Complicit In Crime
In the past month there have been two cases of children killing children: the school slaying in Arkansas, where two 14-year-old boys shot their classmates because they were bitter about romantic rejection, and the most recent case of Andrew Wurst in north-west Pennsylvania. Wurst, a 14-year-old middle school student, walked into the eighth-grade graduation dance, shot and killed a chaperoning science teacher and wounded three others. He is currently being charged as an adult, with criminal homicide, three counts each of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment and numerous gun and drug charges.
I don't know which is worse: the fact that these killings have occurred, or the fact that a 14-year-old is being charged as an adult.
I admit that these murders were heinous. The excuses the children gave for their behavior show an utter lack of sensitivity and compassion. The two Arkansas boy were angry because some girls in their class didn't want to go out with them, and Wurst claimed he just wanted to "shake things up".
But these excuses are telling in that they are simplistic versions of the excuses that have showed up in the trials of (real) adult murderers. How many cases have come before the courts of men slaying their wives and girlfriends? Or men claiming that boredom, or Twinkies, or something else ridiculous drove them to commit a crime? These children are only following the pattern America has set out for them over the last generation.
Like it or not, we reap what we sow. We shouldn't be so shocked that children are turning to murder when we show them crime gets you a spot on a talk show or on the front page of the newspaper. For children who don't get attention from their overworked parents, that kind of 15 minutes can hold a sickly exciting thrill.
When Wurst showed up at that eighth-grade graduation dance, he wasn't acting as an adult. He was acting like a copycat, just coming out of that last stage of childish imitation when young people like to copy everything that people older and (supposedly) cooler do. The two Arkansas boys were just acting the way they have seen America treat women: If she doesn't do what you say, strike her down. Violence against women is frowned upon in this country, but it is not considered important enough for more than a slap on the wrist. Take Back the Night week here at Harvard should have supplied us with a good enough warning about what happens when this philosophy is applied.
The fact is that we're a desensitized country. No one winces at violent movies anymore, unless a dog is killed. No one is surprised when they open the paper and read about the latest case of genocide in a foreign country or a murder spree in our own. No one minds when little boys are aggressive and play with toy guns. And no one minds when those same little boys are allowed access to real guns by elastic gun control laws.
If we don't have respect for human life, why should kids? It takes a case like Andrew Wurst or the Arkansas school slayings for us to shake our heads, and then we only shake our heads to say they are monsters and must be locked away for life.
The part about charging them as adults just doesn't make sense. Children are treated like miniature adults from the time they can talk. We except them to take care of themselves (or let the television take care of them) and do what we say, and for the most part they do. But they don't get to be children, and therefore they lack the upbringing part while they exhibit the behavior part. They know what adults do and they're allowed to do what adults do, but the sense of responsibility is missing. Wurst and the Arkansas schoolboys are going to be in for a rude surprise when they find out that they can't get out of this one.
All of us are in for a rude surprise as well, because we can't get out of their crimes either. At this point, if Americans try to deny their own complicity in the crimes of these boys (as they surely will) and pass if off as the work of badly born and raised monsters, it's only the beginning. Of course their home life had a huge effect on what they turned out to be. But all of us--through television, through our economic system that keeps parents away from their children, through our general disrespect for humanity--created the climate for these crimes.
Caille M. Millner '01 lives in Matthews Hall. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.