A series of high-profile school-site killings by young boys -- including last week's shooting spree in a Springfield, Ore., high school cafeteria -- have precipitated a more predictable horror: proposed legislation to try 10-year-olds as adults and apply the death penalty to 11-year-olds. It is as if a handful of problem children -- "mean kids" we call them -- are absolving adults of having to deal with the problems of children.
"Current juvenile laws could not have anticipated violent crimes being committed by children this young," explains Texas State Rep. Jim Pitts, who is sponsoring the latest round of legislation.
But it is Pitts' generation that warrants concern. For the past quarter-century, aging baby boomers -- not children or teenagers -- have driven the upsurge in violent crime. The FBI reports that arrest rates for violent crime have doubled for 30- to 49-year-olds since 1975. Homicide by children under 13 occurs less frequently today than in 1965.
Texas is not a lone state. Long before Jonesboro, the governors of California and New Mexico appealed in the name of victims of juvenile crime for laws to lower their states' execution ages to 14 and 13, respectively. On state and federal fronts, efforts are proliferating to sentence children as adults, abolish the protective segregation of child from adult inmates and limit parole for juvenile offenders. New Jersey is deploying military-designed satellite technology to track juvenile parolees cuffed with 8-pound transmitters. The head of the state's Juvenile Justice Commission boasts that the system is like "Star Wars."
In short, the war on crime has become obsessed with young people -- but as targets rather than victims, predators rather than prey. Which shouldn't surprise young people. After all, children are far more apt to be murdered by adults -- including their own parents -- than the other way around. "The only time people really pay attention to kids is if we pick up a gun and blast somebody," a 16-year-old friend observed a week after the schoolyard killings in Jonesboro, Ark. Yet most young people are more concerned about missing breakfast than dodging bullets. Some 12 million children are malnourished in America today, according to the Children's Defense Fund. The poverty rate of young people overall is 50 percent higher today than it was in 1970.
Adults' response to all this would make Charles Dickens shudder: Since 1970 we have cut back spending on education by at least 25 percent and upped funding for incarceration by $3.2 billion. If the present rate of incarceration continues, one out of every 20 children born in 1997 will spend time behind bars. For males the figure will be one out of 11, and for African-American males it will be one in four.
The irony is that the generation of baby boomers backing these policies grew up, by and large, distrusting adults. Today it is adults who distrust the young. A Rand Corporation survey in 1996 found that American adults believe juveniles cause 50 percent of violent crime. The FBI, by contrast, reported that year that juveniles caused 10 to 15 percent of violent crime. Last March -- the same week that media headlined the Jonesboro shootings -- the FBI reported a 30 percent drop in the juvenile homicide rate over the past three years.
"I know what World War III will be -- a war against teenagers," predicted Emilio, 17, after watching "Twelve Monkeys," a film about postapocalyptic dystopia. According to the National Criminal Justice Commission, spending on crime fighting is actually increasing three times faster than defense spending. The spectre of 10- and 11-year-olds dressed in camouflage, toting rifles as they stalk their peers, serves as the new "Red menace" for a prison-industrial complex that is coming to rival the military-industrial complex. This time the enemy is among us -- our own children.
Wars, of course, can be useful. World War II drafted 10 million American men after the Great Depression rendered more than 15 million Americans jobless. In deindustrializing economies, prisons convert otherwise expendable and potentially subversive residents into raw material and profit margins. The war on crime is assimilating young people on the margins by criminalizing them largely for nonviolent, economically motivated offenses such as drug possession. Three-strikes-you're-out laws make it clear that there is no such thing as redemption once you've activated the tripwire.
Facing up to Springfield -- or Pearl, Miss., or Memphis or Jonesboro -- will require acknowledging that children devalue life to the extent that the adult world devalues their lives. In towns long considered America's heartland, mean children are arming themselves in imitation of adults increasingly determined to prove they can be meaner.