Why Are We So Eager to Fear Youth?

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How far can you get in the kid-fixing biz by just making things up?

All the way to institutional accolades, congressionally recognized expert status, lucrative book and lecture tours, nonstop media quotes and worshipful praise across the political spectrum – as Dr. Dave Grossman proves.

“Kids are learning to kill and learning to like it,” Grossman, a former West Point psychologist, the author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill and the director of Killology Research Group, tells thousands every year.

Violence in the media – especially video games – makes “today’s kids ... more violent,” Grossman warns. Joystick-wielding 14-year-old gamers are better gun marksmen than FBI-trained sharpshooters, he says.

Killology’s website (www.killology.com) brims with breathless alarms by Grossman and his colleagues over the nation’s “escalating rate of violent crime,” “escalating incidences of youth violence,” and school shootings that were “unimaginable in our day,” when “a thrown egg in an assembly or the theft of a school mascot” were the biggest worries.

Grossman’s emotional road show mesmerizes Americans from law ’n’ order conservatives to Ralph Nader and Media Education Foundation liberals, even though it’s patently ludicrous.

“Escalating violent crime?” The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ September 2004 National Crime Victimization Survey reports that “violent victimization rates” are now at “their lowest point recorded since the inception of the NCVS in 1973.”

“Escalating youth violence?” FBI Uniform Crime Reports show that in the past decade, youth violent crime arrests dropped 40 percent, led by a staggering 66 percent drop in murder. Over the past 30 years, children and teens are the only age groups to show a decline in violence arrest rates. Murder by teens is lower now than in any year since 1965.

School shootings were “unimaginable” in the past? Imagine Olean, N.Y., Dec. 30, 1974: fourteen killed or wounded at school by a rifle-wielding 17-year-old honor student. Imagine San Diego, Jan. 29, 1979: A 16-year-old girl opens fire at a grade school, leaving 11 dead or wounded. There are others.

Schools, America’s safest havens from murder, are getting safer. Fewer students reported violent attacks to the latest Monitoring the Future survey than in the first one, in 1976. The National School Safety Center tabulated 11 murders and nine deaths from unknown circumstances (several caused by adults, not youths) at or near schools in 2003-2004. That’s less than half the number a decade ago and accounts for one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s 16,000 homicides in 2003.

“The per-capita murder rate doubled in this country between 1957 ... and 1992,” Killology warns. Has this phony “research group” noticed that it’s 2004? The latest FBI statistics show that homicide has dropped 40 percent since 1992, to its lowest level in four decades.

The FBI reports that assaults by girls are rising, Grossman and other fear mongers declare. Do they read the FBI reports? Assaults by girls have declined for six straight years. Girls’ murder rates have dropped by 25 percent since the 1990s and are lower today than in 1975.

Grossman’s favorite panic line: Violent, interactive video games, beginning with Mortal Kombat, teach kids “to kill” and to “like it.”

Really? Mortal Kombat first appeared in 1992, and its bloodier Sega version in 1994. Doom, Quake and more graphic sequels followed. As young video-carnage gamers soared by the millions, real-life murder and violence by teens plummeted as never before.

A few silly studies (such as one by Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson) claimed that game-players who inflict fake “aggression,” such as harmless loud noises, in lab experiments are candidates for slaughtering real people. If they mean anything, these studies suggest that aggressive kids use violent games to vent hostility harmlessly.

If Americans cared about young people, Grossman and fellow fear profiteers who whip up groundless panics against youth – such as James Alan Fox of Northeastern University and Phil Leaf of the Center for Prevention of Youth Violence – would be charged with fraudulent advertising and perpetrating hate speech, regarded with the same contempt as bigots who inflame fears of Jews, Muslims or any other group.

The question is not why self-promoting alarmists and interest groups treat youth as a mere commodity to exploit as their psychological, political and funding whimsies require. The question is: Why are the rest of us, from average American to skeptical journalist to august institutional scientist, so eager to embrace every shameless demagogue who hypes rare cases, made-up statistics and nut-ball scare tactics to make us believe the worst about our kids?

Mike Males teaches sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales .