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Death and A Double Tragedy: A Follow-up

The all-too recent violent crime in Mont Vernon (apologies for having reported it earlier as Mount Vernon) has raised, and rightly so, many questions about the source of violence, the gendered nature of much of violent crime, the perceived safety of country, suburban and/or rural areas as compared to urban areas, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of community and issues of how we, as parents and as a society, raise our children.   Clearly, the shock and horror of this occurrence may have subsided, but has not gone away.  And the concern for the answers to the above questions should never go away, even after we’ve done the work of remedying these ingrained social problems.

On October 12, the Boston Globe’s Sarah Schweitzer logged a report stating “Some find links in ‘senseless’ killings” and “Same traits exhibited by many defendants”.  One could take these statements as being elementary and in many ways they are, but the further findings of the article are instructive and, therefore, challenging to a society that sometimes states the intent to fix its flaws, but often falls short in the excercise of will on the larger communal and national level.

“Across the country, similar homicides have been carried out by teenage males who are sad and lonely, who bond over feelings of  and draw strength and feelings of inclusion by separating themselves from the outside world.  Often in those crimes, there has been one leader, the most disaffected youth, who hatches a plot to take revenge on the world, and the others go along willingly for fear of rejection.” (page A1)

The overriding story of communal connection and the dominating feelings of alienation from their communal roots (if those roots are even firmly in place) becomes crystal clear in the above statement.  The youth’s need and drive for community is so strong that they will creative it, however problematically, any way they can, influenced by popular/unpopular, famous/infamous social and mediated concepts (reference to “horrorcore” and “acid rap” music).   Many writers, academics, political activists, indigenous leaders and social engineers have told us time and time again about the importance of real functional community and communal connections in general and the fundamental, essential need for youth to be embraced,  receive direct cultural and spiritual guidance and be taught deeply about real life, themselves and their connection to nature and community in particular.

The levels of alienation that the article talks about suggest that their surrounding communities may have fallen short in their embrace of these young people, that their young spirits had found the holes in the communal safety net and were then allowed to find their own ways of defining their own humanity, their own ways of defining their own latent manhood – on their own. It is heartbreaking to even suggest that our children are experiencing disconnection and alienation at a level high enough, deep enough, to take them down the path of criminality and murder.

But in the context of talk radio, as I suggested in the companion entry to this, the hosts would have none of this discussion.  There was no way that we could connect ourselves in any way to the outcomes that have been steadily presenting themselves over the years.  These hosts would not suggest, especially not at that close a moment to the commission of the crimes, that there was a linkage, not only to other crimes of the sort, but also to the larger failings of the society at large.  It may stand as a third level of tragedy that those same talk show hosts have deemed fit to move on to other more timely subjects as their pat rants about “liberal” “wackos” and Cambridge, Massachusetts kooks instead of sticking to an issue that plagues us still and threatens, by simple calculation alone, to surface again if not attended to in a clear and methodical manner.  It is as if they have dropped the ball on the issue of youth alienation and murder just as cleanly as the media industry quickly dropped the ball on the major human tragedy of post-Katrina New Orleans and Gulf Coast communities.

Michael Meade, well-known for his writing and work in the area of culture and ritual initiation, said in his book, “Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men”:

“The most lost and dangerous people in this world are those who are not emotionally bonded to family, community, and humanity as a whole and those who have acquired personal power without being  to a sense of the source of that power and the value of individual life.”(pg. 19)

Meade reminds us of the dangers of alienation, a now entrenched and valorized modern social dynamic that gains notice, but escapes our grasp as we repeatedly forget, crime after crime, time after time, that there are solutions to these dysfunctions, social solutions that we are not embracing, young people that we are not embracing, that are falling through the cracks.

Meade goes on to deepen the discussion, the social implications thus:

“The collapse of traditional cultures, the loss of shared myths and rituals that enfold the individual into the group, and the spread of modern industrial societies are producing generations of unbonded children and adults who are not initiated to the purpose and meaning of their own lives.” (pg. 19)

I have long suggested that most youth get their “initiation” in the back seat of a car with a condom (hopefully) and a six-pack of beer, a far cry from the kind of deeply integrated and communally held ritual that has been shown us by the likes of Meade, Malidoma Some’, Martin Prechtel, David Sprague (East Coast Village) and others.  Some’ asserts in his seminal book, “Healing Wisdom of Africa” that initiatory experiences do happen even outside of the larger force of communal intent, but it is exactly that sub-cultural, isolated, independent (not INTER-dependent) process that gives rise to the anti-social directions that many youth are digressing toward.

