The nihilism of the new teenage criminal,
February 23, 2002 8:20 AM   Subscribe

The nihilism of the new teenage criminal, as reported in this long, unsettling account in The Atlantic. Narcotized, unattached, deadened by imagery, "the goal for the bright ones is to truly mesmerize the middle class with violence." [via AL Daily.]
posted by argybarg (34 comments total)
This was an interesting read, but the article seemed rather unfocused, swinging somewhat abruptly from descriptions of erupting gang violence to nihilsim in teenage criminals in Vermont.

People bemoan the increase in teenage crime and prison overpopulation and point accusing fingers at dramas like Oz and American Beauty that glorify violence. I myself wonder how much of this glorification of violence is really an outlet for supressed impulses. Humans are predators and yet we pack ourselves into sardine neighborhoods and sardine schools, many of us finding release for our violent impulses in sports, video games, and television. What sort of world would it be without all of these "terrible influences" I wonder?
posted by xyzzy at 9:17 AM on February 23, 2002

Is there any sign that this is for real and not just anecdotal? The stats cited in the article are pretty slim. I notice the chief source (Theo Padnos) of the high-calorie anecdotes is a) your typical PhD-in-comp-lit who can't get a job in academia, and b) currently "writing a book about about his experiences" teaching at a youth detention center; so he has a vested interest in being alarmist. I don't discount his experiences, I merely note that he has a definite vested interest in drawing and publishing and selling large social social from them.

I also notice...

> Americans want to believe in towns like Chelsea. My wife
> and I moved to Vermont from New York City in 1988, in
> search of such a place. We came here for several
> reasons, but coloring all of them was the hope of raising
> our two young sons in the safety and harmony of a tight-
> knit town community.
> Bewildered, depraved children, behind bars, are a great
> deal more commonplace in Vermont than national
> surveys and tourist brochures would have us believe.

Something tells me this guy tried to move from NYC to Norman Rockwell lala land and is now horrified (and indignant) to discover that Vermont is on the same planet as NYC and Tehran after all. But at least there was an article in it...
posted by jfuller at 9:38 AM on February 23, 2002

Ahem. "...large social conclusions from them."
posted by jfuller at 9:40 AM on February 23, 2002

There does seem to be a certain air of the little boy crying 'Wolf!' who also happens to be writing a book about lupine predation.

Whilst the hue-and-cry is being raised over the yuppie hellspawn going awry, there are others who note that if you view the statistics in a socioeconomic light, you reach very different conclusions. I'm not saying either is right. Just that we all have our own little agendas, perhaps...
posted by umberto at 9:56 AM on February 23, 2002

Slate had an editorial about this article, basically accusing powers of scare mongering.

"A 77 percent increase over three years certainly sounds impressive. It becomes less so once you remember that Vermont has an extremely small population with a low per-capita crime rate. The baseline prison-population numbers are so small to begin with that almost any change signals, percentage-wise, a dramatic "trend." "
"Powers could just as easily have written an article titled "The Apocalypse of Old Age," because Vermont's Department of Corrections also has data that shows the number of prison inmates over the age of 50 more than tripled between 1989 and 1999."
posted by phatboy at 10:03 AM on February 23, 2002


I am planning to move in the next year and I too have dreams of raising my family in a safe community. My favorite online tool for this search is this website which has statistics on over 3000 cities nationwide and can answer your question if you've ever wondered how your city stacks up to some other place you might want to live.
posted by plaino at 10:22 AM on February 23, 2002

plaino: Huge problem with that. Most crime statistics for cities and towns depend on self-reporting by police departments. Consequently, if your city has a more professional police force and duly reports as many items to the Justice Dept. as it can and should, it gets punished for it by these thrown-together quality-of-life indices.
posted by raysmj at 10:31 AM on February 23, 2002

plaino: Also, the site tells you whether a city or town has a Starbucks? And, if not, where the closest one is? Wow. Funny, it said the closest one to me, in Tuscaloosa AL, is in Douglasville, GA. There is one here, though, which I've gone to a grand total of three times in the past six months.
posted by raysmj at 10:34 AM on February 23, 2002


I know the pitfalls. It's just an interesting site and it has a lot more than crime statistics BTW. In fact, the "number of Starbucks" stat can be quite interesting. Take Detroit and Denver for example. Detroit has only 2 starbucks for a million people while Denver has over 20 for half a million! Why, you ask? Maybe the answer is here.
posted by plaino at 10:38 AM on February 23, 2002

