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VIOLENCE

Why Demonize a Healthy Teen Culture?

May 09, 1999|Mike Males | Mike Males is the author of "Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation."

IRVINE — Two weeks after the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., anguished parents in a California suburb where murder is also rare found such tragedy "can happen here." A 39-year-old man drove his Cadillac into a crowded preschool playground in Costa Mesa, killing a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, leaving two small children in critical condition and injuring two more toddlers and an adult aide. His motive seemed to be incomprehensible rage: The driver was quoted by police as remorselessly seeking to execute "innocent children" because of a former girlfriend's rejection.

But while the shootings in Littleton and schools around the nation have been cited as a horrific sign of America's social breakdown, Costa Mesa's tragedy was not used as a metaphor for apocalyptic social collapse by political leaders and scholarly authorities.

Why? Because, like other adults who commit mass killings, the Costa Mesa killer is viewed as an individual psychopath, representative only of his isolated rage. The commentators who magnify a teenage gunman into a poster child for "youth culture" gone terribly awry do not similarly portray a grown-up who commits atrocity as reflecting a diseased "middle-age culture."

As another White House summit on youth and school violence starts, the reasons for the national panic over kids killing kids, versus the virtual ignoring of the far-more-common phenomenon of adults killing kids, raise sobering questions about the attitudes of authorities--and Americans, in general--toward young people. Why do occasional killings by students generate commentary demonizing a generation of young people, when the more prevalent killings by adults draw no similar fears of widespread grown-up pathology?

Here is the baffling paradox: While student shootings remain rare, rage killings by middle-aged adults, a group criminologists insist has mellowed out of its violent years, are epidemic. In the last two years in Southern California alone, seemingly solid, middle-class, midlife adults committed a dozen massacres--a bus yard of workers raked with assault-rifle barrage, an office filled with semiautomatic pistol fire, children gunned as they fled down a pastoral suburban lane--that left 40 dead, including 16 children.

Recent trends provide ample reason to view this inexplicable blood spilling by middle-aged adults of comfortable background as part of a larger, alarming reality. Drug abuse, family violence and breakup, felony arrest and imprisonment have exploded among adults age 30 to 50, the parent generation whose values are extolled by many. Defying every crime theory, felony arrests of white adults older than 30, California's fastest-rising criminal and prisoner population, have tripled, from 31,000 in 1975 to 106,000 in 1997.

This raises a second paradox: Today's middle-class and suburban teenagers are better behaved than kids of the past. Regardless of what dire theory of societal unraveling experts use to explain why two suburban Colorado teens went on a murderous rampage, a major fact is overlooked: The best evidence shows that rates of murder, school violence, drug abuse, criminal arrest, violent death and gun fatality among middle- and upper-class teenagers have declined over the last 15 to 30 years.

This is especially true in California. Compared with their counterparts of the 1970s, white teenagers of the late 1990s show sharply lower per-person rates of gun deaths (down 25%), suicide (down 30%), murder arrest (down 30%), criminal arrest (down 50%), drug abuse (overdose deaths down 80%) and violent fatality of all kinds (down an incredible 45% in the last decade). Nationally, surveys show 90% of today's teens are happy and feel good about themselves; 80% get along well with their parents and other adults; more young people volunteer for charities and services than ever; and parents, religion and teachers are the biggest influences on youth.

With such statistics, it is hard to justify the widespread belief that today's adolescents are alienated, angst-ridden and troubled. If pop culture, music, video games and Internet images affect teenagers, we should credit them for the fact that young people are behaving better. In fact, it may be that young people's bewildering array of informal, "alternative families"--ravers, Goths, posses, 'zine cultures, Internet forums, gay and lesbian groups, skateboarders, gay and lesbian skateboarder 'zinesters--help insulate them from the difficulties of increasingly chaotic biological families and account for the surprising good health of youths who should be most at risk.

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