by | Mar 29, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It wasn’t just the guns.

Oh, there were too many guns, for sure. Police say the boys had at least 10 in their possession when they dressed up like hunters and shot at their schoolmates in Jonesboro, Ark., killing four girls and a teacher just as easily as you would kill an unsuspecting animal.

Ten guns, including high-powered rifles and handguns, along with 2,000 to 3,000 rounds of ammunition — all taken from family members’ houses. How children get their hands on such an arsenal should seriously worry anyone who lives next door to anyone in this country. Maybe the relatives who kept such an armory should face murder charges as well. Maybe this whole notion of keeping guns for protection should be torn apart.

Maybe the activists who insist that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” ought to think for a moment about who might still be alive if Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, had gone to release their misguided anger last week but couldn’t get their hands on anything more harmful than spitballs.

But it wasn’t just the guns.

It wasn’t just the boy-girl thing, either. Yes, much of America was shocked when it learned that Golden and Johnson, who look as innocent as Huck Finn, were moved to murder because girls in their class had jilted them. “Broken up with them” was the phrase used by other kids. Maybe you ask yourself, “How on earth do 11-year-olds break up? What do they know about relationships?’ “

Valid questions.

But it wasn’t just the boy-girl thing.

Enamored with gang culture

And it wasn’t just the parents. Sure, it all begins at home. Sure, the 13 year-old was a child of divorce, and he lived in a rundown house. Sure, this same kid pointed fingers at other students and said, “Bang, you’re dead,” and any parent worth his or her salt should be talking seriously to a kid like that. And obviously these kids were not getting anywhere near the guidance and attention they needed.

But it wasn’t just the parents.

And it wasn’t just the gangs or the music. Yes, reports indicate that the 13 year-old was enamored with gang culture, that he traced the words “Crips Killers” into dirty windows, that he bragged about belonging to “The Bloods”
— even though, living in such a small town, he probably never met anyone connected to that group. And yes, gangs are sickeningly celebrated in certain movies and TV programs and music. Kids can buy rap records where the idea of beating women and shooting enemies is part of every lyric.

But it wasn’t just the gangs.

And it wasn’t just the South. People point to recent bloodbaths in Mississippi and Kentucky, where troubled teenagers used bullets to solve their problems. They point out juvenile murder is on the rise in rural America — where guns are often common — with a jump of nearly 40 percent in rural youths arrested for homicide.

But it wasn’t just the South.

No time to hold hands

What we had outside that school where the shots rang from the woods, and what we had in those cemeteries where small caskets were buried this weekend, was more than just guns, parents, TV, culture, gangs, alienation or a numbing of our shock at murder.

It was all of the above.

It is a country that is so busy pointing fingers, it has no time to hold hands. It is a country so busy entertaining itself that asking for standards in entertainment is called religious fanaticism.

It is a country so busy suing for individual privileges that it gives no nod to our obligation to one another. Already, people are lining up on this tragedy to protect their own concerns, distancing the event from the “good” South, or “good” gun owners, or “good” parents.

And the result? We are becoming a country that is losing its capacity to love. Not the phony “Titanic” movie love. Love of your neighbor. Love of your community. Love of your own children and the other children in your world, loving them enough to say “no,” enough to spend the time with them they need, enough to teach them respect by being a role model for it, enough to know that when one of them starts saying things like “I got a lot of killing to do,” it’s a cry for help that is more important than any meeting, career, appointment or distraction.

It happened in this case. Who was listening?

At the core of most teenage angst and loneliness is almost always a hungry heart. It’s worth noting that the 11-year-old alleged murderer has spent much of his time in custody crying for his mother.

I don’t know what made the world go mad in Jonesboro last Tuesday. But I do know this: Kids who feel loved don’t pull triggers. As we scramble to determine what simple and necessary thing was missing from these two young gunmen, we ought to wonder if it wasn’t the most universal emotion of all.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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