Monday, February 23, 2009

Just a normal kid from your typical blended family.

The case of 11-year-old Jordan Brown presents us with another crucible for how we really feel about juveniles and justice in America. Brown, if you haven't heard, shot his father's very pregnant girlfriend in the back of the head with a shotgun as she slept, then calmly put his 20-gauge away and got on the bus to go to school, as might any normal fifth-grader on any normal day. The theory is that Jordan was jealous of his father's absorption in the woman, who already had a 4- and 7-year-old of her own; presumably the sibling-to-be was the last straw. Once again here, prosecutors have said they intend to charge Jordan as an adult. Pennsylvania is one of a dozen states that set the minimum age for such handling at somewhere between 10 and 13. Ten other states set no minimum age at all.

A crime like this gives elected officials a chance to posture and bluster and show us how tough they are on crime
; gives them a chance to call press conferences at which they tell us how important it is to "send a message" to those who refuse to live peaceably among us. Once again the rationale seems to be that the crime was horrible, ergo, somebody's gotta pay big-time; we need a commensurately extreme punishment to provide closure and balance. And since juvenile punishments are just too wussy, we have to charge the kid as an adult.

To which I would reply: A kid is a kid is a kid. If an 11-year-old somehow got hold of nuclear weapons and destroyed Los Angeles, he would still be 11 years old. (Hell, I know people who'd say he deserves
a commendation.)

I was particularly struck by this reaction quote from Patricia Papernow, a child psychologist and expert in blended families: "It looks awful from the outside and sort of unspeakable, but these are the kinds of feelings that are pretty normal in a new step-family. You just hope there's not a loaded gun around."

I agree with her, both about the normalcy and the gun, which we'll get to. I think there are many people, much older than 11-year-old Jordan Brown, who are capable of terrible, split-second atrocities. I think that humankind as a species is not quite as civilized as we like to believe, and given the right/wrong provocation in the right/wrong context
as well as access to the right/wrong weaponrywe are capable of horror. Even the "sort of unspeakable" kind.

Here's the thing: All of us experience the emotions we experience, and we experience them individually. That sounds a bit circular, and maybe it is, but
if there's one concept I wish I could impress on people, that would be it. We experience the emotions we experience, and when those emotions are overpowering, we are simply overpowered by them. Circular or not, that's the plain truth. A mother comes home to discover that her 12-year-old daughter has just been raped by an attacker who's escaping out the back door. And even though the act is complete and the man is in the process of fleeing, she grabs a gun and shoots him. We understand that. We even empathize with it, because we can see ourselves doing the same thing. (Apparently that is the standard by which we judge behavior: Could I see myself doing that? Then it's OK.) So that act, though we recognize it as "possibly criminal," is also, in a sense, forgivable to us. But it is quite possible that the intensity of emotion young Jordan Brown felt was just as powerful to him in that moment. He was jealous. He was furious. And that jealousy and fury (as well as, perhaps, a video-game understanding of life and death) drove him to blow his father's fiancee's brains out. (Do we understand that? Maybe, maybe not.) And it is also quite possible that the emotions Colin Ferguson felt when he shot those white people on the Long Island Railroad were overpowering to him. They'd been seething, roiling inside him for years. Then they erupted. Do we understand that, too? Somehow I think that's where I just lost a whole bunch of you. But why? Think about it. Why?

How do we decide whose "overpowering emotions" we detest, and whose we "sort of" condone?

Which brings me back to my gripe against guns. There are a lot of incendiary situations where the absence of a gun is the only thing that prevents overpowering rage from flowing into unspeakable violence. Granted, when you're talking about a sleeping victim, I suppose 11-year-old Jordan could've just as easily grabbed a knife and stabbed the woman (though a stab wound is still less likely to be decisively
fatal than a shotgun blast to the back of the head). But in other settings and situations, the catalyst, the sine qua non, the thing that facilitates the tragedy, is the gun itself. You can only stab someone who's within arm's length; most of us can throw a heavy rock only so far. Your intended victims can see a Molotov cocktail coming and even with just a few seconds' notice, can probably hide behind something sturdy or get far enough away. For most of us, it is a gun and only a gun that allows killing, even mass killing, at a distance.

