Nightmarish high school massacres like the one in Littleton are now an almost ritualistic part of American life. And increasingly when they occur, journalists and educators blame new media like the Internet, computer games like Doom, or violent movies. Why kids kill this way is an urgent and complicated question. But teenaged crime isn't rising, it's falling. And there's no evidence that the Net or other new media are the reason for massacres.
The images were familiar, yet surreal.
Media reports of books about "Doom", animated clips from the computer game, TV shots of websites with ugly images, ominous reports of heavy metal bands and film clips of "Natural Born Killers".
"What is known", said a CNN correspondent Wednesday night, "is that the members of the Trench Coat Mafia spent a lot of time playing computer games on the Internet". They had become obsessed with online killing, reported another TV reporter. They had delved into militia and hate-group websites, some papers said.
The fallout was, as always, nearly instantaneous.
In Vancouver, Washington, e-mailed Enzo Falzon, high school students were pulled aside as they came through the front door and told they weren't allowed to wear trenchcoats. In a Philadelphia suburb, e-mailed Tim, (who asked that his last name remain anonymous), kids who play Doom were offered counseling. In Maine, e-mailed Vektor, who's 14, his parents made him open his private computer files so they could look through and make sure he wasn't doing anything "anti-social".
By now, this schoolyard nightmare is as ritualistic as it is horrific.
We see televised scenes of kids running and sobbing, of SWAT teams creeping through schools, and bloodied bodies carted out - followed by dark reports about hate on the Net, violence on TV and in movies. Everyone seems bewildered, uncomprehending.
Almost always, we are as confused as we are horrified, since young killers take their own lives or offer no coherent explanation, leaving us with questions but not answers. Since there are rarely trials, there is rarely any resolution, any understanding.
In June of l988, writing for Hotwired, I wrote a column called "What Makes Kids Kill" after Kipland Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, killed four people, including his parents, and wounded 22 more.
Not much has changed a year later, especially when it comes to knee-jerk, ignorant stereotypes from the media and from educators about kids, the Net, geeks, and the violence allegedly inspired by the digital screen culture.
Federal agencies and academics studying this kind of episodic, uniquely American massacre, find little if any, connection between murders and media, digital or otherwise.
Kids being warned and counseled by fearful administrators and teachers ought to know that overall, teenage violence is way down in America, at its lowest levels since the Depression. In supposedly media-saturated, violent urban areas like New York City, Chicago, and LA, schoolyard massacres are unknown. Nor has one ever occurred in Canada, even though Canadian kids watch almost the same media as American kids, and use the Net in even greater numbers.
What do we know about these horrible eruptions? Almost all of the killers have been white, teenaged males who are emotionally disturbed. Almost all lived in suburban or rural areas, the children of working or middle-class families. They've been generally described as well-parented.
And in almost single case, nobody really knows why they did what they did. They suffered various forms of social cruelty and exclusion, as so many of their peers also have, and they got their hands on especially lethal weaponry, particularly guns. Almost always, their friends and classmates and teachers are stunned and disbelieving. Some of the shooters have been avid media and computer users. Others weren't.
According to federal statistics, no school shootings occurred in l994; in l997, there were four incidents. In l998, apart from the Springfield killings, an 11-year-old-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 parking lot in Fayetteville, Tennessee. In Edinboro, Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old boy was 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 suburban Houston high-school classroom. In Washington, a 15-year-old boy got off his school bus carrying a gun, then went home and shot himself in the head. Now there is Littleton, Colorado, 1999's first school massacre, with at least fifteen dead.
Although experts, therapists and sociologists have crammed TV talk shows to offer various theories about the contagion of teenage violence, it is clear that no one yet understands why these incidents occur. Sociologists like Elaine Showalter of Princeton have written about media hysterias, contagions transmitted by the speed and power of media imagery in stories about the killings themselves. Some psychologists believe that when disturbed kids see the massive amount of media attention these shootings get, they begin fantasizing about this kind of attention being focused on their own, often unhappy, lives.
Other experts blame the availability of guns. Obviously, the ready availability of lethal weapons is significant in this kind of violence, but crime among teenagers has been plummeting for years now, even as the number of guns in the United States has risen.
And persistent efforts by journalists to link the massacres to hate-sites on the Net or to games like "Doom" and, before that, to "Dungeons & Dragons" don't hold up either. There are no consistent patterns of media behavior to link these killers, no single trait of movie-going, gaming or Net use.
Tens of millions of kids all over the world play computer games. The biggest users of new media recreational technologies are middle-class kids, since they have the money to afford the technology. Yet violence among this group, never very high, again has been plummeting even as online use has mushroomed.
Yet despite the confusion about the cause of these killings, all across America, newspapers and TV stations are warning parents about computer games, suggesting that their sons and daughters might be secretly turning into potential mass murderers online.
This is willful ignorance. There's no mystery about the greatest dangers to children. 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 three million reported cases of child abuse, 127,000 cases involve child abandonment. Each year, and throughout the 90's, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports only a handful of child abuse cases related to the Internet. Of the 23 cases tracked from March 1996, to March, l997, 10 involved the transfer of pornography, an adult soliciting sexual favors from minors, or sexual contact initiated over the Net. Of the remaining 13 cases, two involved police officers posing as children, and in two others the girls had previous histories as runaways. Nine others involved children over age 16 running away from home, allegedly to meet online acquaintances.
What these statistics indicate, Tapscott says, is that "children are 300,000 times more likely to be abused by their own relatives than by someone they have met over the Internet".
As horrific as massacres like Littleton are, they are also extraordinarily rare. Statistically, children are more likely to have an airplane fall out of the sky and kill them than they are to be shot in school, despite the staggering amount of media coverage.
Sissella Bok of Harvard, whose book Mayhem examined 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".
There's no question that violent imagery is ubiquitous in screen culture, from gaming to TV. But these comparisons seem facile and unknowing. Gaming is intensely creative, in some contexts - Quake 3, Unreal, Ultima - almost approaching a new art form. The animation is rich and multi-dimensional, and violence is stylized, often presented more as a strategic challenge like chess than anything truly brutal or graphically violent. If the stylization of violence is a problem, it doesn't show up anywhere in crime or violence statistics involving computer users.
If Bok is right, it would. Why would there be a decline in youth violence even as "violent imagery" in the media has indeed increased, along with Web use, cable's share of audience, rap and hip-hop (also supposed to be inducing the young to violence), and movie attendance?
More relevant questions might be: Why are so many of these killers male and middle-class, rather than the poor or the underclass? Why do these assaults occur almost exclusively in rural or suburban areas? Why are these kids able to hide even severe emotional disturbance from the people closest to them?
Perhaps the most shocking thing about massacres like Littleton is that, for all of the massive amounts of coverage brought to bear on them, there really isn't anything approaching a consensus about why they occur. Since educators and authorities don't know what to do, what they tend to do is dumb.
Since the kids they're supposed to be protecting know quite well that wearing trench coats, going online, or watching movies isn't dangerous in and of itself, mostly what educators and journalists end up demonstrating to kids is that they're clueless.