... Or a Made-Up Menace?

By James Glassman
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
May 26, 1998

Last Thursday, a skinny 15-year-old whose self-described hobbies included "sugared cereal [and] throwing rocks at cars," fired 51 shots into a crowded high school cafeteria in Oregon. Two students died, and 22 were wounded. The suspect, Kipland P. Kinkel, also was accused of killing his parents.

TV broadcasts and newspapers were full of the story. The New York Times ran it for three straight days on the front page. President Clinton used his Saturday radio address to decry the "changing culture that desensitizes our children to violence." He asserted that these schoolhouse shootings "are more than isolated incidents."

So they seem. Since last October, 14 teachers and students have been murdered.

Let's stipulate that these killings are sickening and that it would be an enormous benefit to humanity to prevent the shooting of a schoolchild from ever happening again. But let's also put these murders into perspective.

First, the truth about violence in America is that it is falling, not rising. In fact, the single biggest story since the fall of the Berlin Wall is the decline in serious crime -- a true man-bites-dog tale. After climbing at a seemingly inexorable pace since the 1970s, crime has dropped -- suddenly and broadly, and for reasons that still are unexplained.

From 1993 to 1996, the number of murders fell 20 percent, and just four days before the Oregon shootings, the FBI announced preliminary figures for 1997 that found both murders and robbery down another 9 percent and overall crime off for the sixth straight year. Murders in New York City fell a stunning 22 percent in 1997; in Los Angeles, 20 percent.

"It's hard to think of a social trend of greater significance," wrote Gordon Witkin of U.S. News & World Report in a cover story last week. He's right. As crime rates have declined, cities -- most significantly, New York, where the murder rate is lower than in Kansas City and Charlotte -- have revived. Burglary and car-theft rates are now higher in Britain and Sweden than in America. Government, at last, is beginning to accomplish its most important function, which is to protect us so we can pursue happiness in our daily lives.

Second, while the killing of any young person is appalling, a sense of proportion is necessary. The United States has 38 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 and 20,000 secondary schools. In 1994, there were no school shootings in which more than one person was killed; last year, there were four; this year, two. In 1995 (the latest statistics), 319 kids aged 10 to 14 were murdered; the homicide rate for seniors aged 70 to 74 is 50 percent higher.

Again, the real story about kids is the opposite of the portrait of chaos and anguish painted in the press. A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that young people are "getting happier" while "older Americans, by contrast, indicated little change in their degree of happiness."

You have to wonder about the claims of pop psychologists and of the president himself when he says, as he did Saturday, that the rising tide of murders and mayhem on TV, in movies and on video games is turning kids into killers. Indeed, U.S. News noted that "juvenile murder arrests declined . . . 14 percent from 1994 to 1995 and another 14 percent from 1995 to 1996." Clinton is going to have to think of a phenomenon other than video gore on which to blame the shootings.

Here's one idea: the inordinate play these stories get in the press. Children like Kipland Kinkel are bombs waiting for detonation, and the media, by blaring their exploits on the front pages and the nightly news, may be helping to light the fuse. I'm not in favor of suppression, but I am opposed to obsession, which is what we have now.

Why? Well, one answer may be a crime shortage. At a Harvard symposium recently, one panelist pointed out that local TV news shows have to import violent footage now that local criminals aren't turning out enough products (there were only 43 murders in Boston last year, the fewest since 1961).

Another reason is a news shortage. In an era of peace and prosperity, the press finds little to excite the imagination -- and prey on the fears -- of its audience.

In such an atmosphere, one choice for the press would be to examine larger, long-range problems, such as how to fix Social Security, or why crime rates are falling. Another is to blow individual incidents in small towns in Oregon into national crises.

This is an especially irresponsible approach because most people practice a kind of social synecdoche -- they believe that the part equals the whole, that a single shooting (or even four in a year) can mean that child murderers are rampant and some new solution is required. The press consistently fails to put events into context, even when statistics show what's happening in the aggregate.

So, what's the meaning of the schoolhouse murders? Frankly, not much. The meaning of the hysteria over them . . . now, that's worth looking into.

The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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