It's not interesting, because it's wrong (sheesh, the one close to me's been open for years). Maybe the answer is here instead?
posted by raysmj at 10:47 AM on February 23, 2002

You're right. Detroit now has 3 Starbucks according to the Starbucks website. WTF? It still begs the question: "Why so few?"
posted by plaino at 10:56 AM on February 23, 2002

Detroit now has 70 stores, according to the site, listed three-by-three.
posted by raysmj at 11:02 AM on February 23, 2002

Look more closely, raysmj, only the first three are in Detroit. The rest are "nearby" including at least one in Canada.
posted by plaino at 11:07 AM on February 23, 2002

They're in the suburbs (excluding the airport ones), mostly, but so what? The city of Detroit does *not* have 2 million people? It's the metro area that has two million people. It has a little less than a million, and is 83 percent black and impoverished (not one and the same, thanks). Not a big Starbucks target market.
posted by raysmj at 11:12 AM on February 23, 2002

OK, you said one million. Corrected. Still, I consider most "cities" in common parlance to be metropolitan areas and not necessarily cities proper.
posted by raysmj at 11:23 AM on February 23, 2002

The article certainly seemed overwrought and confused, as the author jumped from one long slow anectdotal point to another. I noticed his use of numbers and statistics were all suspect even before I came here looking at other opinions. This one stood out:

"Data gathered by the Vermont Department of Corrections in 1999 revealed that the number of jail inmates aged sixteen to twenty-one had jumped by more than 77 percent in three years."

If you're trying to show that adolescents are on a rampage, you shouldn't use statistics that count three years as an adult as part of the statistic.
posted by mathowie at 11:24 AM on February 23, 2002

was surpised by the remark that the crime and dope problems did not show up in tourist brochures. Wonder why not. I blame this all on violent computer games. Vermont must have some fairly tough gun laws since a few of these stories show the perps using knives. Very barbaric indeed.
posted by Postroad at 11:48 AM on February 23, 2002

"Why so few?"

Midwesterners don't like to pay a lot for their coffee? Or maybe we have our own homebrews? Or the stat is just wrong? (4 for Milwaukee... I can name 5 off the top of my head that are definitely in the city of Milwaukee). In the area that I live in there are 50,000+ people and only one McDonalds but in the suburbs there are cities smaller than 30,000 with far mor McD's... what does that say?

every generation complains about the nihilism of its youth, it would be more suprising if one generation praised its young.
posted by drezdn at 12:03 PM on February 23, 2002

The article is a classic example of a writer trying to build a mildly provocative thesis without doing the extremely difficult work of digging up convincing evidence, and running with it anyway on anecdotal and fragmentary information.

As a writer, I have been tempted to commit this sort of thing myself, so I know where to look for the stitches holding the Frankenstein's monster together. My BS detector went off at the end of the first paragraph: "It scarcely has the look of a town that would breed teenage killers."

So, what does a "town that would breed teenage killers" look like? Seems it's just a way of saying, "This isn't a crack-infested ghetto" while blithely skipping the reader by the immensely disputable notion that certain types of towns do, in fact, breed teen killers.

It's as dishonest as examining the Cunanan, Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy cases and publishing a tome on "The gay mass murder gene."

I'm disappointed in The Atlantic. They used to be better than this.
posted by sacre_bleu at 12:35 PM on February 23, 2002

Wow -- a lot of really negative responses to this article. Though it wasn't even close to an airtight argument I must say that I still thought it was valuable; I think he is onto something in our culture and it's worth talking about. Unfortunately the 'it' is so crazy and overblown to begin with that the article jumps the tracks a bit . . . .

But still; it doesn't seem to me that what's being said in The Atlantic is any different than what's been said here about the exact same issues. We know that kids today are trapped in a kind of consumerist 'sardine society' -- it's the same society so many adults are pissed off about, only even more invasive and technocratic for teens. And the charge of nihilism isn't so far off base if you've done anything teenage recently. The other day while playing Grand Theft Auto III I slept with a prostitute, then murdered her with a baseball bat to get my money back. You can bet that twelve-year-old kids around the nation are doing the same thing and loving it. They live in a world of cheap consumer sentiment and harsh, compelling violence -- which one would you think would win?

