Michael J. Murphy, Ed.D.




When police arrived to break up a recent, loud student party at the University of New Hampshire they were not greeted with the usual, resigned crowd of kids trooping reluctantly back to dorms and apartments.  Rather, they found themselves full in the teeth of a hail of obscenities, bottles and physical resistance which rapidly developed into a genuine riot.

The president of the university, noting that such displays have been repeated on campuses throughout the country, reflected that students are arriving at college with little respect for authority.  Violent encounters with police are perceived, not as a significant violation of social norms, but rather as a new, fun form of amusement for young people.

A brief scan of recent news stories reveals the conviction of Edward O’Brien for a murder committed when he was fifteen, a sixteen year old from Mississippi who, upset at the loss of his girlfriend, murdered his mother, the girlfriend and another female student, the killing in New Hampshire of two young girls by two teenagers and a twenty year old, and an eleven year old 60 pound boy, selling candy door to door, raped and murdered by a fifteen year old neighbor.

Former education and drug czar William Bennett, in a recent book written with noted criminologist John DiIulio, asserts that the prison is replacing the family as a primary mode for socializing youth.  More and more young people are arriving at chronological adulthood with little understanding of obligations to community and nation.  DiIulio and Bennett anticipate a coming wave of “super-predators”, conscienceless, drug-motivated criminals, who will terrify our neighborhoods and fill our jails and prisons.

While rates of adult violent crime have plummeted, juvenile violence has skyrocketed during the past decade.  As adults have demonstrated an increased awareness of what is tolerable in our culture, young people seem to have missed the message. The dumbing-down of America has entered the moral sphere.

When young people in jail are asked if they feel badly about harming another human being, they often respond that they have never thought about it.  Human experience, particularly the human experience of others, passes by with all the depth of the glass on a 27 inch television screen.  Pain, joy, and remorse are as ephemeral and transitory as last night’s situation comedy.

When we seek a reason for the vacancy where a conscience used to be we can blame television, fatherlessness, the ceaseless drive for material advancement, the easy availability of mind-altering drugs in every fifth grade classroom, the elevation of the false-hero culture of professional athletics.  More and more children are afraid and more children are becoming numb to fear.  A child who lives in a dangerous world is a child who is developing contempt for adults’ ability to protect him, or her.  The stone hurled by a half-drunk college student is directed at a target that is, to him, both nebulous and negligible – the world of adult responsibility.

The ability to restrain an impulse, to just say no to the expanding urge to harm another human being, is born in connectedness to others, in ordinary shared daily spiritual and emotional community, a repeated experience of closeness that, whether it comes on the football field or the chapel, helps to define the target of the stone as a real live person just like you.

When the Mississippi teen-ager wounded six others after murdering his ex-girlfriend and an acquaintance, he was heard to apologize to one of his victims of his rampage, saying he “wasn’t shooting anyone in particular.”

Impulsive violence often happens when we lose the ability, or the willingness, to identify the particular; we harm others when human experience is glossed over into a nameless, shapeless malleable mass that can be formed to fit our transient psychological needs.

Courage, on the other hand, is always shown in the identification of the particular; a loving uncle’s unchanging character, a tree with a density and firmness that never alters, a child’s face that looks, right here, right now, with the open loving gaze of undiluted hope.

I cannot help but think that the youthful shooters and stabbers and burners, and all the shooters and stabbers and burners to come, do not feel connected to that which they seek to destroy.  The object of the rageful impulse has no stable particularity and exists only as a target for a fragile, infuriated self.

Which means that the damaged human heart is not to be healed in prison, or the psychiatric hospital, or the detox center.  It is the magic of ten thousand samples of human touch that is missing, the countless, random contacts that make the other person real, the loving contact that was first found, in the past, only in the community of the family.

And, the news is telling us, once found to be missing, it is not easily replaced.