It's Not Evil Spirits That Make Teens Kill:
Blaming movies, song lyrics or Satanism lets us ignore the real cause, the breakdown of social safeguards.

by Dr. Helen Smith

Killer kids. They're everywhere these days, or so it seems. Probably no group in America today inspires more fear than the teenage killers regularly featured on the evening news. What many find most frightening about these young murderers is that their crimes seem so senseless and random. Thus after each bizarre slaying, the search is on for an explanation.

Sometimes we blame a movie, as in the recent Paducah, Ky., school killings, or in last year's Lillelid family massacre in Johnson City, Tenn., said to have been inspired by Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers." Sometimes we blame the gun: If only the teenager hadn't had one, this wouldn't have happened. Sometimes we blame Satanism, as in a Mississippi school shooting a few months back. We've also blamed rock (and rap) lyrics, the board game Dungeons and Dragons and the Internet.

None of these explanations holds much water, but in a way that isn't the point. Their real role is to let us breathe a sigh of relief. At last, we have an explanation for this horrible event: It was that awful Internet, those violent movies, whatever. Like primitive peoples who attributed natural disasters to evil spirits, blaming these forces gives us the illusion of control. And, as with the primitive peoples, it gives our modern-day shamans power and prestige as they promise to protect us with V-chips, teen curfews, "zero tolerance" programs, or whatever it takes to prevent evil influences from possessing normal, healthy teenagers and turning them into killers.

For primitive tribes, this approach probably did little harm. They couldn't do anything about volcanoes or hurricanes anyway, and the shamans' solutions probably made them feel better. But in our modern society, we can and should do more. Focusing on symbolic solutions may provide some momentary comfort, but it distracts us from the real problem: These are not normal, healthy teenagers, and they don't become killers because of evil spirits. They become killers because they are already deeply disturbed individuals who can be sent over the brink by all sorts of innocuous influences. (Charles Manson, after all, claimed to find inspiration for his crimes in a Beatles song.)

It is not ordinary kids who kill. It is usually those with subpar intelligence, mental disorders and a history of cruelty to animals and siblings. A 1996 Harvard study of guns and gang murders found both juvenile and adult murderers to have long records of serious crimes. Substance abusers, people with subpar intelligence and those with major mental disorders are several times more likely to commit violent crimes than are ordinary citizens.

Teen killers tend to have a very narrow view of other people's rights: that they have none. They also share another characteristic. In one way or another, teenage killers have encountered time and time again a feeling that the only way to deal with their frustration, despair or malaise is to bring it to a climactic conclusion.

I have met many of these kids in the course of my work as a forensic psychologist, some before and some after they committed their crimes. They are scary and they are aberrant. But most of them are not unsalvageable if caught before it is too late, nor are their crimes unpreventable. But if nothing is done, they are truly walking time bombs, as dangerous and unstable as a hatful of mercury fulminate. And, like the explosive, once they explode, the important question is not "what set them off?" but "why was that explosive lying around?"

When cells in our bodies become cancerous, it is the result of a long process in which one safeguard after another has failed. Unfortunately, the reason so many teens are becoming dangerous killers is that the social safeguards that used to exist are failing, too. Families, churches, schools, child welfare authorities, courts--even, in these quick-stop HMO days, private health care-- are all becoming less and less effective at keeping these potential killers from reaching their final, lethal stage. We are all paying the price, and blaming Oliver Stone or the Internet won't help us start toward a solution.

Published Tuesday, December 16, 1997 Los Angeles Times