Jordan's shotgun, by the way, was a "youth model...designed for children." I found that perversely funny.


Don't know if you watched the Oscars last night; I didn't, or more specifically, couldn't, as I found the pomp, circumstance and glitz a bit unseemly given what's transpiring across America at the moment. But without going off on a whole new rant, I did see one or two presentations, and I was struck again by The Amazing Evolution Of Jennifer Aniston's Face (Nose in Particular, But Lips And, I Think, Eyes As Well). What is the story with this gal? She looks nothing like herself, and that's not said offhandedly: I honestly don't think I'd recognize the girl I saw last night, if I saw her on the street, as the girl I used to know from Friends. Her face has become characterless and generic.

Put another way: In this obsession with perfecting herself, she has lost her Self.


RevRon's Rants said...

Ah, Steve... Another round of blaming an inanimate object for the actions of the person wielding the object. We've been down this path before.

The kid could have just as easily used his prized Louisville Slugger on the interloper to his dream life. Just as quick, just as certain, and infinitely quieter. But had he done that, I doubt we'd be seeing the indignant posturing for bat control.

The kid had problems that weren't being addressed. His father might have even been so wrapped up in his paramour that he failed to notice (or anticipate) that his son might feel displaced and threatened by the situation. I agree that a kid is a kid, but I'll go one step further. A parent is a parent, and it's the parent's job to keep tabs on a kid's health - both physical and mental. And if - despite the parent's best efforts - the kid goes off the deep end, well, stuff happens, and the kid will (hopefully) get some help while in prison.

On the other hand, given the fact that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country, we might want to take the same kind of proactive approach so many on the far left are suggesting and consider enacting some form of spoon control to stem the tide. :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

Regarding Jen - Generic or not, I'd bet that most guys would do her, given the chance. Not me, of course. Nope. Not even tempted.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it! :-)

Elizabeth said...

Alright, Steve, never mind my last comment on the previous thread. Phew. Thank goodness (and your resolve), the proper order of things has been restored.

I agree with pretty much everything you say about the 11-year-old killer. And about our lack of understanding of our emotions (i.e., whose rage we justify and whose we don't, etc.). It is normal to be out-of-your-mind jealous, enraged, devastated, vengeful and wishing, if not willing, death on the objects of our rage. We humans are all alike in this, kids and adults.

But treating the kid like an adult criminal is completely misguided and wrong. As is putting guns in hands of children (or any human beings, for that matter). Yes, there is a horrible irony in the fact that he used a "children's model" of the shotgun to kill. Children's versions of lethal weapons...? How low have we sunk?

Speaking of strange things going on in the judicial system and juveniles in PA, did you hear about this: Pennsylvania rocked by 'jailing kids for cash' scandal?

As to Aniston's new look -- what else is new? ;)

Cal said...

Isn't she doing this in order to continue to get the type of roles she receives? If I am not mistaken, I believe she is over 40 and still playing romantic comedy leads. She has yet to transfer over to the Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton-type roles.

As I believe I said in a previous blog post about this subject, I can't tell what a "real" women is any more, at least looking at their faces. The sad thing is that her female fans, as well as Madonna's, feel they need to do the same thing. And some of them may be really young.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, yes, we've been down this road before, and I still don't quite get why you seize upon the narrowest interpretation of my point in mounting what--I take it--you intend as a general rejection of my premise. I already conceded that maybe this particular kid isn't the best argument for gun control, since he could've used a knife or, yes, a Louisville Slugger to kill a sleeping woman. But suppose it had been a neighbor who irked him; for most methods of execution, he'd probably have to catch the person sleeping (which is not likely outdoors) or at least in an unguarded moment; that is not the case with a gun.

