Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Kids Aren't All Right

April, 2009. This month has a very dubious honor, of being the anniversary of two shocking acts of youth violence. Ten years ago yesterday, two teenagers named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out one of the worst massacres in American history. They descended on their Colorado high school and went on a rampage, killing or wounding 37 students and teachers before turning the guns on themselves. It was one of a spate of high school shooting that happened in American schools throughout the mid- to late-1990s. It was not the first, nor would it be the last, but it was definitely the most devastating. America was shocked, grieved, and angry. We struggled to find answers, to come to terms, to move on.

One year ago last week, a troubled engineering student named Seung-Hui Cho carried out another of the worst massacres in American history. He descended on the campus of Virginia Tech and went on a rampage, killing or wounding 55 students and faculty members before turning his gun on himself. America was shocked, grieved, and angry. We struggled to find answers, to come to terms, to move on.

Only...we really haven't, have we? It occurred to me recently, that Seung-Hui Cho was only one of several young men in their early to mid-twenties who have, in recent years, snapped and gone on killing sprees. Less than a month ago, a man named Michael McLendon went on a rampage in rural Alabama, killing 10 and then himself. In January of this year, Erik Salvador Ayala killed or wounded 9 in downtown Portland, Oregon, before shooting himself in the head. 

All of these men ranged in ages from 23 to 26. They would have been teenagers ten years ago. They were of the same generation responsible for the high-school shootings in the 1990s. It's somewhat disheartening. And alarming. That these individuals were no different than the kids who snapped and picked up a gun back in the 1990s. They had the same problems, the same issues. They just managed to hold it together a little longer.

I remember the aftermath of the Columbine Massacre. No one knew what to do; it generated this universal sense of helplessness. Troubled teens were picking up guns and shooting up their schools. Parents, teachers, peers, authority figures of all kinds, seemed useless. Nobody seemed to have noticed the warning signs. Nobody seemed to have been able to prevent it. It just seemed like a colossal failure of American life. Why did this happen? Why had it been ALLOWED to happen? What had we done wrong? And how can we make this right again?

These questions were asked, but never really answered. Why did this happen? Well, I don't pretend to know myself. I can merely make educated guesses. High school, my children, SUCKS. This has been a fact of human existence ever since there was such a thing as high school. It's the time in our lives when we first start to care about how other people see us, and we first learn how to hurt one another. So it has always been, and so it shall always be. When I heard that the perpetrators of these school shootings were outcasts and misfits, it didn't surprise me. There were many of us who could understand the killers. UNDERSTAND, mind you. Understanding is not condoning, a fact that was lost on many school authority figures in the mad paranoid days following Columbine, when weird misfits were being expelled left and right for being weird misfits. Sure, I can relate to their feelings of isolation and frustration. I can even admit entertaining dark fantasies of violence and revenge. But I can't for the life of me understand what made them decide to act them out. 

Maybe I had advantages they didn't. A stable home life. Connections with an outside world. Or maybe my head full of bad wiring just wasn't as bad as theirs. I don't know. And I probably will never know. Because while the questions were asked, they were never really answered. Or if they were answered, the answers were ignored. When children kill children, something is wrong somewhere. And it takes time and attention to find what is wrong...and even more time and attention to fix it. Lack of parental attention. Peer pressure. The "cyberbubble" effect, isolating people from one another. A society that favors quick and dirty solutions rather than slow solid ones. Good old fashioned mental illness, misdiagnosed, overmedicated, or ignored. All of these factors, and maybe more, combined into a perfect storm of violence, and nobody saw it coming. Or cared to see it coming.

Far more damning is the reaction of society to the aftermath. Rather than ask the questions, rather than get to the root of the problems that caused this, rather than try and FIX things, we just stuck our heads in the sand. The kids are fine. These killers are just anomalies. Things to be put away and never spoken of again. Especially the ones who didn't have the simple decency to kill themselves once their rampages were over; how dare they continue to exist and remind us of uncomfortable things? Let's build our roadside shrines, have our candlelight vigils, then go home and live as if nothing was different.

We didn't solve the problem. We didn't have a national dialogue. We didn't crack down on school bullying. We didn't spend more time with our kids. We didn't think about the conflicting messages our society sends young people. We didn't do ANYTHING. We just ignored the problem and hoped it would go away on its own. And, strangely, for a while it did. But now it's come back. It took the better part of a decade, but the perfect storm has stirred itself up again. And just as before, we're as powerless to prevent it or to even understand it. Because to do that, we'd have to take a long hard look at ourselves as a society, and come to some hard conclusions about what we've done wrong. And I fear that will not happen.

In the meantime, I fear for what will happen in another ten years...