Come Back Angry

03.24.2001 | SOCIETY

On March 5, it seems, 15 year old Charles Andy Williams walked into his high school with a gun. He drew the gun in a crowded corridor and began shooting, and when the gun ran out of bullets he reloaded it and shot again. Some witnesses claim he smiled while he shot. Maybe he did. When he was finished he retreated into a lavatory and waited to be arrested. By that time two of his fellow students were dead, and twelve others were hurt.

In Washington, reaction was swift. President Bush called the shooting a disgraceful act of cowardice, and urged parents to teach their children right from wrong.

This is a quaint conceit—the idea that he didn't know. That in all the years of his upbringing and socialization no one had ever put murder on the don't list. That of all the people around him, no one had ever addressed the topic of homicide with anything stronger than ambivalence. It is reminiscent of the aftermath of Columbine, when the House of Representatives promptly passed legislation mandating that the Ten Commandments be posted in every school. The legislation was insulting not for its violation of the separation of Church and state, but for its breathtakingly superficial approach to violence. Kids are killing each other, apparently, because no one has told them not to.

The idea of random and senseless acts comfort us. They allow us to elude the darker, more unpleasant reality that very few senseless acts exist—although there are some, to be sure. But for the most part everything, hideous though it may be, makes sense to the person who is carrying it out. Not making sense allows blame to be highly concentrated, and then disappear. High school history textbooks still teach children, absent a shred of evidence, that John Brown was insane when he attacked Harper's Ferry, that he was a misguided religious zealot. This deprives John Brown of a motive, and spares our youngsters from learning what he knew: that the America he attacked was foul and depraved, built on the idea that some people were fundamentally worthless, their lives a commodity to be used and destroyed. In the media, international terrorism has long been considered the senseless pursuit of insane men, and rarely the last resort of desperate ones. Believing in the senseless denies context. We lash out at those who try to explain violence, and accuse them of trying to excuse it. But even evil happens for a reason, and it can be contained if those reasons are understood.

So what if our depthless President was wrong? What if the school shooting was not a cowardly act by a youth who knew not right from wrong? What if it was a final, horribly mutated spasm of courage? And what if he knew right from wrong, and had decided, based on personal experience, that they simply didn't matter?

Consider what was told to the Washington Post. Kids from Knoxville, Maryland—Williams' original hometown—told the paper that Williams was occasionally bullied, and that it came to a head in October 1999, when the Williams' home was vandalized, with the boy's room and possessions being obvious targets.

At that point, one of Williams' friends said, His Dad figured if his house was being broken into, it was time to leave.

Imagine, if you will, all the insecurity of adolescence, compounded by the knowledge that your inability to take care of yourself resulted in the uprooting of your entire family. Imagine moving across the country and having to endure, countless times, the question of why you moved, and the awkward answer being that you were chased out, unliked, unable to look out for yourself and with no one able to look out for you.

Shortly after the shooting, the Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz mocked the idea that bullying could be a causal factor in a school shooting. Bullying, she correctly noted, happens in every school. It is a part of growing up.

Very true. But there is a difference between bullying and merciless harassment, and a difference between merciless harassment and the criminal entry of a private home. The kids who tormented Andy Williams knocked over every pillar of social order. They disrespected him as a person, they disrespected the school and its rules, they disrespected his parents and their possessions, and they disrespected the law. And they won. In the end, by being forced to move, Andy Williams assumed the guilt and the punishment. This is, by any standard, an inversion of justice; a breakdown in the very systems of authority that schools teach children to respect.

We tend to treat school shootings differently than other forms of gun violence, largely because within them are two elements—children, and the violation of sanctuary—that the media find irresistible. But the reasons that an alienated white upper class boy and a hardened denizen of the inner city reach for a gun are largely the same: fear. Guns are avenue to empowerment for those who feel emasculated by society. They allow the urbanite mired in poverty and the sophomore lost in the subdivisions of clique life to take back, however artificially, the esteem and sense of strength that they once had but lost.

What else, after all, should a young man in a housing project do, if he fears equally—rightly or wrongly—both criminals and the police? And what should a suburban boy think when he is harassed and tortured, and everyone—parents, teachers, police—seems unable or unwilling to stop it. People in California accused him of being gay, a classmate told the Post, which is totally not true. They made fun of him for being a country boy, for his big ears. It didn't matter what he did, they made fun of him.

I support most forms of gun control. The fact that there are 250 million guns in America is not incidental to the country's monopoly on schoolyard violence. But I worry that gun control is becoming a crutch for the willfully ignorant, a dreamy panacea that will stop senseless acts of brutality. Guns, like drugs, are a problem driven by demand, and no effort to constrict supply will be worth much so long as there are those who believe—be it in the schools or on the streets—that power is never on their side, that is always wielded by and for someone else.

There are no easy answers for what happened in California, and there is no doubt that if Andy Williams is convicted, he deserves to spend a long time in jail. But the ignorance has to end, and the blinders have to come off. American violence is not an exclusive resort of the senseless and deranged. We can for only so long bar people from privilege, turn our backs on the weak and vulnerable, and then act surprised when they come back angry.

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