Can't you at least concede that a gun makes it easier to (a) kill people and (b) kill mass numbers of people? If that's not the case, then why not just issue cops Louisville Sluggers?

Elizabeth said...

Another round of blaming an inanimate object for the actions of the person wielding the object.

But Ron, with this one could say we are on to another round of "guns don't kill people, people kill people," no? ;)

You know, I get it. I do. And I'd say it almost sounds plausible if we were to forget that this inanimate object's one and only purpose is
to kill.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal: This is why at least in one sense I respect Barbra Streisand. She refused to have the surgery on her nose when they told her it might affect the timbre of her voice. I don't think she's much to look at, but she got the romantic leads anyway, and man, can the lady sing.

Jen said...

Hi, Steve! One thought that occurred to me is that there ought to be another word to describe the emotion a child feels toward his or her parent than "jealousy." When a person is jealous, it generally means someone has something (tangible or not) that he or she wants. When we're talking about a parent/child relationship, there is an added element: need. The child not only wants the parent's attention; the child needs this. Therefore it seems unfair to call a child jealous under these circumstances. I am not criticizing you or your use of the word. To my knowledge, there is not another word you could have used. All I'm saying is we ought to have another word, one that represents an appropriate expression of this need that characterizes the real relationship between parent and child and that differentiates it from other relationships.

Elizabeth said...

I'd bet that most guys would do her

OK, Ron et al, chalk it up to my struggles with American idioms (and/or my usual charming Monday self ;), but do her?

I realize this is part of the vernacular nowadays, but for the life of me cannot quite grasp the meaning and origin of the phrase. Do her? As in, she needs to be done? Strange.


Jen said...

P.S. I had a friend in high school who got a nose job. It might have made her feel better about herself, but to me she just didn't look like herself anymore. Never understood why she did it.

Good example you give of Barbra Streisand, and good for her! I think she is gorgeous, by the way. But you'd need to talk to my mother about my idea of beautiful. She likes to tell the story of how I used to rave about one of my elementary school teachers and how beautiful she was. One day, Mom met her and was shocked to discover she had a deformity in her eye and couldn't understand my use of the word "beautiful" to describe her. I guess we each have our definitions and we tend to abide by them.

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: We may each have our definitions, but I don't think we can deny that rightly or wrongly, perceptions of beauty do tend to resolve to cultural norms. I think that's what J. Aniston is pursuing--her sense of that norm. Which is kind of odd, to me, since millions of guys thought she was perfectly adorable before. What's really odd to me is all of the women going to great lengths to better resemble Angelina Jolie, who I find extremely far from pretty. Which shows you what I know.

Eliz: I'm sure you'd prefer "do her" to the alternatives.

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: We may each have our definitions, but I don't think we can deny that rightly or wrongly, perceptions of beauty do tend to resolve to cultural norms. I think that's what J. Aniston is pursuing--her sense of that norm. Which is kind of odd, to me, since millions of guys thought she was perfectly adorable before. What's really odd to me is all of the women going to great lengths to better resemble Angelina Jolie, who I find extremely far from pretty. Which shows you what I know.

Eliz: I'm sure you'd prefer "do her" to the alternatives.

Elizabeth said...

Which is kind of odd, to me, since millions of guys thought she was perfectly adorable before.

I agree with your points on Aniston, Jolie and Streisand, Steve, but have to add I that it is not about what millions of guys think, or even what guys think at all.

It's a common error that men make, thinking that women improve their appearance for them. Especially for millions of them. (Which brings me back to that NYT article, "What Women Want?," from a while back, discussing the narcissistic nature of female sexuality.)

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, I'd intended those as two separate thoughts--i.e. the notion that she keeps trying to "improve" her appearance, and the idea that many men "thought she was perfectly adorable before." My wife told me many, many years ago, "Women dress for other women." And women also take aim at certain "culturally induced" beauty targets that have nothing to do with the pursuit of a man. It's more the pursuit of a myth...

Elizabeth said...

