American Mayhem: School Shootings

Article excerpt

When did teenagers start gunning down their classmates and teachers? Over the past two years, nine different schools have become scenes of murder. Twenty-one people have been killed and 46 injured at the hands of high school or middle school students. Adolescence has always been a time when alienation, uncertainty, aggression and aimlessness mix in volatile ways. Acts of teenage nihilism are not new. But at some point aggression started being acted out not with words or fists but semiautomatic weapons. And the target now may well be not one person but a cafeteria full of fellow students.

"We've transitioned from single-victim shootings to multiple shootings--indiscriminate shootings of large numbers of people who had little or nothing to do with the events that led to the problem," noted Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center in California. "There's more firepower, more victims, and a greater sense of callousness," said Stephens, who spoke to newspapers after high school freshman Kip Kinkel opened fire at his school in Springfield, Oregon, on May 21, killing two students (he had already killed his parents) and wounding 23.

Something new is going on, but what and why? We search for the lesson to be learned, but there is no single one. Is the problem the easy availability of guns? We do need tougher gun laws--but guns have been available for years and we haven't seen this kind of schoolyard violence.

Is the problem a lack of parental involvement? In Kip Kinkel's case, it appears the parents were thoughtful and devoted and showed more patience and stamina in dealing with a troubled son than most parents are likely to possess. William and Faith Kinkel rearranged their work schedules in order to be home after school. They limited Kip's TV watching. They took him to counselors. And, in a gesture that seems straight from a psychologist's handbook, William Kinkel signed up for lessons in target shooting with his son in an effort to channel his son's fascination with guns in a constructive way.

In the end, we may be able to say about Kip Kinkel only that he was beset by demons that no one could uncover or exorcise. Perhaps the same might be said about the youths in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and West Paducah, Kentucky, and the other towns that are now symbols of middle American mayhem. No one's acts can ever be fully summed up by a sociological explanation. Social science has never been good at providing that kind of explanation anyway.

But because there is not a straightforward explanation for any one incident does not mean we have no clues about what lies behind this surge in violence. The shootings in Springfield and elsewhere cannot be shrugged off as aberrations. The statistics don't allow us to do that. The rate of murders committed by teenagers 14 to 17 more than doubled from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Something is going on. Kids' appetite for violence is increasing at the same time that they are becoming more calloused toward it.

One of the virtues of Sissela Bok's recent book on media violence, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, is that she does not contend that the amount of violence on TV and in movies and video games is the sole or even a prime cause of aggressive behavior. …