Obviously no statistics are going to 'prove' that there is a nihilistic mood among American kids. That doesn't mean that such a mood can't exist and isn't something that needs to be thought about and dealt with.
posted by josh at 12:59 PM on February 23, 2002

I grew up in Vermont and never killed anybody. At least as far as I remember.
posted by puppy kuddles at 1:01 PM on February 23, 2002

Good grief, does no one remember Superpredators? I sounds like the name of a B-movie, but it's the phrase popularized by the linked TIME magazine cover story which sparked a season of journalistic excess. As crime rates actually fell during the late 90s, most of its conclusions appeared, in retrospect, to be bunk.

Not to mention Leopold and Loeb.

On an afternoon in May 1924, the sons of two of Chicago’s wealthiest families kidnapped a young boy named Bobby Franks. Their plan was to carry out the “perfect murder”... a scheme so devious that only two men of superior intellect, such as their own, could accomplish.
posted by dhartung at 1:56 PM on February 23, 2002

Living in the boondocks hasn't been a shield against external social moderators since skippy was a pup. I live in the country; my County is 5/8 the size of the whole damn state of Vermont and there are less than 100,000 people in my whole county. We have less crime than the metro areas, but proportionally we have more than our fair believe that living in the sticks is some cure-all or preventative is naive.
posted by Mack Twain at 3:18 PM on February 23, 2002

There really is nothing new under the sun. Every generation has some kind of need to see the following one as some kind of harbinger of the apocalypse. There have always been young people who commit horrible crimes, dosen't anyone remember Leopold and Loeb or William Heirens?
As far as other "apocalyptically nihilistic" behavior goes, I did several things in my teens and twenties which make me marvel that I'm still alive and unincarcerated, and I doubt I'm the only one. It's caused by one part teenage hormones and one part realization that the world is a fucked-up place and that you're more or less helpless to do anything about it. And as Mack Twain notes, these factors hit you whether you live in rural Nebraska or the South Bronx. It's when things like desperate poverty or extrema abuse get tossed into the mix that the truly nihilistic shit hits the fan.
posted by jonmc at 4:24 PM on February 23, 2002

Whilst the hue-and-cry is being raised over the yuppie hellspawn going awry, there are others who note that if you view the statistics in a socioeconomic light, you reach very different conclusions. I'm not saying either is right. Just that we all have our own little agendas, perhaps...

Yes ... for a quite different look at the issue, try this Reason article ...

As almost no media outlet is going to tell you, kids these days are astonishingly well-adjusted, nonviolent, educated, and polite. Nearly all the leading indicators of social ills among American adolescents -- drug use, violent assault, teen pregnancy, drop-out rates, you name it -- have been declining for at least 10 years now. More teens are graduating high school and attending college than ever before. A record number of American teens volunteer their time to charitable causes -- twice as many as their counterparts of 20 years past. Math SATs are at a 30-year high. Hell, even teen literacy is increasing: A recent survey conducted by the National Education Association found that 41 percent of teen respondents said they read 15 books or more a year. How many adults can claim a comparable intake?

posted by MidasMulligan at 4:27 PM on February 23, 2002

What dimension have I wandered into here? Everyone is making the same points--anecdotal vs. statistical, dhartung mentions superpredators in skeptic mode and MidaMulligan quotes that Reason article on the reassuring normality of today's young people right up there...

I remember when the word on crack babies--boy, talk about your social construction there--was that they were going to grow up sociopaths because fetal exposure to cocaine destroyed the part of the brain that controlled moral choice. And what part of the brain was that? And how did all these vest pocket Nostradamii making the prediction know this?

We continually talk about monsters but there are no monsters. Just other people. We can imagine a Hannibal Lecter but in real life, what was the quivalent? Jeffery Dahmer? A 5 watt bulb intellectually. Evil genius supercriminals exist... in literature.

With our favorite narratives, attacks on children or by children, the stories are so rare and infrequent that we all know the names. What makes this article remarkable is the previous lack of national coverage given two or three more extra horrific stories. National coverage is insatiatiable because, in a country over 250 million in population, there are only two or three stories at any given time.

As for the world going to hell in a handbasket--I grew up in a small town in Idaho in the 50s. And I went at times to much smaller towns and saw what happened to abandoned buildings. Vandalism and graffiti are not new things nor are they necessarily leading social indicators. Simulated blood has been spilled onstage since the invention of drama. Better FX in blood simulation does not a monster make so much as a jaded to worse FX kid. Who still grows up more or less normal by commonly held standards.
posted by y2karl at 10:49 PM on February 23, 2002

Astonishing. I'm actually agreeing with y2karl, and he and MidasMulligan seem to agree too! The apocalypse must be at hand!