Kathy was/is right. Women do dress/beautify themselves for other women, but I'd say even more so for themselves and the world in general (the "for themselves" aspect possibly most important). Being attractive to men is sorta a side effect (sorry, guys) -- a pleasant and desirable one, to be sure, but not the main goal of all those efforts.

That is, btw, one of the bones of contention between the sexes: men, collectively and individually, don't get this, even though they may grasp it on an intellectual level. So they bemoan her efforts at making herself more attractive as superfluous and/or expressions of her vanity, thinking and complaining along the lines, "If I find her attractive/beautiful/etc., why does she still need to fuss about it?"

But even though the guy's opinion matters (and it does), it's not of the primary importance here. By striving to attain those ideals of beauty -- or the myth, as you called it -- women do what women do -- fulfill their biological and social imperatives, somewhat (even if not totally) independently of male judgment.

[IOW, we, male and female humans, are doomed. ;)]

Anonymous said...

Remember Jennifer Grey from "Dirty Dancing"? She got her nose fixed and no one recognized her. I agree with Cal about Aniston. She is becoming generic to keep thos dufus parts, because she never went the serious actor route. I am a bigger Kate Winslet fan.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - I admit to overreacting somewhat, and to singling out one part of your post. Mea culpa. My only "defense" - if one is called for - is that I've too frequently seen incidents such as these become the rallying point for hysterical demands that steps be taken to cause the Second Amendment to be overturned. Having grown up in a culture where shooting sports were prevalent and greatly enjoyed, I do tend to react strongly when the freedom to engage in those sports is threatened, especially when the proposed "solution" to the problem will not solve the problem, and as history has shown, is often a precursor to grievous unintended consequences.

"Can't you at least concede that a gun makes it easier to (a) kill people and (b) kill mass numbers of people? If that's not the case, then why not just issue cops Louisville Sluggers?"

I will concede that a gun is a convenient tool with which to kill people, if that is what one is inclined to do. But do you honestly think that eliminating all guns beyond those used by law enforcement and the military is even remotely feasible? And do you honestly believe that eliminating the guns would stop people from killing each other? The reality is that people who choose to kill would merely find another tool. And there are plenty of such tools available, many of which are more efficient, less expensive, and easier to get. As to issuing cops baseball bats rather than guns, the UK has proved how well that worked out, even in a country where personal ownership of firearms is supposedly tightly regulated.

I actually agreed with the basic premise of your post, aside from the gun issue. The kid has problems, and those kind of problems need to be noted and addressed, preferably before a child does something drastic. More kids had access to guns when I was growing up than do now, yet there weren't many occurrences such as this one. I just think it would behoove us to look more closely at all the factors, and to address the most prominent among them, rather than the most politically expedient. Unfortunately, we seem to be more easily inspired to knee-jerk posturing than to looking honestly at - and taking appropriate measures to address - our problems. Putting an 11-year-old in prison (and training him to be a real criminal) and eliminating guns won't fix anything except the bottom line of companies who run the prisons.

And Elizabeth, you might be interested to know that VERY few people who own and shoot guns ever kill so much as a rabbit or squirrel. Tin cans, paper targets, and clay birds, yes. A much greater number of people who drink alcohol (whose primary function is to impair judgment) end up killing, but we know from experience how effective it is to deny access to booze.

As to "doing" Jen - I think the word is just shorthand for "doing It" with someone.

Anonymous said...

This is not about guns. A child choose to murder someone. This was not a crime of passion. But maybe that is for a court to decide. Tragic. 20+ years ago a 16 year old boy in my city murdered his family with an axe. These are problems that go much deeper than legislation against certain objects. However would anyone want a person that is willing to comit crimes like this left unsupervised?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: I think there's a lot of territory between "unsupervised" and "life in prison without parole." And having just finished a major magazine piece that looks at crime and punishment, I can tell you that in a fair number of cases, when dealing with juveniles who commit serious crimes, we simply lock them up and throw away the key. (Especially if they're poor and black.) And I'm asking: Do we really want to do that to 11-year-olds?

