The monster has the face of a child. The nightmare figure outside our window is wearing Reeboks and is 7 years old.
In recent months, politicians and police chiefs have proudly reported a drop in the crime rate in major U.S. cities. Criminologists are warning, however, that youth crimes--particularly violent crimes by the young--are increasing and will continue to increase.
James Q. Wilson, for example, predicts that the growing population of teenage boys will mean an increase in murders, rapes and muggings. A new type of criminal is appearing. John J. Dilullo Jr. calls them "the super-predators." Remorseless, vacant-eyed, sullen--and very young.
A tough street kid (16 years old) says he thinks of himself as bad. But his younger brother, 9 years old, is crueler--"that mother scares even me."
We are entering a Stephen King novel: We are entering an America where adults are afraid of children. Where children rule the streets. Where adults cower at the approaching tiny figure on the sidewalk ahead.
* Can same-sex schools stop urban violence? See Page 6.
A friend, a heavyweight amateur wrestler, warns me away from making a dinner reservation at a Venice Beach restaurant. "There are too many gang kids around after dark."
Adults put bars on their windows. Or move into fortified communities. Adults pay to send their children to safe, private schools. But sometimes now, the adult wonders if, perhaps, the monster is asleep in the bedroom down the hall.
It is the inner-city monster--the black kid in the Raiders' jacket--we imagine more quickly. But everyday in the paper, from rural America to the suburbs, come
stories of young violence. A kid shoots up the chemistry classroom. A gang stomps a homeless man to death. Two boys in Beverly Hills murder their parents.
And it may not even be a case of "he" anymore. Youth counselors tell me that the toughest kids they meet now are girls. The girls are getting meaner than the boys. We adults are left feeling like children. We don't know if we are seeing the world for what it really is.
A father who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles says that his neighborhood appears safe--almost like the America he remembers from childhood. Kids play soccer in the park on Saturdays. Couples stroll the sidewalk on soft summer nights. "Why, then," he wonders, "did the local high school need to hire a full-time security cop this year?"
Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking).
A 12-year-old tells me adults don't matter when you're in trouble. He avoids the parking lot of the mall, whether or not there are adults around. He avoids certain streets. The other day, he was accosted on the sidewalk, lost his jacket to a pair of young thieves while, all around him, adults passed oblivious.
Were we adults surprised last week to learn from a Louis Harris poll that teenagers live daily aware of danger? One in nine--more than one in three in high-crime neighborhoods--admit that they often cut class or stay away from school because of fear of crime. One in eight carry a weapon for protection.
A mortician in black Oakland says that kids often use his mortuary as a kind of hang-out. Kids come in to look at the corpses (most of the dead are young). The smallest ones will bring their tiny brothers and sisters, tiptoe to peer inside the coffin. Death bears a familiar face.
We adults now name the young criminals super-predators. Perhaps we should think of them as the super-alones. There are children in America who have never been touched or told that they matter. Inner-city mama is on crack. Or suburban mama gives the nanny responsibility for raising the kids. Papa is in a rage this morning. Where are the aunts to protect the child? Where is there a neighbor who cares?
The child takes the role of the adult. A friend, now in prison for armed robbery, remembers his father's drunken rages--his father quoting the Bible with whiskey breath. My friend, one night, took a knife to his father's neck to protect a younger brother from being beaten to death.
"I don't know." The same, dull answer so many kids give you. The question may vary: What do you want to be? What is your happiest memory? Why did you murder the old lady for $20? The answer is always the same.
On the other hand, on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, I was at my yuppie gym in front of a row of Stairmasters. The TV was blaring. On CNN, President Bill Clinton and Coretta Scott King were exchanging flatteries.
The buffed blond (a preternaturally youthful-looking 40-year-old) reached for the remote control. In an instant we were transported to MTV, where three black rapsters were talking about their music.
Question: Why is it that most of the people who buy black rap are white kids in the suburbs?
Answer: Because the rapster is glamorous for having a big, mean, thumping voice that extends beyond "I don't know."
There are adults who are preoccupied by guns. As though the means of violence were more important than the intent. Kids, after all, kill one another with baseball bats.
For the super-alone who have no one to touch or to love or the words to use, sex is a turn-on. But then, so is violence. On the suburban computer screen, the terminator gets knocked down, but then pops right back up, over and over.
"Ever been in a real fight?" a cop asked me once, almost sneering. "For a kid who is a loser, it's the only time he comes out on top."
The loser becomes the winner. The kid whose life is out of control is suddenly in control with the thrust of a knife, a blow to the face, the snap of a trigger. I am bigger than 5 feet tall. I am an adult.
Billboards, high school teachers, strangers, cops, movie stars, department-store mannequins, employment counselors--America each day tells the child that he doesn't count. We don't need him. He is an imposition. There is no place for her.
Was there ever a generation of adults so ill-prepared to assume the central responsibility of adulthood--that of raising children?
Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton was answering embarrassing questions about Whitewater even as she was selling her book on how to raise children. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, was appearing on TV daily, ever more stout on the chicken-banquet circuit, urging a balanced budget "for our children and grandchildren."
The question remains: How shall we ever tell our children that they matter? Do we even believe it? The only institutions that are telling the young any such thing are religious institutions. Which perhaps explains why there is a religious revival in our prisons--a mass conversion to Islam and Christianity. And why the Million Man March last year was a truer milestone for America than anything said by politicians on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday last week.
"Perhaps we need the draft again," a youth counselor offered the other day. "We need boot camp to discipline the young and to prepare them for adult responsibility."
I wonder. Listening to the rapster at my yuppie gym on King's birthday, I wondered whether we need schools to teach adults how to be adults.
All around me, on treadmill and life cycles and Stairmaster, were Americans like myself--adults who do not intend to get old.*