Distributed May 1999
Copyright ©1999 by Lewis P. Lipsitt
This time, however, what monopolizes the attention of news commentators as well as the social science and medical experts is that traditional explanations do not seem to be working for these recent school tragedies.
There were some "signs" that not all was going well in the lives of the two Littleton students who shot and killed dozens of their schoolmates and then killed themselves. It is apparent, however, that none of those signals - even in their aggregate - was sufficient to energize an exceptional response from the boys' acquaintances and friends, their teachers, the police, or school counselors. Eventually we will have some plausible explanations - when there is much more verified information - about what really precipitated these heinous attacks on childhood buddies and adolescent peers.
The inevitable psychological autopsies are already occurring, in which pieces of the puzzle are assembled. Psychological determinism and Freudianism are deeply ingrained in our thinking about why people behave as they do. At San Quentin, a Vietnam veteran was executed recently for tormenting, raping and otherwise brutalizing, and killing an elderly lady. His legal defenders and family, seeking to prevent his death, argued that he was made gravely vulnerable by war experiences (earning him the Purple Heart) and could not account for or remember what he had done.
But thousands of soldiers had terrible war experiences and have not killed anyone since coming home. Similarly, most people who own guns do not use them for murder - or indeed use them ever. Most adolescents who brood, wear black trench coats, or have body jewelry, or are not doing well in school, do not kill or bully their schoolmates.
Clearly, our society has been very slow to take up the behavioral research on "probable perpetrators." Even the constellations of signals and signs of adolescent trouble, recently gathered from therapists and social scientists, and then publicized by the media, do not accurately forecast serious crime because many people have disposing histories and fantasies (even of killing others!) that they never act on. Youngsters who are essentially normal have dark thoughts once in a while.
Accidents and natural disasters happen. When a bridge crashes, physicists and engineers do not assume they will never know what caused it. They look for flaws in the design and construction of the bridge. When a tornado strikes, meteorologists seek, through study and by assuming natural causality in the universe, to avoid future devastation in similar instances.
If violence were a disease, we would have much more illuminating research going on to understand and prevent it. That we can hardly imagine an annual Jerry Lewis Telethon on Child and Adolescent Violence reveals how neglectful our society has been of our most serious life-threatening conditions. The tragedies occasioned by muscular dystrophy, cancer or heart disease are not belittled when we recognize that behavioral misadventures kill and debilitate more young people than all diseases combined. Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control verify this. Behavior kills.
The laws of behavior are binding. It is our knowledge that is uncertain or incomplete. The human condition needs a shot of preventive intervention based on behavior analysis. Some day we will have a Jonas Salk of human violence. Like Salk, he or she probably will have had trouble getting funds for research.######