Saturday, April 2, 2016

Jonesboro Revisited: Nature or Nurture

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Today's posting marks the end of my current focus on the tragic school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, back in 1998 - an act of mass homicide in which an eleven-year-old shooter and his thirteen-year-old friend opened fire on a group of their fellow students and teachers - a pre-planned and well thought out assault that left four children and one teacher dead.  Nearly a dozen others were wounded, and the entire school, community, and nation were left in a state of shock and disbelief.

I collected various materials in the weeks following the deadly assault, articles dealing with the criminal and psychological aspects of the case, as well as examination of the shooters, their families, the laws governing juvenile crime, and public attitudes on the deadly incident.   That collection of materials became the focus of a project for a graduate social work class in which I was participating at the University of Missouri - Columbia.

The following is a paper that I did as a part of that project.  It was based on what I learned while studying the issue, but is not long and was not meant to be a full-fledged "research" paper.  It was intended as an overview and something geared toward a general readership - and not necessarily a university professor.  The title of the paper, which focuses on nature versus nurture in relation to the molding of child criminals, is based on two movies which were popular at the time.  There is also one line couched in the paper that is a steal from a bit of dialogue in a Tom Cruise movie that was popular at the time.  The closing line, a quote from Pogo, has been used by me in several written pieces to the point where it feels a bit trite - but the line fits.

Unfortunately, Jonesboro shook America, but did not shake it awake.  The years that followed witnessed other shootings of young people by young people.  Names like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook went on to become synonymous for a sickness in our society that only seems to be growing more deadly as it ages.  The current despicable effort by the National Rifle Association to groom children for violence through gun-infused classic fairy tales can only serve to make the situation even deadlier.  That organization remains a national disgrace.

Here is one more out of the dustbin of my scholastic history.

Homicidal Children:
Natural Born Killers
Made in America

Rocky G. Macy
May 4, 1998 

       It is reminiscent of an old joke, one that has circulated so long that you know the gag line well before the person telling it is done with the build-up.  The joke goes something like this:  "I'm thinking of getting rid of my television.  I can't stand all of the bloodshed, carnage, and mindless violence - and that's just the evening news!"  The "joke," of course, has long since ceased to be funny.

       With violence in America becoming so commonplace that we are almost completely oblivious to it, any news story that has the power to rise above the swill and slam us out of our complacency is an anomaly worthy of notice.  The holocaust at Jonesboro is such a story.   Jonathan Alter of Newsweek notes incredulously:  "One of the most shocking things about the Jonesboro massacre is that it's still shocking - that America's bottomless capacity for violence has not fully numbed us yet."  (Alter, 1998)  Stories with the power of Jonesboro deserve more than just a few horrified comments in passing - they merit sustained national debate.  Jonesboro, the most recent of eleven school shootings within the last five years, has engendered debate in a number of areas and become a metaphor for violent youth.

       The public's opinion is literally all over the place on the question of punishment for the two young shooters who calmly and with malice aforethought opened fire on their classmates and teachers.  Some believe they should be tried as adults, while others argue for judicial treatment as juveniles.  Some want to see the parents of the shooters stand trial.  There are those who think the boys should serve time in an adult facility.  Others, however, argue that they are mentally disturbed and not old enough to be fully cognizant of the impact of their actions, and therefore should not have to spend time in any type of penal institution.  Some even go so far as to want to see the boys put to death.  An anonymous caller screamed at the grief-stricken grandmother of the older youth, "I hope your boy gets raped in jail and killed!"  (Faltermayer, 1998)   One contributor to the CNN Internet message board on the Jonesboro shootings said, "The murders should be publicly executed.  It doesn't matter what age they are.  They should be held responsible and set up as an example."  Another contributor to the same message board phrased the same feeling a bit more succinctly by saying, "Society needs to stamp these two bugs out of existence regardless of age."  (Contributors, 1998)  Everyone is vocal - everyone has an opinion.

       The question of blame is even more volatile.  No one is questioning that the two boys who were arrested are really the ones who pulled the triggers.  Even their parents reluctantly admit that their sons did the killing.  It is there, however, that the unanimity ends.  The parents, as "good" parents tend to do, were quick to blame their son's complicity of the bad influences of the "other" boy.  The populace at large point to everything from violence on television and in movies, to video games, guns, public schools, lax laws, society in general, a breakdown of the family, lack of supervision, bad breeding, the economy, all of the above, some of the above, and none of the above but something equally compelling.  Boiled down, it becomes a question of nature or nurture.  Are people born with a propensity for violence, an innate ability to murder than can manifest itself in childhood, or is it an acquired taste - something that they have to learn?  Or is a child's ability to commit homicide a mixture of nature and nurture, an intricate lace of genetic and psychological wiring that may never be fully understood or open to reliable prediction - a toxic combination of gene pool and cesspool?

       Gene mapping and our rapidly increasing knowledge of the impact of genetics on our bodies and our personalities would seem to indicate that genetics may play a role in the phenomenon of extremely violent youth.  However, a lifetime of raising and working with children - and, indeed, just existing in twentieth century America - tells me that the family and society must bear the brunt of the responsibility for atrocities committed by children.

       The family is a child's training ground for membership in society.  The values and beliefs that are instilled by the family shape the child and guide him out into the world.  It a parent hits, a child learns to hit.  If a parent is bigoted, a child learns to hate.  If a parent ignores a child, he learns from others.

       People generally have good intentions when they bring babies into the world.  They plan to love these little human beings and do all that they can to ensure their success in life.  Quite often, however, those plans get derailed.  One out of two marriages in the United States today ends in divorce, a situation that results in children being raised in one-parent or step-parent households and being shuffled between angry adults like so much unwanted baggage.  Children who are lucky enough to live in two-parent households often are left unsupervised due to economic circumstances that dictate the need for both parents to work, and when the parents get home they are too exhausted to engage in positive or meaningful interactions with their children.  And then there are the other parents - the alcoholics, drug addicts, brawlers, maniacs, lunatics, and other arguments against evolution who feel the need, the need to breed.  It is almost a given that their children will suffer from neglect and be exposed early and continuously to family turmoil and violence.

       Genetics is undoubtedly a factor in the problem, and the family must bear a significant portion of the blame as well.  It is society, however, that provides such a fertile spawning ground for this evil. 

       America is a violent country, a place where "amber waves of grain" flourish in soil made rich with the blood of genocide.  It speaks of being united as "one nation, indivisible, under God," but is, in fact, a crazy quilt of political and religious opinion in which everyone is right and everyone else is necessarily wrong - a democracy where the majority is entitled to make decisions only when it agrees with the individual.  America' citizens value "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and believe ardently in their right to live by their own terms, regardless of how those terms impinge upon the rights of others.  The "land of the free and home of the brave" cherishes individual liberty, but doesn't trust its own government to ensure it.  America's citizenry waves the flag, packs a gun, and worships money.  It has taken over two centuries, but America has managed somehow to evolve into a milieu of delirium in which everyone is right about everything, and everyone has a right - a duty - to protect themselves and their families from the political and religious vagaries of everyone else.  Hell yes, America is violent!  How could it be otherwise?  And how, as a nation, can we honestly be surprised by the occasional emergence of lethal youth?

       Pogo said it best:  "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

       Alter, J.  (1998, April 6).  Harnessing the hysteria.  Newsweek, 27.
       Contributors, V.  (1998).  School Violence"  message board (Vol 1998).  Cable News Network.
       Faltermayer, C.  (1998, April 6).  What is justice for a sixty-grade killer?  Time, 36-37.  

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