Of Columbine and World Trade Center Terrorism

Mike Males, c Youth Today, November 2001

                Americans’ horrified revulsion at the World Trade Center/Pentagon airline massacres included concern over how help young people deal with massive tragedy. As initial shock at the attack yields to sober reflection, it is evident that adults react to extreme stresses in the same extreme ways we so often condemn in youths.

                Polled by CBS News after the attack, 70% of American adults said killing innocent victims (and 60% said killing “thousands of innocent victims”) is acceptable to avenge terrorism. Clearly, this sentiment reflected immediate grief and rage, not our normal values. Still, if a grieving gang leader, after murderous attack by a rival gang, advocated killing innocent people in revenge, authorities would brand it proof of the rash violence of modern youth.

                Ironically, a recent Alfred University survey found seven in 10 students believed school shootings are done to avenge bullying by jocks and popular students. The Columbine shooters and WTC terrorists didn’t just express an opinion; they plotted brutal carnages and carried them out. That’s what makes the few mass murderers so different from the millions of us whose anger doesn’t lead to slaughter.

                Missing that basic distinction, Alfred psychology professor Edward Gaughan declared, “in the average high school of 800 students, nearly 100 kids have the potential for violence, and as many as 20 of them may be considered high-risk for shooting someone at school.” His survey numbers projected 2.8 million violence-prone students, including 500,000 at “high-risk” to perpetrate shootings.

                So, how many real school shootings did Gaughan’s report uncover? Eight in the last two years. Statistically, “500,000” is different from “eight.” Gaughan’s 99.8% false-positive embarrassment stems from common anti-youth stereotyping that fails to recognize that even the angriest, most alienated half-million teens are utterly unlike the one in three million who shoots up a school. That same difference exists between the 60% of grownups expressing survey support for killing innocent people in vengeance versus the very rare Timothy McVeighs who do kill.

                Commendably, even amid crisis, most Americans rejected any notion that terrorist attacks represent “Islamic violence;” linking evil traits to entire demographic groups is bigotry. Why, then, do we accept equally prejudicial terms like “youth violence” (featured yet again in October’s “Student Pledge Against Gun Violence”) or “youth hate crime” (a National Crime Prevention Council title)? Just as very few Moslems are terrorists, only a tiny fraction of youths commit gun or hate crimes.

                Or, consider the example set by America’s prominent moral preachers and “values” politicians, who ceaselessly berate young people for accepting their peers’ bad values. Yet, how many high-level virtuists forthrightly condemn their own powerful peers’ immorality? In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told CBS News the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children from American Gulf War bombings and embargoes were “worth it” to achieve victory. I make no excuse for the unconscionable WTC attack to suggest that widespread Middle Eastern outrage at Albright’s callousness was completely understandable. Not so the silence by America’s normally loud moralists.

                Or, amid Americans’ heartfelt outpouring of compassion for 9-11 victims, how do we explain the House of Representatives’ vote to slash $1 billion from programs to treat victims of child abuse? Legislators excused the cuts to free money to fight terrorism (and, incidentally, preserve hefty tax cuts Congress awarded billionaires).

                No need for young people to sort out such cynical moral expediencies;  they get the big principles. In peacetime and crisis alike, we teach them that certain innocent victims don’t merit attention, certain population groups don’t deserve fairness, certain violent atrocities don’t get condemned, certain moral lapses (such as by you young people) get zero tolerance while worse evildoings (such as by us powerful folks) enjoy infinite indulgence... and who said life is fair? That adults successfully pressure youth to give up high ideals as they grow up, Franklin Roosevelt said 65 years ago, is why the world gets better so slowly.


Mike Males is a Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and University of California, Santa Cruz, sociologist. His writings, research papers, statistics, and sources are at http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales