Suspects in Dartmouth Profs' Deaths Held in Indiana
February 19, 2001 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Suspects in Dartmouth Profs' Deaths Held in Indiana -- Two teenagers (allegedly) brutally stabbed two professors. Am I the only one deeply disturbed by all these underaged murderers in recent years? And to resurrect an old debate from my college criminology classes: Are these "killer kids" a product of nature (as in, they're born with something loose) or nurture (as in, lousy parenting)?
posted by shauna (28 comments total)

 
As a teenager myself, it's still very hard to discern pure evil from corrupt kids. There have been a lot of studies trying to see where they go wrong, whether it's bad parenting, videogames (this has been a quite popular reason to blame it on) or simply the Society itself? Since we don't know what's going on inside thier minds before they go in for the kill, it will take some major advancements in therapy/psychology in order to pinpoint just what goes wrong.
posted by t0rn at 7:17 AM on February 19, 2001


Hey, a real, live teenager! :-)

I realize I'm making myself sound terribly old here (and I suppose to a teenager, a 33-year-old is probably positively ancient) but I have to ask -- do you worry about your safety when you go to school? Do your parents?

I just can't imagine what you guys have to deal with these days. The very worst thing that ever happened at my high school (and this was a big public school -- my graduating class had over 500 people) was the occasional fistfight.
posted by shauna at 7:23 AM on February 19, 2001


Why are they necessarily a "product" of anything, Shauna? Whatever happened to free will?
posted by dagny at 7:31 AM on February 19, 2001


It's disingenuous to say that teenagers are at a greater risk from violence today than they have been in the past. White, upper-middle-class, suburban teenagers are at a greater risk from violence today than they have been in the past. Inner-city schools have been just this side of a war zone for as long as my Mom has been a teacher there (almost 35 years). Same with the "War on Drugs(tm)" - nobody really paid any attention until Chip and Muffy were getting booted from Exeter for coke peddling...
posted by m.polo at 7:32 AM on February 19, 2001


There is a book titled 'On Killing'. I have read the book and heard the author speak. It is chilling the way he describes how society is actually teaching young kids how to kill. The basic premise is that through desensitization and video games that we are training killers like they would in the army. I suggest that you check out the book.
posted by Stretch at 7:40 AM on February 19, 2001


I'll sound one vote for nurture.

I'm not saying it's 100% due to lousy parenting, because personal responsibility for actions needs to be taken into account as well, but I believe environment and nurturing has a lot more to do with it than some missing synapses or other issues going on upstairs. For instance, what kind of idiot takes their young children to see shoot-em-up action movies featuring violence and death? You don't think that might plant an idea or two in the kid's head? I remember watching a snippet of First Blood when I was little and it scared the hell out of me. The fact that the professors were stabbed bothers me a lot more than if they were simply shot, because stabbing is a more personal assault and belies a deep anger towards the victim, whereas gun crimes allow a measure of distance not afforded by knives. However, I'm interested to hear others' viewpoints on the recent high school gun wars, for example, and the implications this trend of violence will have with regards to punishment tactics for minors. I don't think Juvie Hall is going to cut it anymore.

Corollary -- what of the 13-year-old kid who recently killed a 6-year-old girl by performing WWF-style wrestling tactics on her? Intentional? At what age do kids fully realize that we don't bounce back like Wile E. Coyote after we're mangled to a pulp?
posted by evixir at 7:41 AM on February 19, 2001


Why are they necessarily a "product" of anything, Shauna?

Because sane people don't brutally stab other people.

Hence, there's something "not right" with people who do that. My original question (one which likely has no answer) is, what causes it?
posted by shauna at 7:52 AM on February 19, 2001


White, upper-middle-class, suburban teenagers are at a greater risk from violence today than they have been in the past. Inner-city schools have been just this side of a war zone ...

