Two weeks after Littleton, Colorado's school massacre, anguished parents in a California suburb where murder is also rare found such tragedy “can happen here.” A 39 year-old crashed his Cadillac into a crowded preschool playground in Costa Mesa, crushing a three- and a four-year-old to death, leaving two small children in critical condition, and injuring two more toddlers and an adult aide. The toll rivaled that of several other highly- publicized student killings nationwide. Its motive seemed to be incomprehensible rage. The driver charged with murder was quoted by police as remorselessly seeking to “execute innocent” children because of a former girlfriend's rejection.
But while Littleton's and other student shootings have been clarioned as an apocalyptic sign of America's social breakdown, Costa Mesa's unbelievably terrible school killing drew silence from political leaders and scholarly authorities. It was relegated to back page, bottom-of-the-hour stories in the national media.
Why? Because, like other adults who commit rage-killings, the Costa Mesa school murderer is viewed as an individual psychopath representative only of his own isolated evil. Thus, the same commentators who magnify a teenaged gunner into the poster child of larger "youth culture" gone horribly awry do not similarly portray a 40-aged grownup who commits atrocity as reflecting their own diseased “middle-aged culture.”
As another White House summit on youth and school violence commences, the reasons for the national panic over kids killing kids versus the virtual ignoring of the far more common phenomenon of adults killing kids raise sobering questions about the attitudes of authorities (and perhaps Americans in general) toward young people. Do tragic deaths of children and teenagers matter only when political and institutional hay can be made from them? Why do occasional killings by students generate such outraged commentary demonizing a generation of young people when more prevalent killings by adults draw no similar fears of widespread grownup pathology?
For here is the baffling paradox. While student shootings remain rare, rage killings by middle-agers, a group criminologists insist has mellowed out of its violent years, are epidemic. In the last two years in Southern California alone, seemingly solid, middle-class, midlife adults committed a dozen massacres (a bus yard of workers raked with assault-rifle barrage, an office blasted with semiautomatic pistol fire, shrieking children gunned as they fled down a pastoral suburban lane) that left 40 dead, including 16 kids.
Recent trends provide ample reason to view this inexplicable blood spilling by middle-aged adults of comfortable background as part of a larger, alarming reality. Skyrocketing drug abuse, family violence and breakup, felony arrest, and imprisonment have exploded among adults ages 30 to 50 years old, the parent generation whose values everyone from top experts to the president extol. Defying every crime theory, felony arrests of white adults over age 30, California's fastest-rising criminal and prisoner population, tripled from 31,000 in 1975 to 106,000 in 1997.
Which raises the second paradox: in truth, today's middle- class and suburban teenagers, whose supposedly dangerous mentalities have been widely disparaged in the wake of Littleton's carnage, are better behaved than kids of the past. Regardless of what dire theory of societal unraveling experts proffer to explain why two suburban Colorado teens rampaged, a major fact is overlooked: the best evidence shows that rates of murder, school violence, drug abuse, criminal arrest, violent death, and gun fatality among middle- and upper-class teenagers have declined over the last 15 to 30 years.
Especially in California. Compared to their counterparts of the 1970s, white teenagers of the late 1990s show sharply lower per-person rates of gun deaths (down 25%), suicide (down 30%), murder arrest (down 30%), criminal arrest (down 50%), drug abuse (overdose deaths down 80%), and violent fatality of all kinds (down an incredible 45% in the last decade alone). Nationally, surveys show 90% of today's teenagers are happy and feel good about themselves, four-fifths get along well with their parents and other adults, more young people volunteer for charities and services than ever, and parents, religion, and teachers are the biggest influences on youth.
It is hard to justify, then, the widespread fear that today's adolescents are alienated, angst-ridden, and rotten. If pop culture, music, video games, and internet images affect teenagers, we should credit them for the fact that young people are acting better. In fact, it may be that young people's bewildering array of informal, "alternative families" -- ravers, Gothics, posses, ‘zine cultures, internet forums, gay/lesbian groups, skateboarders, gay/lesbian skateboarder 'zinesters -- help insulate them from the difficulties of increasingly chaotic biological families and account for the surprising good health of youths who should be most in danger.
Littleton's and other school shootings are not part of a larger trend toward more student and school violence, but tragic aberrations. The political and professional theorists whose explanations for Littleton flooded the media and policy forums displayed a singular failure to get a grip. Twenty-five million teenagers attend 20,000 schools nationwide. Ten students in seven schools committed the widely-publicized shootings of the past 18 months. Teenage gunners are not representatives of all teens, even alienated outcast ones, but are rare, extremely disturbed individuals.
There is no evidence that adolescents are more troubled than adults, or any more disturbed today than they ever were. As psychologist Laura Berk's 1997 text, Child Development, notes, “the overall rate of severe psychological disturbance rises only slightly (by 2%) from childhood to adolescence, when it is the same as in the adult population -- about 15% or 20%.”
But to say that murderous rage is rare and declining among middle-class and affluent youth does not mean its prevalence is zero. Teenagers are subject to the same environments and pressures that drive some adults to enraged violence, and teens inhabit the same adult society whose infestation of super-lethal firearms too easily converts anger into slaughter. Exaggerating rare instances of teenage rage into some kind of generation-wide craziness not only inflicts unwarranted paranoia, blanket surveillance, draconian restrictions, and harmful interference with normal growing-up on a generally healthy generation of young people, it severely hampers investigation into identifying and forestalling the narrow, individual psychoses that produce rage killers of all ages.
The baseless panic about young people inflamed by President Clinton, Republicans, and leading psychologists, pundits, and institutional scholars is more damaging to our social fabric than the isolated teenage murders they seize upon. Ignoring clear statistics and research, authorities now lie in wait for suburban youth killings months and thousands of miles apart to validate a thoroughly false hypothesis of generational disease at the same time they ignore more compelling evidence of deteriorating adult behaviors. This subversion of health and safety goals to politically warped, crowd-pleasing nostrums about “saving our kids” endangers kids in reality and helps perpetuate America's dismal reputation as the deadliest, most bullet-riddled, unhealthiest nation in the Western world.