- - Tuesday, September 13, 2016

With 500 homicides so far this year, Chicago is America’s deadliest battlefield.

And the soldiers are children.

Chicago’s homicide rate is driven by gang activity, and features killers who are too young to drive.

According to police department statistics, 85 percent of Chicago’s murders last year were gang related. This year’s tally will likely be the same, or even worse. The National Gang Center, which tracks research and data on gangs, notes a nationwide increase in both the number of gangs and the size of their membership.

It is alarming to learn that Chicago’s murderers are getting younger and younger. Police superintendent Eddie Johnson told a Chicago audience that the average age of shooters today is just 15 or 16 years old, several years younger, than the average age when he began his career in 1988.

Fifteen-year-olds are children. Although they can be strong, fast, smart and capable in many ways, there are good reasons most states don’t allow them to drive cars. A 15-year-old’s body is being flooded with hormones. With the brain still under construction, actions frequently outrun judgment. Fifteen-year-olds want to be independent, and they want to fit it. They want to rebel.

They want to have power in a world that grants them none.

Fifteen-year-olds are looking for direction, connection, meaning and affirmation. They want to be Somebody. And they want to belong. They are more easily influenced and more easily controlled than adults, which makes them ideal targets for recruitment by gangs… and by terrorist groups, as well.

Gangs can be powerfully attractive. To a child living in a dangerous neighborhood, gang membership offers protection. To a child wanting independence, or one whose family is troubled or weak, the gang is an identity package that includes an alternative family. Sworn to mutual loyalty, and dedicated to crime as well as to one another, gang membership is a way to achieve status and recognition in a world that doesn’t offer adolescents many other opportunities. The gang offers excitement, power … and money.

These teenage needs – for belonging, for meaning, for power and identity – are the very same needs to which online terrorist recruiters appeal.

Today, child soldiers kill for Islamic State in the Middle East, for Boko Haram in Africa, and — to our great sadness — for criminal gangs in our cities.

We need to protect ourselves from them. At the same time, we need vigorous intervention to prevent any more children from joining their ranks.

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