[saymaListserv] "The Apocalypse of Adolescence" an "Kids with Bombs"
Michael Austin Shell
bright_crow at mindspring.com
Sun Apr 7 22:04:17 JEST 2002
I spoke this morning in Meeting for Worship about the disturbing
juxtaposition of two articles I had read this past week.
The first article was "The Apocalyse of Adolescence" by Ron Powers, in the
March, 2002, issue of THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (v. 289, n.3):
Powers writes of the January, 2001, murders of Dartmouth professors Half
and Susanne Zantop in their home by two Vermont teenagers, Robert Tulloch
and Jimmy Parker (both just convicted this month). In the course of
investigating the increase in violence by kids, Powers met and interviewed
Theo Padnos, who had spent some time teaching boys in juvenile
corrections. Padnos' students represented a range of social classes in
Vermont. What they had in common was the agenda of achieving "the level of
crime that stops the larger world in its tracks."
Padnos told him: "The goal for the bright ones is to truly mesmerize the
middle class with violence.... They've come to feel that there's nothing
out there for them. And so they know exactly the effect they're looking
for.... The papers always describe their crimes as 'senseless,' and
'meaningless,' and 'unmotivated,' and these kids themselves always come off
as 'cold' and 'distant' to the reporters. The details of their crimes are
always covered with the tightest possible focus, as if meaning might be
found there. The result is just what they'd been hoping for: mesmerizing
violence, and no context."
Padnos found that "in a world otherwise stripped of meaning and
self-identity, adolescents can come to understand violence itself as a
morally grounded gesture, a kind of purifying attempt to intervene against
"[What] unites them are these apocalyptic suspicions that they have. They
think and act as though it's an extremely late hour in the day, and nothing
much matters anymore.... [They] talk about their crimes almost as if they
were acts of faith. Maybe these kids themselves wouldn't use those
words. But the things they've done, on some level, strike me as almost
ecstatic attempts to vault over the shabby facts of their everyday lives....
"They're drawn to the myths built into... violent movies, not just the
violence itself.... Prison life, especially for kids-- maybe life in
general for kids-- is soaked in myths about outlaws, self-reliance. People
traveling a rough landscape that is their true home. People who mete out
justice to anyone who impinges on their native liberties. Post-apocalyptic
heroes.... These kids half believe that their destination is the same as
these screen heroes'."
The second article was an Op/Ed piece in the Friday, April 5th issue of the
NEW YORK TIMES, "Kids with Bombs," by Nicholas D. Kristof:
Kristof had just finished interviewing kids from 8 to 22 in the Jabaliya
Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, about their ambition to become "shahid," martyrs,
by attacking and killing Israelis.
He writes: "...to travel in Gaza is to be reminded that people here react
not so much to speeches by either American or Palestinian leaders, but
rather to their own social dynamic and to Israeli actions.
"After lots of surreal conversations with aspiring shahid, I believe
they're living in a delusional universe shaped in part by the gutlessness
of Palestinian leaders and in part by their own rage as Israeli tanks in
the West Bank crunch through Palestinian cars, homes and hopes.... I fear
that popular support for shahid is so great among Palestinians that the
parade of killings will continue....
"In Gaza City, a dozen high school boys interrupted their soccer game to
tell me that they all wanted to attack Israeli civilians and become shahid.
I asked the boys what kinds of targets they would choose to bomb. For
example, would they feel comfortable blowing up a group of Israeli women?
"'That's O.K.... They all fight in their army. There's no distinction."
Kristof runs through such targets as an Israeli girls school, the American
Embassy, a crowd of Israelis with a few Muslims as well. The only demur he
gets is in this final exchange:
"What about bombing an Israeli nursery school?
" 'No, no, no.' All the boys drew the line at infants. They beamed in pride
at their humanitarianism, as I ached at their lack of it."
Though these stories are far apart in almost every possible way, what I
recognized they share is a core biological reality. This is that
adolescents, especially adolescent boys, are readily moved to see
violence-- motivated either by a "just cause" or by nihilism-- as a
quasi-spiritual, cathartic answer to whatever they believe most profoundly
stands in their way. "Let's go out in a blaze of glory." This is at its
root an animal thing.
As we debate the pros and cons of warfare or nonviolence, I believe we need
also to be asking ourselves: What is moving the whole human race in the
present age to believe it "needs" ruthless violence on such a scale in so
many places across the globe? (The twentieth century was the most violent
century in the history of the race.)
And, as we deal with the young people with whom we can interact directly, I
believe we need to be asking ourselves: What would convince them of the
meaningfulness of channeling this drive into survival and creative
innovation, instead of glorious vigilantism and destruction?
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