Excellent point, m.polo. You're exactly right. I should have been clearer.
posted by shauna at 7:55 AM on February 19, 2001


The fact that the professors were stabbed bothers me a lot more than if they were simply shot, because stabbing is a more personal assault and belies a deep anger towards the victim, whereas gun crimes allow a measure of distance not afforded by knives.

Absolutely. When the cops and/or the FBI are trying to find out who knifed someone, they always start with people the victim knew -- because knifings are, almost without exception, very personal crimes. Shootings can be random, but knifings rarely are.

(See? When you have a degree in criminology, you pick up all kinds of disturbing bits of information.)
posted by shauna at 8:01 AM on February 19, 2001


I'm white and upper-middle-class, and I do remember a single time when I went to school and was terrified. It was a couple of weeks after Littleton, and there was a bomb scare at the school. Everyone was herded outside into the field, and then one of my friends pointed out that we were surrounded on three sides by wooded hills and could very easily be ambushed. Absolutely nothing happened, but it was scary at the time. I can't say I know how it feels to go to school and be frightened every day, but I certainly sympathize with the students that feel that way...
School always made me feel not quite human--the lines of students in the cafeteria, like cattle being fed, the overcrowded classrooms...I guess it can make you feel like the other students aren't quite human either. I really don't have any explanations for why kids act this way; I never thought of killing anyone in those days.
posted by Jeanne at 8:16 AM on February 19, 2001


Whenever something like this happens, many of us look for answers. I have never come up with any, nor do I expect to. I'm not advocating that we stop looking. It's just that many "bad things" happen daily all over the World. It is very disturbing in our everyday, orderly lives to accept that any of us can be taken out at any time by a random event or the actions of another individual.

In the nature or nurture debate, I suggest "lack" of nurture.
posted by quirked at 8:17 AM on February 19, 2001


I've heard numerous things about the book mentioned earlier, "On Killing" by Dave Grossman, and they've mostly been bad. Generally, I've heard it's poorly written and filled with factual inconsistencies (as this article notes, along with other arguments on why violence in video games does not lead to real-life violence).

I'd also like to note that I myself play games like this, and, like the overwhelming majority of others who play such games, have no desire to kill others in real life- I'd like to think I'm able to separate computer games from reality. It's funny, though.. in looking for other links on this subject, I found a person trying to refute the argument by saying:

The "I played Doom and never killed anybody!" and "I watch violent movies and never killed anybody!" observations are the height of naivete. Not everyone who drinks and drives has accidents either, but that doesn't make it a good idea.(link, about halfway down the page)

This is a totally ridiculous argument, though- it suggests that the percentage of people in accidents from drunk driving is somehow comparable to the number of people killed by someone influenced by video games.
posted by zempf at 8:24 AM on February 19, 2001


What evidence can you show that there are more children murdering now than in the past? These things have always happened. The only difference is that we now have a pervasive national media that can elevate any local tragedy to prominence if it fits whatever theme they are trying to sell.

The same thing happened with the so-called "rash" of church burnings. There was never any statistical rise in the number of church fires. There are a LOT of churches out there; and every now and then some of them are going to be subject to accident or arson. The media simply picked up on this "phenomenon" and made it news.

There are a LOT of people out there. Those two student criminals are 1 in 100 million. There could be a dozen such acts a year and it would still be statistically insignificant. The human mind is wired to think in terms of tribes of no more than a few hundred people, so it easy for us to misperceive the relevance of these stories.


posted by krebby at 8:31 AM on February 19, 2001


when i was in high school (not THAT long ago, i graduated in 1998) we had bomb threats at least once a year. maybe we were desensitized because they happened relatively often, but everyone just went into the football stadium and hung out for three hours. no one ever felt like there really was going to be a bomb. of course, this was before littleton, too.

i went to the only high school in my small town, so it wasn't upper middle class or inner city or anything but a good mixture of people. (races, classes, ethnicities)

i should say that i feel much less safe (albeit partly because i live in a higher crime city now) after moving away to college than i did in high school.

it was also very upsetting to hear that a kid i graduated with killed someone in texas and is now on death row.


posted by sugarfish at 8:32 AM on February 19, 2001


A few months ago, I listened to a feature on the BBC World Service, following the efforts of counsellors in Sierra Leone to "deprogram" the boy soldiers who'd been taught to kill before hitting double figures. Which confirms nothing in particular, but suggests that there's a distinction between the childhood instinct to pull off flies' wings, and such artificial brutality.
posted by holgate at 9:00 AM on February 19, 2001


What evidence can you show that there are more children murdering now than in the past?

