Thursday, June 4, 1998

What Makes Kids Kill?

by Jon Katz, jonkatz@bellatlantic.net

From the President on down, most of our voluble moral guardians are no where to be seen when kids like Kipland Kinkel get hold of lethal weapons in heartland America and cut down innocent people for no discernible reason.

As every months' headlines make clearer, the worst violence in modern American life cannot be blamed on rappers or on Hollywood producers. These crimes are committed by emotionally disturbed people - LA freeway shooters to AK-47-toting postal workers to troubled teenaged boys - with nearly unrestricted access to deadly devices.

Horrific scenes of unprovoked, random, and incomprehensible slaughter have become an American ritual. Provoked by some small or even imagined slight - a break-up, a firing, a denied promotion, a look - the troubled man or boy gets a gun and shoots as many people as he can. Sometimes he is overwhelmed or caught; sometimes he kills himself first.

The police rarely manage to get to the workplace or schoolyard or mall in time, leaving victims and their families condemned to a particular contemporary hell. They not only see the people they love get murdered or maimed, but since the rampage seldom has a real reason behind it, they can never experience resolution or comprehension, let alone any kind of justice.

In fact, because the killers increasingly are children, even the recourse of that other American rite, the vengeance of the death penalty, is not an option - although blood-thirsty legislatures are already working to change that.

Why is it that William Bennett, the media's anointed Morals Czar and the self-appointed protector of children's values, isn't on TV expressing outrage at the ease with which kids can get pistols, rifles, and assault guns? Where's Bob Dole, who campaigned for the presidency by decrying violent imagery from Hollywood? Why the silence from Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls regular press conferences to denounce the violence on Jerry Springer's talk show? And from Senator James Exon of Alaska, who labored to protect America's young by conceiving the Communications Decency Act? Why condolences from Bill Clinton, but no raft of bills and proposals to control the sale and movement of guns whose only purpose is to kill people?

Children have been exploited for decades not only by sexual predators but by politicians eager to capitalize on their parents' fears about new information technologies and popular culture. As a result, most Americans believe media is responsible for violence, a notion ironically advanced by the very same media's own inept and distorted reporting about violence and the young.

Many parents believe that TV bears primary responsibility for violence, that the Internet is awash with dangerous perverts, and that movies, video games, and VCRs have rotted the brains and the values of the weak-minded young, infecting them with a predeliction for mayhem.

The manipulable media have been all too happy to disseminate such fears. Objectivity, a cherished journalistic principle, permits reporters to pass along other people's opinions rather than trouble themselves to find out where the truth lies.

So most Americans really don't grasp that violence among the young has been dropping for years and that the primary users of new media technologies - the American middle-class young - are the safest group of children on the planet.

This year, Kipland Kinkel - plus his fellow disturbed teenaged killers in other states - have killed and injured more children than have been killed by the Internet in its entire history. Their toll is far higher than that which can demonstrably be attributed to all the so-called dangerous imagery on television or in the movies.

According to federal statistics, no school shootings occurred in 1994; in l997, there were four. This year, an 11-year-old boy and his 13-year-old friend were charged with killing four students and a teacher and wounding 10 others in Jonesboro, Arkansas. A high-school senior shot and killed a student in a school parking lot in Fayetteville, Tennessee. In Edinboro, Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old boy is accused of killing a teacher and wounding two students and another teacher at an eighth-grade graduation. Two days later, a 15-year-old girl was shot in the leg in a suburban Houston high-school classroom. In Washington, a 15-year-old boy got off his school bus carrying a gun and went home and shot himself in the head.

Although experts and sociologists have crammed TV talk shows to offer various theories about the contagion of teenage violence, it is clear that no one understands why these incidents occur. Blaming media is merely the simplest, most expedient way to explain what can't be explained.

In the midst of the Information Revolution, we are, as usual, on our own. Irresponsible and inaccurate posturing about violence and technology is epidemic. "What do you expect?" a New York City anchor angrily asked his deskmate during the late news the night of the Oregon killings. "All this violence on the Internet, on TV?" His co-anchor shook her head sympathetically and clucked, "Isn't that the sad truth!"

Are facts all that hard to come by?

Every day, writes Don Tapscott in Growing Up Digital, three children in the United States are murdered or die as a result of injuries inflicted by their parents or caretakers. Of the annual 3 million reported cases of child abuse, 127,000 cases involve child abandonment. Yet from March l996 to March l997, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recorded 23 cases related to the Internet. Ten involved the transfer of pornography, an adult soliciting sexual favors from minors, or sexual contact initiated over the Net - all despicable and intolerable episodes. Of the remaining 13 cases, two involved police officers posing as children, in two others the girls had previous histories as runaways. Nine others involved children over age 16 running away from home, purportedly to meet online acquaintances.

What these statistics indicate, Tapscott says, is that "children are 300,000 times more likely to be abused by one of their own relatives than by someone they have met over the Internet."

Sissella Bok, whose new book Mayhem examines the effects of violence in media, writes that young people's lives are saturated with graphic violence in a way that's different and more dangerous than in previous generations.

"We have movie role models showing violence as fun, and video games where you kill, and get rewarded for killing, for hours and hours." It is, she wrote, a "very combustible mix, enraged young people with access to semiautomatic weapons, exposed to violence as entertainment, violence shown as exciting and thrilling."

Unquestionably, the young grow up in an environment in which images of graphic violence are ubiquitous. But such arguments seem facile, unconvincing - maybe it's that "access to semiautomatic weapons" more than the rage or the games that's different from previous eras. If Bok's right, why do FBI statistics show violence among the young plummeting to its lowest levels since Prohibition, while violent imagery in media has indeed been increasing, along with cable programming and usage, movie attendance, and the advent of the Net?

And that's only one of the questions we need to be asking. Some others:

Why are almost all these killers male?

Why do so many of these school shootings occur not in media-saturated urban areas but in rural heartland communities, generally thought more conservative and traditional? Is there a connection to the rural popularity of hunting, as in Springfield?

The media habits of these teenaged suspects aren't yet clear. The common denominator linking them, to date, is quite clear: they can easily find guns. Why haven't journalists and politicians focused on this as the most pressing issue connecting these tragedies, a far more convincing common denominator than violence on TV?

We all know the answer. Because the gun lobby is too powerful, and because journalists can hide behind the comfortable ethos of objectivity, which makes avoiding the truth not only excusable but virtuous. All they have to do is make sure to quote everybody else's stalemating opinions.

When it comes to the sale and distribution of rapid-fire assault weapons, the gun lobby is our modern equivalent of Murder, Inc., responsible for vast tragedy and suffering. That this is so obviously, irrefutably true, even when it comes to stopping the slaughter of helpless children, is a bloody indictment of both journalism and politics, two of our most cowardly and morally bankrupt contemporary public institutions.

Copyright © 1998 by Jon Katz. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.