Good Is Good: Why Do Young Men Kill?
Friday, December 21, 2012
In the wake of the mass slaughter of innocent children, the inevitable news cycle has moved on from the event itself to the question of why? What possibly could lurk in the heart of a young man to commit such atrocities? Access to guns? Mental illness? His very budding manhood? What is wrong with us as a country that we could allow such a horror to happen on our own shores while looking for the bad guys thousands of miles away the supposedly “primitive” nations of the Middle East?
I have no answers. I have limited my exposure to the news for myself and put a complete black out in place for my seven year-old. He doesn’t know what happened. And I can only absorb the terror in bits and pieces.
One piece did catch my attention, however. A female French professor wrote in The New York Times about how this pattern of butchery is the dark underbelly of Hana Rosin’s “End of Men.” She didn’t put it quite that way, but that’s my interpretation. If you close your eyes and think of a mass murderer in your mind’s eye, what kind of person do you imagine? The archetype is a young white man, according to Christy Wampole in "Guns and the Decline of the Young Man":
This image can only be attributed to the truth of those patterns that have established themselves, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas, to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, to the 1999 Columbine massacre, to Wade Michael Page’s 2012 attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The mass murderer is a type. And his race is white.
Wampole goes on to say that the angry black man has been usurped by the angry white man. That many men feel the undercurrent of their loss of power, a la Rosen’s data about women’s gain in the workplace and higher education, and they are trying to hold it together on the outside. But inside they are boiling over. “All this, and they still are not allowed to cry,” she says.
Her answer is empathy. Empathy for the angry young white man:
Empathy is difficult because it forces us to feel the suffering of others. It is destabilizing to imagine that if we are lucky or blessed, it just as easily could have gone some other way. For the young men, whose position is in some ways more difficult than that of their fathers and grandfathers, life seems at times to have stacked the cards against them. It is for everyone to realize the capricious nature of history, which never bets consistently on one group over another. We should learn to cast ourselves simultaneously in the role of winner and loser, aggressor and victim.
I hate to admit that I stumbled across this article on Twitter where cyber feminists and Men’s Rights advocates were having a field day with the theoretical implications of Ms. Wampole’s piece. For those who believe in the blinding power of privilege, the concept that race and gender could have been flipped on its head in this country is abhorrent indeed. “To say that young white men need to be coddled through their transition out of power is infantilizing horse hockey. #rebootmasculinity” was the actual tweet that caught my attention and led me to the article.
Mass murders have been almost all white. And they have been young men who are profoundly disturbed.
My personal confidence in gender and racial theories that lead to grand conclusions as to the cause of these events is very low. I have no particular insight into the souls of the men who committed these acts of violence. And I am not about to start speculating.
But I do have a 16 year-old son and I have spent that last four years talking about manhood, so I have a few impressions that bear on the issue.
I’ve given well over a hundred talks on manhood by now, all across the country to a variety of different groups. For quite some time my standard line was that my best audiences were: women (who love to talk about men); inmates (they couldn’t leave); and boys. That has actually changed. Last year I spoke at the Boston Book Festival to a crowd of 800 that was more than half guys dying to talk about manhood. But the thirst among boys has from the beginning been striking. And it continues to this day.
“The last time you could have heard a pin drop like that was a talk I had to give on oral sex,” the headmaster of Belmont Hill School told me after I addressed his entire student body of the all male high school. The response was identical at the Epiphany School, an inner city school in the worse neighborhood of Boston where the headmaster installed radar on the roof to defer would be shooters. At Epiphany the African-American students, several of whom had to live in a local hospital until their foster arrangements were finalized, clung to the pages of our book—the spine broken down from multiple readings and pages dog-eared for our class discussion.
My observation, based only on what I have seen with my own eyes, is that race and economic status have little to do with the thirst for answers about manhood among teenaged boys. When Andre Tippet (yes it does help to bring along an NFL Hall of Famer when you want to get boys to sit up and take notice) talked about Karate as a form of discipline far more important than football, the boys soaked it up as some response to porn and MMO games. When I spoke of alcoholism and how my professional successes proved to be no comfort when I realized that I had failed as a father and husband early in my life, it was as if I had direct access to the hearts of boys who wanted to be good men, if only they could figure out what that meant.
At Epiphany we brought Julio Medina with us, a man who was once the head of the biggest drug gang in the South Bronx before getting busted by the Federal Task Force on Drugs and spending a decade inside Sing Sing. He talked about how in prison you never want to get blood on your uniform after a stabbing because you will either squeal and be stabbed yourself or refuse to talk and end up in solitary. And yet when his friend went down he didn’t step over him as he had so many times before. He picked him up and held him close while he bled out. “I realized that this couldn’t go on,” he told them. And at that moment his life changed.
Even though I had heard Julio dozens of times before, when he told his story in Epiphany I could hear my own heart pounding. The young men in that room knew exactly the choice that Julio had made in that prison hallway. Their very presence at Epiphany meant that they had already chosen to smear themselves with the blood of goodness, despite all odds. But hearing Julio confirmed what the heroism of their actions.
My own son is a high school junior at a Jesuit school whose motto is, “Become a man for others.” He has taken that ideal to heart, traveling to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to care for orphans, witness families living on huge trash dumps, and planting coffee in the mountains. He aspires to go to West Point not to kill but to serve. And I believe him.
I don’t hold up my son as any kind of superman. I sense in him the same fear that I saw in the boys at Belmont Hill, at Epiphany, and every other school I have visited. The confusion about what it means to be a good man in a world of wars, sex trade, economic stress, and mass murders.
I always talk about how important it is to me to be a good father and husband when I talk to boys. I see manhood for my generation, but also the next, in this transition between bread-winner to home-warmer. The Stay-At-Home Dad is the hero in my mind, just like the Stay-At-Home Mom was and still is the unseen force for good. In the end to be good is to learn how to love, in my view. Or at least that’s what’s worked in my life.
Sometimes the scale of change and the assault of popular culture blinds our boys to the basic truths of humanity. Do we need to have empathy for our boys, specially the white ones? I suppose, though I am not so sure that white boys deserve any empathy above and beyond those boys of color I met at Epiphany.
I think all our boys need a forum like The Good Men Project to make them realize they are not alone, they are not hated, that what they see online in terms of sex and violence and manhood is a pale shadow of real manhood. We need to love our boys so they learn the power of their own love as husbands, fathers and men.
For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.
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- Good Is Good: David Petraeus And ‘The Cheater News Cycle’