One of my earliest memories is on South Hill in Ithaca, New York. The neighborhood boys had caught a frog and pinned it down in the woods. Somebody had firecrackers and poked them into the body of the living frog. In a ceremony that later I would think back on as a Lord of the Flies moment, they blew the thing up. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop them. But I knew that either reaction would cost me membership in the neighborhood gang. So I didn’t. I was five.
I realize that blowing up a frog isn’t the same as going into a school or a movie theater or a college campus and committing mass murder, but for some reason that image of those boys intent on committing an act of violence and my inability to stop them, to even raise my voice in protest, keeps coming back to me as I try to contemplate the unthinkable: Why do our boys kill?
As a public speaker on the topics of manhood and goodness, I have often said that my best audiences are women (who love to talk about men), inmates (who cannot walk out on me), and boys. This fact has actually changed over the years since men now show up in much larger numbers than they did at the beginning. But the part about boys is still true.
My hypothesis is that teenage boys in 2013 are being assaulted by a world with so many difficult challenges—such as porn, divorce, drugs, prison, concentrated wealth, a constant stream of celebrity bad boys, and war. And in this world, even more so than in the past, they are confused and desperate for some way to sort out the wall of scary information that overwhelms them on a daily basis on their electronic devices. The core issue for boys has always been how to become a man, but that issue has never been as fraught with danger and a total lack of honesty as it is now.
What I mean by danger and dishonesty is that I think most adults in our boys’ lives stick their heads in the sand and keep droning on about things that don’t really advance the ball in our boys’ maturation. No one is really leveling with them about the most important topics on their minds. I try to tell my story, and bring speakers like Andre Tippett and Julio Medina to do the same, in as graphic and raw detail as I possibly can.
The reaction is always the same: shock. The look on the boys’ faces is, “You mean you are actually going to talk about this shit? The stuff that is weighing on my soul?”
One topic I am obsessed with is how we as a culture talk to our boys about violence. That conversation takes many forms. Julio Medina talks about stabbings inside Sing Sing. Andre Tippett talks about how karate saved his life and how the concept of having the heart of a beginner was his saving grace, both growing up in Newark without a dad and as an NFL player. Michael Kamber talks about the ravages of war seen first-hand as a photojournalist over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Violence, including childhood violence, continues to decline globally, and that’s true on both a macro and a micro scale. The boyhood propensity for violence is far more muted in the current generation than it was in yours, or even mine. Kids actually get in trouble for fistfights now, whereas in living memory that was just considered normal for boys. A parent hitting their child is less and less condoned, whereas when I was a kid, spanking and whipping were part of pop culture, and a hundred years ago, child abuse wasn’t even a concept. And yet the most horrific kinds of violence by boys—mass murder on a scale never seen before–continues to escalate.
What is going on here?
What I worry about most is the way in which the real cost of violence and war has become invisible, especially to our boys. During the World Wars and Vietnam, the human cost of being at war was front and center, day in and day out. Especially during Vietnam, that carnage was broadcast daily to our living rooms on the evening news—images and numbers of casualties only adding to the bloodshed we knew of so vividly.” Despite being in two decade-long armed conflicts, we don’t see the brutality on a daily basis. Even as adults we forget. How the hell are our boys supposed to realize the gravity of the situation?
What is worse, the very real fighting has made superheroes of men who could easily be mistaken for computer game characters. We fight with remote-controlled drones and, when the shit really hits the fan, heavily armed Navy Seals who attack carrying television cameras that broadcast images remarkably similar to the games and films and television shows our boys watch incessantly.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to say whether or not our wars are justified. I am certainly not diminishing the courage and bravery of the men (and women) who put themselves in harm’s way for our country. That is a completely separate issue. What I am talking about is the cumulative impact of how we fight wars, how the dead and injured are invisible, and what it means to the psyche of our boys.
My 16-year-old son went to see Zero Dark Thirty and came back raving about it. He wants to go to West Point. I pepper him regularly with questions that go to the heart of the issue of warfare in the 21st century. I am satisfied that he is among the most well-read 16-year-olds on the topic. He has talked to dozens of active and retired servicemen and servicewomen in addition to reading every available text.
The reason I pepper my son, and why I worry for our boys as a group, is that they see a noble cause that is too wrapped up in Hollywood and not enough in the god-awful truth of war. And for those boys who waver on the precipice of mental health, the line between fiction and reality becomes incredibly dangerous.
Let’s be honest: our nation tells boys that to be a real man you have to be a superhero who goes on incredibly dangerous missions to get the bad guys. It doesn’t much matter if you are the Dark Knight or a Navy Seal. Either way you are at the very pinnacle of machismo. So it’s just a small, sick, and tragic step to go from that message to believing that going on a mission to kill innocent people is equally macho.
I am in favor of stricter gun control and better security precautions at our schools. But to me the core issue is how we talk to boys about violence. And how boys talk to each other about violence. At this point I think there is a very dangerous silence. And that’s not their fault. It’s ours.
Image by dclough