How about homicide statistics from the US Dept. of Justice?

This page states, in part, the following: "Offending rates for teenagers and young adults increased dramatically in the late 1980's while rates for older age groups declined" and "the homicide offending rates of 14-17 year-olds exploded after 1985, surpassing the rates of 25-34 year-olds and 35-49 year-olds."

Some good news: "After many years of decline, the average age of both victims and offenders has leveled off" but the average age of offenders "remains lower than it was prior to the mid-1980's."
posted by shauna at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2001


One obvious answer for the statistics cited: the crack epidemic. The time frame for the increase, decrease and levelling off all line up. Murders which occurred in conjunction with the crack explosion seem to be a whole different subject from the discussion thus far.
posted by gimli at 9:39 AM on February 19, 2001


Yeah, but you're using a bit of flawed logic there- correlation does not imply causation. Simply because an increase in crack usage (and here I'd be curious to see some statistics) lines up with the increase in murders does not lead to a conclusion that the two must be related.
posted by zempf at 9:54 AM on February 19, 2001


holgate's earlier post reminded me of a passage from a book by Haing S. Ngor entitled A Cambodian Odyssey. When he was filming "The Killing Fields" with Roland Joffe, they were working on a scene involving a young 9- or 10-year-old girl who was portraying a soldier in the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal army preying the people of Cambodia in the 70s. Ngor was working with Joffe in trying to get the girl to portray what Ngor had himself experienced as the "Khmer Rouge look" -- and he describes the instance in which she finally gets that stare down as so extremely chilling that he couldn't stop shouting "There! That's it! That's the look!" to the confused onlookers. The implications of this were that the girl had somehow subconsciously internalized the maniacal Khmer Rouge mindset, even though she had barely been alive during the heydey of its reign of terror.

That scared the daylights out of me and I can't quite explain why. I do believe parents have such an unbelievably strong influence on their children; I've no idea if her parents were involved with the Khmer Rouge in any way but it wouldn't have surprised me.

Take the folks of Eric Harris, for example... IIRC, wasn't one of their first actions to hire a lawyer right after they found out their son was involved in the bloodbath at Columbine? And they were aware of his beliefs to an extent but chose to "respect his privacy" and not go into his bedroom often to see what he was up to? I'm not advocating parents rifle through their children's personal belongings, but damnit, show an interest in what your kids are doing/thinking/saying/feeling, don't chalk it up to "respecting their privacy" and use that as an excuse to not get personally involved in their everyday lives. I don't mean to cast aspersions upon the Harris folks in this scenario as they have only served as an example of parents of a murderous child. But boy, do I hate seeing a parent who has no idea what their kid is up to, and somehow believes that's acceptable.
posted by evixir at 10:16 AM on February 19, 2001


zempf, your point is well taken. What I was trying to do was to suggest that murders committed by teens involved with crack (whether by dealers fighting over turf or by addicts procuring funds) should be ruled out for the purposes of our discussion up to that point. I just didn't feel that the statistics noted in shauna's link necessarily pointed to an increase in bizarre Columbine-style activity among teens. Here is a link.
posted by gimli at 10:50 AM on February 19, 2001


"America's kids are committing fewer crimes than they have in three decades," said Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates alternatives to incarceration. "But this does not seem to be making it into the public consciousness."

Highly publicized school killings, such as the Columbine High School killing in which 15 people died in 1999, overwhelmed news of a decline in school violence.

