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A Consideration of the Shootings in Littleton, Colorado

Unfortunately for the public image of adolescents nationwide, the shootings in Littleton fit into our national prejudice against "dangerous" teens like a nickel into a slot machine.

Megan Shaw

Wednesday, April 28 1999, 10:55 AM

People under the age of 18 are three times more likely to be murdered by an adult than by another person under 18. So Mike Males reports in his superb book Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation. Consider the amount of media coverage given to the recent high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and imagine if adult murders of children were given comparable airtime. We would never have heard of Kosovo! But unfortunately for the public image of adolescents nationwide, the shootings in Littleton fit into our national prejudice against "dangerous" teens like a nickel into a slot machine.

When kids commit adult-style rage crimes of premeditated violence in public spaces, the nineties' war on youth is given its ideal rationalization. By plunging the crimes of the "trenchcoat mafia" into a media circus that has temporarily outsized the coverage of our foreign war, the next several years' funding for the domestic war on youth has been guaranteed. For although felony convictions of people aged 10 to 17 fell 30% between 1978 and 1997, as Males points out, in California fully half of the 1996 $900 million prison bond dollars were earmarked to house juveniles. And when the kids whose crimes are chosen to star in these big productions are white kids, then the veil of a race-blind criminal justice system is reinforced. It becomes very difficult to convince the taxpaying public that a primary function of the youth criminal justice apparatus is to criminalize the poor and the non-white, when the trenchcoat mafia can be held up as an example of the "reason" for the "need" to "crack down" on "adolescent superpredators."

The crime of white male adolescents going to school and gunning down classmates and teachers cannot be isolated as an activity of non-human superpredators, nor a "cultural virus" as Colorado governor Bill Owens proclaimed it last week. To speak of these young mens' rage in the language of the biological Other assigns the intersection of "kids, guns, and school" an alien status that misleadingly severs it from the adult world of which it is very much a part. To focus on school as the place of the crime, and to focus on "kids" as the category of criminal, feeds into destructive beliefs and obscures a number of elements that crimes like these have in common, and clouds the understanding of why they are happening.

Americans in the 1990s are deeply ambivalent about the public life they hold in common, and the public schools are at the center of the tug of war to redefine public space. The efforts to win public support for home schooling, and for vouchers that would use public funds to pay for private education, rely on a developing public understanding of schools as places that are unsafe for children. Debates over teaching reasoning skills, teaching evolution, and bilingual education present public schools as places that are ideologically unsafe in terms of many parents' value systems. The hype surrounding school violence reinforces these debates by promoting an image of public schools as physically unsafe spaces. As sites of crisis, schools become problems to which gated privatization and home schooling are reasonable responses.

The focus on public schools as the site of the shootings also tends to emphasize the crimes of youth while distracting attention from similar adult crimes. Adults who strike out in rage and go on shooting sprees go wherever they can find the people they wish to hurt. When they wish to hurt their peers and their families, they go where they can find those people. Because adults work, those places are not schools but office buildings, the post office, county fair grounds, and, most often, homes. Adolescent rage killings are not some breed apart from the adult world, but early-emergent expressions of the same frustrations that drive adult rage killers: disempowerment, alienation, fury at rejection, and, especially among whites, a sense of being isolated and trapped within a web of privilege.

Adolescence is a broader social category even than ethnicity. The media, politicians, "concerned parent groups," and other adults tend to not even distinguish class or ethnicity amongst teens as a group. When the category "teen" supersedes race and class in its breadth, it loses its capacity to meaningfully describe any group of people. The killers in Littleton, Colorado, and in the other similar shootings that have taken place in the past two years in Oregon, Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Mississippi, have all been white. Like the United States, Japan experienced a number of incidents of violence, including killings, among public school students in 1998. What Japan and the United States have in common that creates correlative patterns of violence is the wealth and privilege that is theoretically attainable within those societies. The personal success, wealth, and prosperity that can theoretically be attained within a privileged group is enormous. Therefore, people within such groups who perceive themselves to be underprivileged, unsuccessful, or isolated may experience themselves as rejected and disempowered at a level that is disproportionate to what would be experienced by someone in similar circumstances within a less privileged group. This may be true of Japan in general, as it is a relatively homogenous society, but in America it is especially true among whites, our country's most privileged group. This may be a clue as to why the recent killings that have commanded so much public attention have all happened in white communities.

When the focus of the killings in Littleton and in other public schools is narrowed to the intersection of "kids, guns, and school," many facets of these events are ignored that are more complex that can easily be publicly analyzed. Obviously far more complex factors are at work than the revenge of nerds who hate jocks, the isolated anger of disenfranchised white teens, and the national trend of rejecting public spaces as unsafe places. But it is important to look at these factors in order to naturalize these crimes and put them into perspective within the broader cultural context in which they appear. Until we have done so, adolescents will continue to be the scapegoats of our American atrocities.

Portions of this essay were adapted from "Rebels Without a Cause" which appeared in Punk Planet issue #27, September/October 1998, pp. 88-90.

Megan Shaw is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. 

Copyright © 1999 by Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.