to be a lot more worried about why the world keeps throwing up bad guys with entire armies at their disposal and legions of chanting, flag-waving followers, than about a handful of deeply troubled individuals whose actions uniformly elicit revulsion.

We have our social problems in this country, to be sure, and they’re big ones: persistent racism, unapologetic homophobia, the slow unstringing of every safety net previously erected to protect the abject poor. But one heartening fact remains: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn’t make themselves heroes. Those of us trembling in suburban fear would do well to note that there are no growing crowds of trench coat-wearing, disenfranchised teens gathering outside Columbine High School and muttering, “They were right; the jocks do deserve to die.” For now, at least, no Adolph Hitlers or Slobodan Milosevics have risen from our midst.

What happened in Littleton, Colo., is a story without a moral. Those kids were aberrations, random, and unpredictable. Sure, there’ll be other seriously troubled teens who aspire to similar episodes of violence against their classmates, but they aren’t part of any pattern of increasing violence in schools. Actually, the rate of school violence has been declining for years; according to The New York Times, less than 1 percent of the 108,000 public schools in this country have reported a violent death in the past seven years, a number so small as to be statistically insignificant.

Statistics don’t go far in comforting grieving parents, of course, nor in calming the fears of other parents watching the national news. I admit that if someone had called in a bomb threat to my own kid’s school, it would be just like me to register myself as a homeschooler the very next day. But I also know that such fears are pointless, and such actions even more so. There’s no real way to prepare for the random.

I used to teach teenagers, and right now I’m worried about them, worried about what society might be willing to do in some misguided attempt to make Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold seemingly less random. There are already few creatures in Middle America more wretched than teenagers. They’re poisoned by hormones which have almost no permissible outlets. They’re confined for eight or 10 hours a day to sprawling adolescent ghettoes where their attitudes and experiences are shaped mainly by their peers, people whose attitudes and experiences are just as limited as theirs. Much of their day drags on in stultifying boredom, the tedium unbroken except for ringing bells, lunch with friends, and, if they’re very lucky, an actually interesting class.

In such a world there are going to be misfits. There are going to be kids who smoke dope in the parking lot, kids who write smart-assed answers on essay tests, kids who sleep in, kids who sleep around, kids who dress in black and listen to weird music, kids who cannot look an adult in the eye, mumbling surly one-syllable answers to any question they’re compelled to address.

There are a lot of these kids in America, and most of them will turn out fine in the end, going on to hold down responsible jobs, to marry and fret about their own weird kids. And some of them will turn out better than fine, becoming the next generation’s poets and painters and filmmakers and even executives. Almost all our best and original thinkers found no real home in high school.

Even the kids who don’t turn out fine, whose anxiety and rage and frustration aren’t satisfied by writing nihilistic song lyrics or wearing ugly clothes, even those kids aren’t much likely to unleash their fury on someone else. Most of them will turn against themselves, frying their brains on alcohol or drugs, or starving themselves, or cutting their wrists in the family bathroom, or blowing their heads off with their daddy’s gun.

When a kid brings a gun to school or brags that he’s got a bomb hidden in his closet, it’s definitely time to get him as far away from school as possible, find him a good counselor, and put him on medication. It may even be time to lock him away from human society for the rest of his natural life. But I’m concerned about what will happen if everyone in teen society who looks a little different or acts a little odd can suddenly be turned in by an anonymous accuser, identified as a potential assassin on the basis of his hairstyle. Will all the “good” kids with their athletic bodies and B+ averages and well-adjusted friends suddenly be safe because the weirdoes have been kicked out of school until they can prove they’re psychologically healthy?

No, they won’t. For one thing, people don’t always dress the way they feel. Sometimes the guy likeliest to blow is the normal-looking one, and it’s the very effort of holding it together that’s turned his head into a pressure cooker. For another, even Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fooled a Littleton court officer into believing they were remorseful about breaking into that car last fall, that they had a bright future. No, if we start urging teenagers to point their fingers at any classmate who dresses oddly, writes dark poetry, or plays video games obsessively, what we’ll end up with is a whole lot of desperate kids who feel even more alienated and persecuted than they feel right now.

I’m not saying that by making them even more desperate we’ll goad these kids into opening fire with automatic weapons; what I’m saying is that we risk losing any chance of helping them. To a mother that’s a horrifying risk. Because every one of those sad, slouching kids sitting alone in the cafeteria—every single one of them—is someone’s child.

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