RevRon's Rants said...

"Do we really want to do that to 11-year-olds?"

In a word, no. On this, I think we can fully agree. Perhaps if parents were more cognizant of their kids' behavior (and the emotions behind that behavior), we wouldn't see a lot of the ugliness that can inspire folks to lock them up & throw away the key (which all-too-frequently represents the state-sanctioned surrogate for parents who have relegated their kids' upbringing to the TV and video games).

While it would be both inaccurate and unfair to lay blame for all kids' criminal behavior at the feet of their respective parents, I do believe that as a society of parents, we have grossly shirked our responsibilities to a society of kids. But I guess it's tough focusing on your* kids when so many other "matters of consequence" are vying for your attention.

* - I refer to the global "your," and am in no way casting aspersions on any individual.

Anonymous said...

RevRon, please let me understand this correctly, is it legal that an 11 year old has unsupervised access to a shotgun?

Its Londoner - so you know I don't know the Wild West rules. If so, then isn't it the father that should go to jail? If yes, then I think 11 year old should be allowed to drive or vote - they have the power of life and death anyway.

Finally, you're right about this being another round of blaming an inanimate object - shouldn't that be telling you something? Are you guys willing to die to uphold the 2nd ammendment?


RevRon's Rants said...

Hi Londoner - If a minor commits a crime with a firearm or accidentally injures another person with one, the parents are subject to prosecution for allowing the child unsupervised access. I happen to agree with that law.

My own kids grew up knowing that there were guns in the house (as did I), but they also knew that there were some fixed rules by which they had to abide. The "supervision" was in place, even when I wasn't there. As I'd said before, more kids had access to guns when I was growing up than do now, and we just didn't have the kind of problems we're seeing now. The guns themselves were obviously not the problem, despite what the anti-gun folks claim.

"Finally, you're right about this being another round of blaming an inanimate object - shouldn't that be telling you something?"

It tells me that our elected officials are willing to put politically expedience above common sense. Attempting to outlaw something that is as widespread as firearm ownership in this country is absolutely unworkable, and would only result in turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals if it were ever passed. The only people who would comply are those who aren't prone to committing crimes, anyway, and of those, only those who lack an understanding of the purpose of the 2nd Amendment. Then, the criminals would have a significant advantage over the law-abiding citizens.

"Are you guys willing to die to uphold the 2nd ammendment?"

I can only answer for myself, but my answer is yes, if it came to that. The Second Amendment is the last-ditch, failsafe protection that citizens have with which to protect all their other rights. Throughout history, far too many societies have fallen prey to dictators after the citizenry was disarmed. The amendment to our Constitution was added because our founders knew that it is foolish to place absolute trust in any government, even the one they established.

Fortunately, even the most liberal legislator knows that attempting to enact legislation banning private gun ownership would constitute political suicide. Sure, they will occasionally regulate specific firearms are at the center of some horrific news story, but that's as far as they'll ever go.

Ironically, the occasional posturing in favor of gun control only serves to increase the profits of gun dealers, who will scramble to obtain those guns before a ban takes effect, so they can sell them as "pre-ban" at grossly inflated prices. The posturing also serves to swell the membership (and bottom line) of groups like the NRA, who respond to the posturing with their own shrill "sky is falling" warnings. The guns remain available under the limited regulation that lawmakers are willing to recommend; they just get a lot more expensive.

Anonymous said...

RevRon, I'm gonna have to think about what you've said about the Second Amendment as I haven't thought about it from that perspective before. I grew up in Africa and the consequences of the populace having guns has lead to nothing but misery.

You have to understand - and its difficult for me to - that the world is not the same as it used to be when you grew up or when you raised your kids. Its changing at an astronomical rate and things have to change.

Why aren't they charging the father then?

Besides the point - I just randomly saw that Dr Phil is speaking to Octomom - I can't see the shows here in the UK - can you guys tell me how it went. I bet its going to be another Britney disaster for him.