A 1999 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found 71 percent thought it "likely" a school shooting could occur in their community during a year in which there was just a one in 2 million chance of being killed in an American school.



I believe the effects of sensationalism in the media should not be underestimated. A population living in fear is much more likely to be receptive to ideas like mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, "zero tolerance" policies, and censorship.

Quote is from link in my previous post. Sorry about splitting it up, but my connection sucks today!


posted by gimli at 11:15 AM on February 19, 2001


Data point: White, upper-middle-class suburban students have also had a risk of violence far longer than you'd think. Read this story of a school shooting - one white male killing another white male - in Lansing, Michigan in 1978. And there are far more such incidents in the distant past. We're just not aware of them because they didn't occur in an era of hyperactive, hypercompetitive 24/7/365 TV news. Fifty years ago or more, any such things would only make the local paper unless the AP felt like carrying it, and it would all disappear the next day.
posted by aaron at 11:21 AM on February 19, 2001


Why rule out drugs? I think they have alot to do with why things have taken such a turn for the worse involving kids.
As for why these kids commit murder, I don't believe you can pin it on one thing specifically. I get aggrivated with the "Nature vs. Nurture" debate because I believe both of them play a role in regards to "what went wrong?".

posted by xtrmntr at 11:27 AM on February 19, 2001


Well in response to your earlier request I've never been in fear of entering the school grounds, have never been assaulted or threatened violence at anyone else, and I've never done drugs. Although the drug epidemic is very noticeable in my school, I choose not to partake in it for obvious reasons. There doesn't seem to be much real violence in my school of something like 1,400, even less than when I was in elementary school, which was a different area than I am in now. You can make all kinds of assumptions or theories about why children can be violent, but talking to the kids themselves is probably the best solution.
posted by t0rn at 11:56 AM on February 19, 2001


Great point, aaron. I remember 3 bomb scares during junior high. None made the paper. Today, if a kid is caught with a BB gun in the trunk of his car on school grounds, he is expelled due to "zero tolerance" and the top story on the local TV news is "Another Gun Found at Local School." You find out it was a BB gun well into the broadcast.
posted by gimli at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2001


Jeanne writes: "School always made me feel not quite human--the lines of students in the cafeteria, like cattle being fed, the overcrowded classrooms...I guess it can make you feel like the other students aren't quite human either."

Yeah. Let's not forget in this "nature v. nurture" discussion that "nurture" is more than parents, it's the entire society. Good old Emma Goldman says "A society gets all the criminals it deserves." Note that the US forcibly deported her in 1919.


Let's also not forget, in this "are teenagers today more violent?" discussion, that "teenager," as a demographic label, has not been in use for a very long time-- the etymology dates only from 1921, and it didn't really come into vogue until after World War II, and the notion of "child" as a kind of being fundamentally different from little adults is not much older. Juvenile courts are only a little over 100 years old, and, before that, I think criminal records don't distinguish very well as to which crimes were committed by children / teenagers and which were committed by adults. Anyone feel that there's any truth to the notion that we (as a culture) don't begin to perceive something until we've created a statistical system for it?
posted by jbushnell at 2:42 PM on February 19, 2001


shauna -- i'm still a teenager for a few more months here, and I think of people your age as those annoying people who think they're ancient when they're not, who try to convince us Metallica is ancient...

Frankly, after Columbine, I was more scared of school administration than of a student shooting me. Maybe that's just my anti-authoritarianism, or Mike's prescient predictions of what was to come that very night.
posted by dagnyscott at 3:19 PM on February 19, 2001


shauna -- i'm still a teenager for a few more months here, and I think of people your age as those annoying people who think they're ancient when they're not

Heh. Sorry. I'm still smarting from a comment a teenager made on her website (she has a link to Flaunt and I found her in my referrers) -- she said, and I quote, "And I'd just like to say that Vitamin C is old. She's like 32."

Ouch.
posted by shauna at 8:17 AM on February 20, 2001


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