DEATH OF CHILDHOOD Is It Any Wonder Children Are Committing So Many Unspeakable Horrors When We Inflict the Adult World on Them So Young? AFTER THE ARKANSAS MASSACRE, A PENETRATING LOOK AT THE LOSS OF THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
Byline: PAUL JOHNSON
THE Arkansas school massacre by boys of 13 and 11, whose crime was clearly premeditated and carefully planned, is only the latest and most gruesome of murders committed by teens and preteens.
It prompts the anguished question: Is there such a creature as an innocent child any more? Have the days when children were shielded from the adult world of evil by carefully maintained barriers of ignorance gone for ever?
It seems so. When I was a boy in the 1930s, growing up on the outskirts of the Potteries in North Staffordshire, poverty of a kind which is rare now was to be seen daily, but crime, in my observation, was non-existent.
The only episode I can recall was a case of vandalism (then called 'wickedness') by boys who cut a ring of bark off a newly-planted tree. This caused outrage and my big sisters bound the injured tree with bandages. The case was judged sufficiently serious to be investigated by a 'plainclothes detective', the only time I ever saw one.
I do not recall sex being discussed until I was in my late teens. I never heard a swear word of any kind until I went to boarding school when I was 12.
The first four-letter word I heard was when I was 16.
I do not believe my experience was unusual.
People of my generation find it hard to credit what they hear and read today, so different is it to their own childhood.
Even parents in their 40s are often shocked. What disturbs us all is the gradual lowering of the age barriers.
This week police in Cleveland, Ohio, were investigating a four-year-old boy who had been caught for a second time with a loaded 9mm handgun at a day centre. At big-city American schools, private security guards regularly search children of under 12 and relieve them of knives and revolvers.
In parts of America, including Arkansas, children have always been trained to use sporting guns from an early age, and the photo of one of the killers, Andrew Golden, proudly carrying a hunting rifle at the age of three, did not surprise me. Nor did the pictures of him at six with a handgun he was barely strong enough to hold.
When I was making a TV movie in West Virginia in 1960, I spotted two enormous Kentucky Long Rifles - powerful weapons with a kick like a mule - hanging over the fireplace of a mountain cabin. My host showed it to me, saying: 'Owned that since I was 12.' 'Whose is the other?' 'Oh, that's my boy's.' The boy was eight.
HOWEVER, the difference between now and 1960 is that children constantly see TV programmes that are not old-style bang-bang Westerns but full-colour enactments of horrific violence, done with painstaking attention to detail and presented as everyday events. The networks feed realistic violence into the lives of children daily and invite renactment.
In addition news bulletins constantly show scenes of violence - in Ulster and Palestine, for instance - in which small children and teenagers hurl rocks at heavily armed police and troops. This is real life and the children are often presented as heroes.
The fact is that the TV set is a daily window into a world of violence and evil that earlier generations of children knew only by whispered rumour, or not at all.
Nor are newspapers blameless. When I was in America earlier this month, the New York Times carried huge extracts from the 700-pages of depositions made public by Paula Jones's lawyer and describing in explicit detail President Bill Clinton's alleged sexual exploits.
A third baneful factor is the role played by our 'caring' society.
I and most of my contemporaries had no formal sex instruction. Now it is universal in schools and often presented in a peculiarly corrupting way.
It is assumed pupils will indulge in premarital sex, and the aim of the lesson is to make it 'safe'. It is also assumed that some of those being instructed will grow up to become homosexual and it is emphasised that 'your sexual orientation' is a matter of individual choice. …