Even in the animal world there are resonances of the same dynamic, instructive to us if we dare draw the conclusions they point to.  A nature documentary once told of rhinoceroses that were found killed in a game preserve in southern Africa.  Investigation revealed that the large animals, with few direct predators, were being killed by elephants.  Further investigation revealed that these animals were being killed by orphaned male elephants that had been left out of their normal developmental socialization led by older, mature males.  These young male elephants were, left to their own devices, running rampant in the forest on killing rampages far out of the pale of normal elephant behavior.

Jack Levin, a Northeastern University professor of sociology and criminology, stated in the Globe article that this kind of violent act “becomes an initiation ritual, assuring that all of them are bonded in a very intimate way” (pg. A1).  In absence of a larger, more communally-based initiation experience, these boys-trying-to-be-men are finding security, validation, engagement and purpose (albeit criminal and anti-social) in their ad-hoc gangs bent on violence and often murder.  It must be understood that these dynamics don’t always lead to murder, but that this pattern of societal omission also leads to commissions of lesser crimes, anti-social behavior, vandalism, private-public drinking (the almost iconic presence of empty beer cans and condoms in the woods on college campuses and in public parks) and other persistent activities.

The Globe article went on to say, “In small homogeneous communities, teens who don’t fit in stand out much more than in cities”, suggesting a powerful version of being between a rock and a very lonely place.  This may have been a factor in the NH murders in Laconia, Salem and Rochester in 1998, 1997 and 1996 respectively.  It was clearly a stated dynamic in the Sept. 23 Washington Post article about the murder in Farmville, Virginia, the “oasis of quiet sanity”, population 7,000.  Jack Levin continued in the article, “A strong sense of community is wonderful if you happen to be accepted” (pg. A6).  Those not “in” within these small communities run the risk of feeling substantially alienated,  really out.  Another academician, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, William Pollack, stated that “a teen in a small community also might fear confiding his troubles because word spreads fast in a small town” (pg. A6).

This dynamic of community and belonging can not be understimated, at least in my humble estimation.  What youth are calling out for, whether they do it with their friends on Facebook, in their classrooms and/or in their anti-social behavior, is the guidance and connection that comes from communal embrace and a ritualized process by which to mark their passage into adulthood, predisposed by a life of support, validation and mentorship up until that point (and beyond).  If the young people who have been committing these heinous acts had been connected to functioning social networks that INCLUDED  CARING, COMPASSIONATE and SKILLED ADULTS, these crimes could have been averted or largely down-graded in the level to which they are taken.  It must be said that even if most of them had caring parents or a caring teacher or adult friend, that those more solitary resources aren’t enough.  Community is called for.  There is strength and power in numbers….and in love.  That it takes a village to raise a child is not a modern concept, but a traditional one, rooted in the dynamics of indigenous culture, the source of all cultural expressions to come later.  One need only struggle through Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” to get to his semi-drawn-out conclusions to begin to understand the gravity of the problem created in modern culture as we demean and negate and belittle the best of what traditional cultures had and have to offer.

Ultimately, this problem is not one OF boys and violence and/or men and violence, though those are the symptoms of the problem at hand…and quite a few others.  This is a problem of a culture gone astray from its most fundamental roots of community, compassion, focus on balance, process and means (as opposed to blind adherence to the ends), intergenerational integration and the ritual process as essential to holding all in balance, in community with compassion.

As I stated in my earlier post, this national family is dysfunctional at best….but there is hope.  Communal, open, honest discussion, observation and agenda-setting (whether mediated or face-to-face) is fundamental, key to the  process.


If the WTKK talk radio show hosts are correct, that these young people are “scum”, “evil” and only worthy of a quick execution, then what does that really say about the society that literally and figuratively created them?  If we allow the narrow-minded, narrowing and melodramatic discourse modeled by some of talk radio to be our guide and contextual definition, then what hope do we really have of coming to substantive levels of understanding, a sense of pride in our own national adulthood and to be the harbingers of the true legacy of hope, love, compassion, honesty and bravery that that is the only path to a life of real humanity?

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