I liked the article, but ignored the statistics, and the idea that this is somehow something new, or a growing trend, or whatever. It probably isn't. The conclusions are way overreaching. What I thought was most interesting was the attempt to understand what is going on in these kids' heads, which I don't think anyone understands well, mainly in the lengthy story of Padnos, the prison teacher. And isn't the author saying, in part, what the geek community said after Columbine, that 'good kids going bad' may be the result of the dehumanization of adolescence, the warehousing of kids in factory-like schools, and so on?

Most of the article is just reportage, not analysis, and I think this is the best part of it. The Problem of Evil is always with us, and always troubling. Whether there's some social trend here or not, I find it interesting and important to try to understand why people inexplicably kill others, why ten thousand kids grow up gentle and law-abiding, and one, seemingly like the rest, kills his mother with a shotgun.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 3:25 AM on February 24, 2002

(Surely I'm not the only one who read the front page post for this thread and thought "Aha, A Clockwork Orange!")

The reportage was okay (if unfocused), but I could have done with more statistics and more analysis -- if you're claiming there's a trend of sorts going on, the least you can do is provide more substance than just a handful illustrative anecdotes (however unfortunate).

I find it interesting and important to try to understand why people inexplicably kill others, why ten thousand kids grow up gentle and law-abiding, and one, seemingly like the rest, kills his mother with a shotgun.

So do I, which is why is why more analysis wouldn't have hurt the piece.
posted by lia at 6:20 AM on February 24, 2002

Whether the statistics in this article are true or not, it's certainly true that there's a lot of unhealthy alienation in adolescents nowadays. This is summed up well in the paragraphs about gangs moving up from NY and CT.. the MTV generation saw them as 'TV stars'.. and if you don't have any mentors or true kinship in your regular life, does a gang look attractive? Hell yeah!

We live in the Playstation generation, where 11-12 year old kids are now spending most of their summer break inside playing games. Just a few days ago the headline in the UK was that they've found some of these plump fast-food Playstation generation kids have got Type 2 diabetes! This has never been found in white kids before. It's a product of a sick society.

And it might just be anecdotal, but I really think kids nowadays have less friends than the kids of the 80s and previous. And where is there to go when you do go out? The over 18s are all at the bars getting drunk night after night, or down at the night club taking smack or smoking weed.. how delightful is that?

Frankly, these are shite times for adolescents.
posted by wackybrit at 8:02 AM on February 24, 2002

In fact, I've decided I'm going to call them 'Generation PSXers'.
posted by wackybrit at 8:03 AM on February 24, 2002

Whether there's some social trend here or not, I find it interesting and important to try to understand why people inexplicably kill others, why ten thousand kids grow up gentle and law-abiding, and one, seemingly like the rest, kills his mother with a shotgun.

If you read any good history of the Middle Ages, say, you will notice that the average adult's, ahem, impulse control then was severely impaired to nonexistent. People fought over trifles, slaughtered each other on the slightest provocation. We are far less murderous than we were in the past. The question might more properly be why we inexplicably kill each other so rarely nowadays.
posted by y2karl at 8:45 AM on February 24, 2002

why ten thousand kids grow up gentle and law-abiding, and one, seemingly like the rest, kills his mother with a shotgun

That's a pretty narrow minded view of people. With people it's not just that 1 in 10000 people will murder someone.

It's.. 1 in 10000 will murder someone, 200 in 10000 will mug someone, 6000 in 10000 will pirate music or use warez, 500 in 10000 will become a drug addict.

You cannot say that 9999 out of 10000 people are perfect and that the 1 who commits a murder is evil. With today's adolescents, most are up to some misdemeanor or another.. and at a far higher rate than in the 50s.
posted by wackybrit at 6:46 AM on February 25, 2002

I read about half of this article in the magazine and gave up because it seemed to me, as sacre bleu pointed out, that Powers was just drifting on some observations without a lot of research...sort of like the Atlantic article by David Brooks a few months ago about the yuppie kids. Funny how depending on what kids you know the entire future is either full of super-predators or super-yuppies.
posted by briank at 7:54 AM on February 25, 2002

Funny how depending on what kids you know the entire future is either full of super-predators or super-yuppies.

There's a difference?
posted by y2karl at 11:32 AM on February 25, 2002

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