Two decades ago, as a reporter in Southern Florida, I wrote a long, sad story about a housing development in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. The Canyon, as it was called, was a place that got mentioned a lot in the national press because some of its young male residents were assumed to be responsible for a spate of horrific attacks on German tourists that took place nearby.
The coverage of these murders was typical of our journalistic approach to violent crime. We focus on episodes that morally astonish us, the ones that draw clear lines between the guilty and the innocent, the wicked and the good.
I wanted to tell a different story: what it was like for kids who lived in the Canyon. So I hung around for a year, with the moms and the aunties, but mostly the kids, all of whom were desperate for attention from adult males, even ones as clueless as me.
What I remember of the Canyon, as an outsider, was the oppressiveness of the place; people felt bored and powerless most of the time. They experienced acts of violence as a kind of liberation from the prevailing tedium.
I remember arriving at my friend Ruby’s one morning and being told that her daughter’s boyfriend, Trey, had been shot in the face. This was terrible news, of course. But it was also thrilling — a bit of local lore to share. I was told the story over and over. To the kids I hung out with, Trey wasn’t just a victim. He was also a hero. He’d taken part in an exalted drama, one that made him a person of consequence.
I’ve been thinking about my time in the Canyon a lot since last week’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children, six faculty members and the gunman’s mother dead.
There are plenty of commonsense conclusions to be drawn from the tragedy, the latest in a spate of mass shootings. A civilized society does not sanction the sale of assault rifles, for instance. Respecting the Second Amendment should not be confused with bowing to the defensive paranoia of gun owners, or the Machiavellian greed of the gun lobby.
But the lesson of Newtown has to do with the enduring psychological and emotional allure of violence. Troubled figures like Adam Lanza turn to violence, and guns specifically, for the same fundamental reason the residents of the Canyon did: because they want to feel powerful.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left behind an extensive record of their thoughts leading up to the 1999 massacre they carried out at Columbine High School. These videos veer from outbursts of rage and self-victimization to speculations about whether Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino will direct the movie of their lives. They return to their weapons, again and again, as instruments intended to vanquish and redeem them.
It would be dangerously naïve to attribute the actions of Lanza to any single cause. His own disturbed motives may never be fully known, or understood. But it’s also dangerously naïve to regard the carnage of this event — and the grim litany of others before it — as something entirely apart from us.
For those who remain haunted by the deaths in Newtown, ask yourself this: Why, as a nation, do we continue to consume simulated and real violence as mass entertainment? Why do so many of our movies and television shows and video games and books and sporting events rely on the glorification of extreme violence? Why do our laws crack down on profanity and graphic sexual imagery, and yet continue to treat violence as acceptable and even heroic? What does it say about the integrity of our sympathy that the deaths of Afghani civilians — including school-age children — owing to drone strikes paid for by our tax dollars merit barely a thought?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. But until we summon the courage to face the violent pathologies that live within us as a people, America will continue to serve as the world leader in mass murders.