Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Children Who Kill, and Those Who Don't

Twelve years ago today, a small town in Colorado became temporarily notorious. Mention it's name out of context and many won't be able to place where Littleton is, let alone why it is infamous to begin with. But, on April 20th, 1999, no one could think of anywhere else after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold glided onto the Columbine campus armed with semi-automatic guns and several home-made bombs that were strategically placed in the building. After just a few short hours, with both boys dead from self-inflicted wounds, they had succeeded in killing thirteen innocent people, and injuring twenty one others.

After this tragic incident, accusations were flying everywhere, everyone searching for something or someone to blame, and most people getting it wrong. From the goth culture to heavy metal music, from video games to psychotropic meds, the media hit each and every viable possibility and shoved it down the general public's throat, simultaneously demonizing the shooters and society as a whole. The one point of focus that probably carried the most merit faded into the background: school bullying. Social outcasts who were ridiculed every day, humiliated and hassled, labeled with homophobic slurs, they eventually reached their breaking points, as many in their positions do.

In reading the book Children Who Kill by Carol Anne Davis, I've come across many similar stories of seemingly sadistic cold-blooded murderers who, in a moment of rage or in simple remorseless apathy have killed innocent people. Some stories are unnerving, others, stomach-churning, but they all had similarities too prominent to ignore: child abuse, neglect, instability, social ostracization, and psychological illness. And much like the Columbine shooters, the media turned to other factors such as games, TV shows, movies, and just hanging with bad crowds as probable causes of the violence. In nearly every story, a blind eye was turned to the long term ill-effects that come with years of pain, suffering, and devastation these children experienced, typically inflicted by the very people who were meant to protect them.

Now over the past months of blogging, my own personal history has gradually been revealed as my blogs have taken a more intimate tone, and many of you are aware of several instances of abuse, various types from various perpetrators, school bullying, and my own resulting mood disorders. What has tapped into my being and struck a chord with me while reading about these kids is how easily I could have become one of them. With very similar backgrounds and long repertoires of emotionally and psychologically altering circumstances, what is that defining factor that sets one apart? What makes some of us killers and others productive members of society?

In Viktor Frankl's autobiography, Man's Search for Meaning, he discusses his own experiences with the continuing battle between Saints and Swine while serving time in a concentration camp during WW2. A prominent point Frankl made repeatedly in his book was the issue of freedom of choice. He argued that although events take place in our lives and we cannot always control what happens to us, what is in our control is how we respond to these events: we become saints, or we become swine. In his example, saints were defined as individuals who cared for fellow prisoners and looked out for one another, and the swine were individuals who adopted a more "every man for himself" approach to surviving the camps. In our lives, this can be more or less the individuals who go on to lead generally successful lives, have families and meaningful relationships, maintain employment and housing, and individuals who fall into more self-destructive and criminal behaviors and end up harming themselves or others.

I frequently utilized Frankl's theory in working with severely emotionally disturbed teens. Sadly, like the kids in Davis' book, most of them had seen the worst of life in the few years they had lived. Many survived neglect at the hands of their drug-abusing mothers, many suffered beneath the iron fist of alcoholic fathers who used them as punching bags. Some had been forced into early sexual awareness by perverted family members. All of these matters were events in their lives they couldn't control, so in a misguided effort to regain that control, they began engaging in their own destructive behaviors: truancy, theft, drug use, promiscuity, self-mutilation, even suicide attempts. In trying to redirect that sense of control into more productive actions, many of such teens can be molded into functioning healthy individuals, in spite of their dark pasts.

Unfortunately, for many of these kids who went on to commit these heinous crimes, intervention was too little too late, if it came at all. For some, any intervention may have proved useless, as the damage had been done and psychopathology had set in, rendering them sociopaths. However, for the most part, it seems that rehabilitation is more than possible, if we can find the missing link that sets us on the right path. Granted, many of the child killers were male and in the midst or on the brink of puberty. With the increased level of testosterone and the effect it has on aggression, it could be argued that hormones play a part. Other factors could be time and type of interventions, variations in abuse and abusers, genetics, etc. In short, I have no idea what makes some people killers and what makes some successful survivors. I don't know why I took the path I did and narrowly avoided becoming a statistic. I had the background, I had the resulting depression, I was a self-mutilator, I had deep-seated anger, a seething hatred for the people who hurt me and resentment and distrust of people in general. My intervention was therapy and medication, and eventually the depression, anger, and hate dissipated and I became a therapist to help others. Some are just not as lucky, I suppose.

Eric and Dylan were two of the unfortunates. Though not much has been written on their home life, I would imagine they were not stable situations with overly concerned and involved parents, as anyone could have seen this train wreck coming had they only paid attention. After Columbine, they were destroyed by the media as crazed psychotic killers who master-minded elaborate plans of attacks, plans which, if read with an impartial eye, come off more as the childish, nonsensical grandiose ideas of manic kids than highly intellectual criminals. Few even addressed what was probably a dark, lonely adolescence for two severely depressed young men. The same happened to Seung-Hu Cho of Virginia Tech, a long-disturbed child also destroyed by the media when "violent" short stories he had written were sensationalized as red flags. In reality, they were poorly written blips about angry high school students cursing their principal.

Criminals are not born, they're made. While some of us can be saved, many many more fall through the cracks, and soon make headlines. So before we allow the media to strip these poor kids of their humanity, let us not forget that at one point, these "cold-hearted murderers" were once someone's baby, and more than likely, that baby was not given much love.