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Jewish World Review March 9, 2001 / 14 Adar, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

Felony neglect -- THE Associated Press posted a round-up of tragedies averted at American schools after 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams went on a 10-minute shooting rampage at his Santee, California, high school, killing 14-year-old Bryan Zuckor and 17-year-old Randy Gordon, and wounding 13 other boys and girls.

Within 48 hours, 23 American schoolchildren had been arrested or detained for threatening various acts of violence including a bomb plot at a middle school. Among the suspects were three students from the California School for the Deaf, a 15-year-old Catholic schoolboy from Davenport, Iowa, and a 15-year-old honor student from Camden said to have threatened to kill off a high school clique during wood shop.

Bomb plot and middle school; honor student, murder, and wood shop: Still there persists a sense of horror and disbelief at the linkage. How about eight-years-old, loaded handgun and talk of "bloodbath"? That chilling combo came together on Monday in a Philadelphia elementary school before authorities took the second-grader into custody. As disturbing as such accounts are, in the five short years since a Washington-state boy killed three fellow students, the unthinkable has become, if not an everyday event, an everyday threat.

So it comes as little surprise to learn that on the same day a 14-year-old Catholic schoolgirl in Pennsylvania made headlines for shooting a 13-year-old classmate in the shoulder, the AP reported: a 12-year-old Philadelphia schoolboy WAS ARRESTED for carrying a .22-caliber pistol to school; a Florida sophomore was charged with possessing a semiautomatic handgun; another Florida teen was charged with bringing a sawed-off revolver to his old high school; a 16-year-old boy in Washington state was arrested after making threats and brandishing a gun during a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps session; and a 14-year-old Wisconsin boy, having fled school while being disciplined, returned with a gun. And, finally, an Indianapolis couple, Calvin and Shawnee Sistrunk, were charged with felony neglect after their 6-year-old daughter had taken a loaded handgun to kindergarten on March 1.

Felony neglect. There seems to be a lot of that going around as details emerge to fill in some of the blanks surrounding the more notorious child crimes. In Charles Andrew Williams' case, the Linus-in-the-school-play reports were quickly overshadowed by revelations of a sad life of maternal estrangement, paternal laxity, uprootedness, being bullied at school, and drug and alcohol abuse. Experts say there is no reliable "profile" of a schoolyard killer, but there is an all-too-familiar look to the private world of the Williams boy, as there is to the public tragedy for which he is responsible. Worse still, there's little doubt that this same kind of private world will again combust in a similar tragedy. As a Santee girl told reporters, "It makes you wonder when it will end."

There is understandable despair in the girl's reaction, a numbness that Americans can't help feeling whether directly affected or watching from afar. But this is a time to keep outrage raw and real if ever we are to stamp out such barbarities as schoolyard massacres, and not just accommodate ourselves to them. It's an open question whether we're up to the challenge, or will instead learn to "cope" with some measure of murder on campus, to adjust to it as though it were just another pitfall of postmodern life. President Bush reacted to the Santee shooting, not by blaming the gun lobby as his predecessor always did, but by sanely emphasizing character development and the importance of teaching children right from wrong. This is vitally important, but there's more to consider.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, author Judith Rich Harris noted, "Modern children live two almost independent lives: their lives at home with their parents and siblings and their lives outside the home, where the important people are their peers." Maybe this is as good a time as any to challenge the undisputed primacy of the peer group, which derives its influence from high school as we know it. Maybe it's time also to reassess the vast, impersonal secondary school, where galaxies of adolescents are pulled by the irrational forces of clique-life and pop-culture, and where the adult lessons of right and wrong often become distorted by teen tunnel-vision.

And about pop culture. The lack of remorse noted in the Williams boy may have more than a little to do with his affinity for the nihilism of punk rock and his idolizing Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana singer who committed suicide in 1994. "Over and over, he played the song, `In the End,' " the Los Angeles Times reported, "which features the lyrics,

'I had to fall/To lose it all/But in end/It doesn't even matter'"

Maybe it didn't to Charles Andrew Williams--but it does, one hopes, to the rest of us.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


03/02/01:Who's sorry now?
02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
02/16/01: Elton and Eminem: Royal dirge-icist meets violent fantasist
02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West