Character of Violence

AN increase of violence and a disassociation with authority among youths is evident not only from statistics, but from anecdotal evidence. ``The lack of control in schools, the craziness, is worse than even five years ago,'' says a counselor at a middle school in nearby Arlington, Mass., ``and I'm not an alarmist.''

Forms of behavior that in previous eras would not have been acceptable have often become norms. This is not just the stereotypical lack of respect adults always complain about, but an erosion of the lines of civility usually taken for granted. In 1945 the greatest disciplinary concern in PTA councils was the placing of gum under desks. Today it is guns in schools, casual sex, and hard-core expletives mouthed by 10-year-olds.

Nor is violence only an inner-city problem or the province of racial minorities. A recent killing of a 16-year old girl by a gang of six white youths in Davenport, Iowa, and a wild road trip by three white Athol, Mass., youths that ended last week in the shooting of an elderly Hispanic man in Tampa, Fla., tell a different story.

Such extreme cases once caused a social shock that is now only a memory. But the issue is not just extreme cases. There is a greater loss of self-control even in ``average'' groups. An elementary teacher finds ``lunchrooms today so wild, kids throw food, get out of their chairs whenever they feel like it. We are helpless.'' One teacher had eight children read the play ``Raisin in the Sun'' on a recent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. But with haphazard attendance, they were a different eight each day.

To deal more realistically with these problems, it is important to move past mere statistics. What needs attention is the character of the condition. One hears that 30 years ago, 120 out of every 100,000 youths were arrested for assault; today the figure is 400. But such numbers fail to indicate the intoxicating sense of power and false freedom that behavior without rules claims to offer. And older generations may be too obsessed with self to notice the terrible vacuum of meaning and real love many children complain of.

The Davenport youth who shot the young woman, stole her car, then went with his buddies to a hamburger joint, told of the enormous power the act seemed to give him: ``Money will get you power. Power and money are everything.'' If this nihilism isn't faced, calls for more curfews and martial law in high crime areas may result. One savvy local teacher says the problem isn't a loss of dignity among students; it is that students never have had a clear concept of dignity to begin with.

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