[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

Dear Friends,

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 
the nothingness....

"[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?

Blessed Be,

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