The Common Good
September-October 1998

Bang, Bang. You're Dead.

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | September-October 1998

Sadly, kids killing kids isn't anything new.

Springfield, West Paducah, Pearl, Jonesboro, Edinboro. America is quickly compiling a litany of towns that will forever be associated with heart-wrenching tragedies. The rash of recent school shootings makes us wonder what has happened to our nation when our children can't even feel safe in the places where they should be most secure.

Equally distressing is the fact that this kind of violence isn't especially unique. In recent years Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and many other cities have lost more than enough children to earn their places in the litany as well. For those who have survived the last couple of violent decades in America's inner cities, school shootings are nothing new. Kids are still killing kids. Only the context has changed.

On the surface, the recent school shootings appear to be the start of a terrible trend. At their root, however, they probably have much more in common with the inner-city violence that too many of us have come to expect.

Americans of all races and geographic areas are feeling the tremendous strains that come from downsizing, new technologies, globalization, and other changes. While most adults have the emotional and psychological resources to help them struggle with these transformations of society, many young people do not—and some turn to violence in response.

Violence in the media, dysfunctional families, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and many other social ills also share part of the blame for the culture of violence that has led to these shootings. But none of these alone can take all of the blame. And while the astonishing accessibility of firearms in America certainly made these horrible incidents possible, guns didn't cause them to happen. There is something even more fundamental going on here.

TOO OFTEN WE GET lost in an "us" and "them" dialectic that obscures our true human unity. But if Lani Guinier is right about inner-city youth being America's canary—and that the violence, crime, and social ills they face are the first warnings of more widespread pathologies—then perhaps (to use another analogy) the chickens have come home to roost.

For years those working with inner-city gangs have been saying that youth violence isn't just an urban issue, but something that affects all of us, no matter where we live. Perhaps these terrible school shootings will serve to wake up those of us who thought our suburban or rural communities might be immune to violence. City limits have never been a deterrent to a culture of violence. Whether the uniform of choice for these troubled youth and their victims is camouflage fatigues or "gangsta" wear, the result is the same. But so, perhaps, can be the solutions.

Like voices crying from the wilderness, those with years of experience working to stop urban youth violence can offer us some important truths about what works and what doesn't. One thing groups like Barrios Unidos in California and the Ten-Point Coalition in Boston have found is that while increased policing may have its role, the criminalization of youth by itself will never address the root causes of violence among young people. Nor, necessarily, will better schools. And as was seen in the tragic case of Kip Kinkel in Springfield, Oregon, even good parenting by itself isn't enough to help young people cope with the pressures of today's society. No single institution can bear the responsibility of raising a generation. What the urban anti-violence groups found was that in order to curtail youth killings, it takes the involvement of all sectors of the community—including families, schools, business, police, and the church. It does, after all, take a village to raise a child.

Young people require our respect and attention, and they will make sure they get it one way or another. The task for adults is to teach them the most positive and constructive ways to engage the issues they face. Instead of delegating the upbringing of our children to schools—or worse, television and the Internet—we need to connect with young people through whatever channels are open to us. While it takes an effort, what better investment could one make toward our future?

The urban movement to stop the violence also has another lesson to share with America: If adults reach out, young people won't be the only ones transformed. All of us will be.

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