The New Demons: Ordinary Teens
Ron Powers fears his hometown of Hannibal, Mo. He moved to Vermont because he feared New York. Now he fears Vermont. The source of his alarm is the subject of an article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly: “The Apocalypse of Adolescence.” Violence by “ordinary teens” from “ordinary communities” constitutes a “new mutation in the evolution of the murderous American adolescent,” declares Powers. “While we sleep, go about our business, leave our doors unlocked, children are prowling the landscape with knives,” warned a “60 Minutes II” report.
Ephebiphobia--extreme fear of youth--is a full-blown media panic. Images of “ordinary” teenagers besieging grown-up havens are everywhere. Time magazine warns of gun-toting “monsters next door.” The Times and “60 Minutes II” depict vicious young wastoids plotting terrors in pastoral sanctuaries. Teens are lost to heroin (ABC News, CNN), engage in random promiscuity in junior high school (USA Today, “Dateline NBC”), drink dangerously (Associated Press) and are just plain mean (The New York Times Magazine, ABC “20/20").
“Middle-class kids” are the ones “who most frighten and outrage adults these days,” proclaims Rolling Stone contributing editor Randall Sullivan. “Kids are smiling at you one day, and the next thing you know, they’ve killed somebody,” a Rialto, Calif., neighbor said of a teen sentenced for beating an elderly woman to death. “In the ‘60s,” L.A. Police Chief Bernard C. Parks told LA Youth, “rarely did we ever see violent crime” by teens. Today, “there is significant youth violence.” Not surprisingly, polls show adults believe that youth violence is up, that youths commit half of all violent crime and that most schools are vulnerable to mass shootings. One-third fear personal victimization by youths.
In the real world, young people behave better than any generation in decades. Young assailants are not “ordinary” teens any more than serial killer David Berkowitz is an “ordinary Jew” or child-murderer Andrea Yates typifies newly murderous womanhood. Journalists and commentators who claim we’re imperiled by a teen apocalypse rely on isolated cases, a selective morality, historical amnesia and sheer illogic to spin their tale of an entire generation gone bad. If such a tactic were used against any other group, it would be branded hate speech. “Why are so many children plotting to blow up their worlds and themselves?” demands Powers.
If even one in 100,000 teens plotted mass murder, Powers wouldn’t have to string together rare teen-caused brutalities that occurred years apart to make his case. Instead, he would have dozens every month from which to choose.
Powers’ fear of today’s Vermont teens is puzzling. FBI reports show teenage homicide in New England over the last 25 years has dropped from an average of six arrests a year in the 1970s to two in 2000. Rural teen murder is down sharply in recent decades, as are adolescent deaths from drugs and violence. In Vermont, 33 youths were arrested for violent crimes in 2000. Not exactly doomsday.
Contrary to Parks’ claims, L.A. law-enforcement records show youth rape, murder and felony arrest rates today are well below their 1960s levels, when juveniles committed a far higher proportion of serious crime. Five times more “ordinary” (“white”) youths were arrested for murder every year in the 1970s than in 1999 or 2000. The FBI’s 2000 Uniform Crime Reports estimate youths commit just 5% of the nation’s homicides, the lowest proportion on record.
To be sure, any anecdote can be seized upon to construct a story of suburban teen apocalypse. A few months before L.A. and the national media jumped on the Rialto teen’s beating of an elderly woman to stir up anti-youth frenzy, an elderly Orange County man beat a 14-year-old to death and tossed his body in a ditch. The media didn’t overreact by proclaiming a new breed of old-aged monsters, even though such an image could have been justified by state statistics showing violent crime among Californians over age 50 tripled in two decades.
Nor did media pundits see apocalypse when, in the month Powers’ Atlantic article appeared, middle-age men gunned down 12 people in shooting sprees in New Jersey, Illinois and Indiana, mowed down a dozen in a multi-state hit-and-run rampage and shot six (including four kids) to death in an affluent Oregon town. Powers, Sullivan and others seem curiously indifferent to this disarray in their own generation. Several of the Vermont teens whose violence Powers sensationalizes are in foster care, where youths are typically placed after being severely abused or neglected. But Powers nowhere mentions that state authorities confirm that 300 Vermont youths are violently abused by parents and caretakers every year.
Powers’ book “Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America,” depicts recent teen murders in his hometown of Hannibal as an assault on Mark Twain’s small-town innocence. Yet, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn recounts gun-toting antebellum 14-year-olds who, like adults, senselessly killed. Though the 1930s teens who murdered families in doped-crazed rages and 1950s joykillers who immolated park-goers have faded from memory, how could anyone forget Charles Manson’s 1960s “creepy-crawly” slashers, the most ordinary of teens in Powers’ lexicon?
Today’s ephebiphobia is the latest installment of a history of bogus moral panics targeting unpopular subgroups to obscure an unsettling reality: Our worst social crisis is middle-Americans own misdirected fear.