- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

In early March, when the latest teen-age killer to make national news opened fire in a high school near San Diego with the deadliest display of such violence since the murders at Columbine two years ago, the usual public scramble for explanations of his behavior followed true to what a sociologist would call "cultural script."
The New York Times weighed in immediately with a stern editorial about "Guns in Young Hands," urging President Bush to take serious action or at least what the Times means by serious namely to convene a White House conference on teen violence. Reporters from the news services fanned out across the country to interview as many acquaintances of the killer as they could lay cameras on most of which witnesses, as has likewise become customary, would earnestly testify that nothing about the boy ever seemed amiss. …
In fact, in what appears to have become cultural routine in these matters, just about every detail of the case would turn out to be reported and analyzed at length, with the New York Times even waxing lyrical about a "Joan Didion world of dropouts and tough teen-agers."
Every detail, that is, but one that, as The Washington Post did manage to relay deep into a story on the teen-ager's clueless friends, " was known as a latch-key child who often ate dinner and slept over at friends' homes."
Piecemeal, in various reports and in a handful of opinion columns, other details of the killer's family life and lack of it filled in the blanks. The child of a decade-old divorce, he had resided, loosely speaking, with his father in California. He was a boy left largely to his own devices, who slept elsewhere much of the time, who called his friends' mothers "Mom." He had spent the preceding summer with neither parent, but instead in Knoxville, Md., with the family of former neighbors there.
His mother, distraught and horrified by events as any mother would be, was giving her anguished interviews from behind a closed door where she herself lived on the other side of the country, in South Carolina.
The reason why so little was made of what once would have been judged meaningful facts that this latest killer was one more unsupervised, motherless boy is not elusive. Of all the explosive subjects in America today, none is as cordoned off, as surrounded by rhetorical land mines, as the question of whether and just how much children need their parents especially their mothers.
The reasons for this cultural code of silence are twofold. One is the fact that divorce, which is now so widespread that nearly everyone is personally affected by it in one way or another, is so close to qualifying as the national norm that a sizable majority of Americans have tacitly, but nonetheless decidedly, placed the whole phenomenon beyond public judgment.
Moreover, for all that divorce itself shows signs of leveling off at its current (albeit unprecedented) rate, illegitimacy, for its part, continues to rise. Putting these two facts together divorce and out-of-wedlock births means that the country is guaranteed a steady quotient of single-parent, which is to say, often absent-parent, homes.
The fact that many of the women now heading those homes would choose otherwise if they could means that public sympathy and private compassion, including the desire not to add to their already heavy burden by criticizing any aspect of how they handle it, quite naturally go out to them.
The second fact of life that constrains the public discussion of just what and how much children need is, of course, the exodus of women meaning mothers, both divorced and otherwise out of the home and into the workplace. Like divorce, but even more so, this massive and unprecedented experiment in mother-child separation is essentially off-limits for public debate.
Again, the reason why is plain to see. At a time when a good many households include working mothers, and a good many people benefit from their work, whether financially in the household or via their companionship and productivity in the workplace itself, public and private circumspection on how all these absences taken together are affecting American children obviously runs deep.
The combination of individual compassion for the circumstances in which many adults find themselves, alongside the profound desire to see no evil, whether in one's own home or anyone else's, has produced a modern social prohibition of almost primeval force.
The record ought also to reflect the fact that the San Diego killer is only the latest such celebrity verifiable as a home-alone child. In fact, in a striking coincidence unremarked upon anywhere else, the other mass murderer most in the news this year had a childhood background in broad strokes identical to that of the San Diego killer: a parental divorce in middle childhood, after which the mother abandoned boy and husband to move across the country when the child was 15, leaving behind a teen-ager whose father worked nights and who spent most of his time either unsupervised or in other people's homes. That would be Timothy McVeigh.
Another entrant in the same general category would be the late cannibal-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, whose evil habits developed as a teen-ager when his parents divorced also when he was 15 years old and he was abandoned by his mother and father to live alone in the house for a year before being retrieved.
Also consistent with this pattern of adolescent abandonment, of course, is the slew of suburban teen-age killers offered up by the last several years who likewise had been left on their own de facto if not always de jure boys who spent all their spare time in dark corners of the Internet, who acquired and assembled war-worthy weapons in their suburban garages and bedrooms, who threatened neighbors, tortured animals, read and wrote obsessively about suicide and murder, and who otherwise did all but broadcast from the rooftops what are technically known as "warning signals" if, and this appears to be a major qualification, anyone besides like-minded cronies had been around to notice them.
Statistically speaking, of course, few latchkey children grow up to be murderers. Yet beneath the public anxiety provoked by every such savage who takes the stage, beneath even the ritual media cycle that follows the recorded-for-television atrocities, lies an element of unspoken truth about the link between these adolescent outcasts and the rest of society.
This is the fear shared by much of the adult world that perhaps the kids aren't all right after all that perhaps the decades-long experiment in leaving more and more of them to fend for themselves, whether for the sake of material betterment, career fulfillment, marital satisfaction or other deep adult desires, has finally run amok.
What troubles the public mind about these killers is not that they seem anomalous, but precisely that they might be emblematic. And the reason for this apprehension is essentially correct in important ways, their lives have been indistinguishable from those of many other American children. …
What recent social science makes plain is that the connection between empty homes on today's scale and childhood problems on today's scale cannot possibly be dismissed as a coincidence.
Excerpted with permission from the introduction to "Home Alone America," published in the June/July issue of Policy Review and at www.policyreview.org.

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