Children, not murderers

Why is it so hard for us to accept that when a horrible death occurs, there isn't always a villain?

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney
September 8, 2000 11:13PM (UTC)
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A 1-year-old will drink antifreeze or offer antifreeze to other 1-year-olds to drink or put antifreeze into the dog's bowl, if, of course, antifreeze is available. A 5-year-old will shoot a person with a loaded gun. A very high percentage of children between the ages of 7 and 13, quite a few of them boys, will jump off a roof or out of a tree, sometimes holding an umbrella or handmade wings or a parachute or another child's hand, believing that they will fly. A 16-year-old girl will think you can get pregnant from French kissing. A 17-year-old boy will think you can't get HIV from girls.

They are children. They are immature, eternally hopeful, frequently stupid, in love with themselves, not very thoughtful, misguided, curious, impulsive, awkward and unaware, and when their behavior results in dog vomit, broken windows, sprained ankles, enlightenment or a close call, it is the stuff of lessons and anecdotes. These are the pranks, antics, hijinks and acts of monkey business that give plot points to family history.

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A group of teenagers believed they could get a free meal of Chinese takeout using a cellphone, a sheet, two bricks and all the intelligence and life experience that five adolescents can muster. It is true that lawbreaking was a certainty and broken bones a possibility in this harebrained scheme. But even those dark eventualities might have been spun into anecdotal gold (or a plot for "Party of Five"). But the worst thing happened. The worst thing that can always happen but rarely does, happened. They smashed the deliveryman's skull.

So they are killers, not children. They are adults (all but one) in the eyes of the court. It was, said Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown at a news conference, "a shocking crime, which leaves us all shaking our heads and wondering why these kids would do what they did."

I wonder how old Brown is. I wonder how it could be so difficult for him to understand what happened. Does it occur to Brown that the killers might also be shaking their heads, wondering how this could have happened? Why does he have to believe that it was these children's intention to kill a deliveryman?

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It is exceptionally hard to accept that the brutal killing of a husband and father could be unintentional, that his death did not have a sinister cultural implication and meaning. But it is so easy, shamefully so, to understand that his death was a stupid mistake. Unfortunately, to acknowledge the deadly aspects of being a kid, to absolve children of deeply evil motives, is a grown-up thing to do and in these instances, not all of us act our age.

Take the man interviewed by the New York Times, sitting in front of 16-year-old James Stone's home and identifying himself as the father of 17-year-old suspect Jamel Murphy. He told a reporter that he would not attend his son's arraignment because to attend would be to show support "for something I don't support ..." Such a move, he said, would be "hypocritical."

Would he be betraying his own belief that teenagers are incapable of terrible mistakes and thoughtless deeds? Would he be inviting unfair criticism of his abilities as a parent? Would he be defying the countless, self-appointed judges of national character who believe that these children are cold-blooded killers, five more wizened addicts of explicit violence at the tender age of 17?

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This is a terrible moment. We try to imagine the paralyzing hurt felt by the family of Jin-Sheng Liu and we can't. Instead we feel sick and helpless and unaccountably lucky for what we have. But why can't we mourn this man's death without demonizing his killers? Do we not care enough if we aren't willing to condemn the sad children who killed him?

We have too many losses to observe. We should mourn the inability of a parent to love his son -- always. We could grieve about our inability as adults to identify with younger humans. We should wonder why we cannot accept tragedy without assigning absolute blame.


Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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Teenagers