Mothers Who Think: Making sense of Jonesboro

Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint says that blame for the schoolyard murders ultimately lies with Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, but our violent society isn't making it easy to be a kid.

By Lori Leibovich

Published March 30, 1998 10:04AM (EST)

When two teenagers opened fire last Tuesday at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school, the hunt for answers began almost immediately. What motivated Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, to don camouflage, pull a fire alarm, then lay in wait until their classmates tumbled out of school before gunning them down? Four girls and one teacher were killed in the cross-fire and several students were injured. Though reports suggest that violence at schools is not on the rise, recent high-profile killings at schools in Pearl, Miss., and West Padukah, Ky., have highlighted the scourge of kids and guns and suggest that adolescents -- and not just in the inner city -- are seeking revenge, maybe even thrills, with firearms.

Blame has already been leveled at our violent, gun-riddled society, a place where, increasingly, children settle playground scores with guns, not fists. But what about the boys themselves? What is going on in the brain of a child who decides to shoot his classmates in cold blood? What are the psychological stirrings inside a young killer?

Salon spoke with Alvin Poussaint, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of several books, including "Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race Conscious Society" and "Faith of our Fathers: African American Men Reflect on Fatherhood."

People are blaming our violent society for this crime. But couldn't this tragedy simply be about one kid's brain chemistry?

All of it would be speculation without knowing the history of these kids and what kind of life they had. We've gotten little snitches of this in the news. There are some general things that I could say. There was a leader and a follower. We know that the older boy had a lot of anger and a lot of it focused on girls. We know he had actually verbalized to other children that he wanted to kill people.

What causes a kid to blow his classmates away?

You would think they'd been socialized to know you don't kill people, that they go to church and they learn "Thou shalt not kill." So you have to wonder what else is being taught or what isn't being taught in their homes. And what else influences them, in terms of valuing life.

What is at issue here is whether a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old understand what killing means, whether it really registers that the people are going to be dead.

But ultimately, isn't this crime the fault of the boys, not that of society?

They committed the act. They're to blame for it. And they are responsible for it. We expect children to be responsible. We don't expect children to kill. And if they kill they should be punished. I think it would be very wrong to spin any theory that excuses these boys' behavior. You can blame the families too. But the children have to take responsibility.

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There was almost a game-like quality to the killing, with the kids dressing up in fatigues, then hiding in the bushes like snipers.

That's the part that is most scary to me. In America, violence is considered fun to kids -- they play video games where they chop people's heads off and blood gushes and it's fun, it's entertainment. It's like a game. And I think that is in some of the psychology of these kids -- this "let's go out there and kill like on television." It's fun for them, and they don't quite understand they are killing people and those people won't come back next week for the next episode.

How do we make kids understand what killing really means?

Parents have to counter what comes through the media by saying violence is not fun, it's not funny; that violence is an unacceptable way to negotiate conflict. You have to tell them not to play with guns. Parents who have guns, those who hunt, really have to secure those guns. The fact that the Arkansas kids knew where the guns were means they were easy to get. Those guns were not secure in my opinion. In the South and in the cities guns are too easy to get. Kids fantasize, they wonder, "What is it like to shoot?"

People have the idea that children are more violent today than ever before. Is it that they are more violent or do they simply have access to more violent tools?

Society has changed -- with the divorce rate going up and dual career couples and kids spending time in front of the TV -- kids don't get the same kind of childhood coaching and guidance that they used to. Everybody's rushing, everyone is busy. When you take surveys, children complain that their parents don't spend enough time with them and parents complain that they don't have enough time to spend with kids. Things are fractured. Plus, they are being bombarded with so much information via the media and are exposed to things they're not ready to handle.

For example?

Violence, sexuality, adult subjects like AIDS. You talk to 8-year-olds and they are familiar with adult material! There are parents who take their 6-year-olds to see R-rated movies with violence and graphic sex in them. What kind of effect is this going to have on kids?

What about the fact that these boys specifically targeted girls. Can we assume then that this is a misogynist crime?

It is not unusual for boys in this age group to have antagonistic relationships with girls. The older boy felt rejected by a girl. So his anger was personal but then generalized all girls. He saw girls, more than boys, as the villain. We got snatches in the media that he was upset about the breakup of his family, that he missed his dad. If he blamed his mother, who knows what he was acting out? But you would need someone to do a history of him, to analyze him.

How should children who kill be rehabilitated?

I don't know and nobody knows. But on juvenile statutes, they will be let out at age 18 and they may have some very loose screws up there that made them commit such an act. Rehabilitation is not a pure science. The fact that these kids are young, well, they certainly can mature and recognize that they were wrong, but you always have to wonder that someone who did something like that might do it again.

How would you have counseled kids like these -- ones that express anger, rage and the desire to kill?

I would get in touch with the parents. I would find out whether the kid had access to weapons. I would tell the parents that the weapons needed to be secured. And I would say that the boy needed to see a counselor. That's what I would have done.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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