Science: What makes a child a killer?

Young men pick up cues from a violent society and pose their own threat. How can we break the cycle?
Last week, two teenage boys bombed and shot at their own classmates in a school in Colorado, killing 12 students and their teacher. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold then committed suicide. These appalling events at Columbine High School, situated in the predominately white, middle-class town of Littleton, raise disturbing questions about the nature of violence. What turned two apparently ordinary boys, from affluent backgrounds, into ruthless killers?

An epidemic of violence among the young is sweeping America. Arrests have soared in the last few decades, gang membership increased by 50 per cent between 1989 and 1995, and the juvenile murder rate has more than doubled since the Eighties. One psychologist, Professor James Garbarino of Cornell University, has gone so far as to say that the US is in danger of losing a generation of young men to violence. He calls them the "lost boys".

Prof Garbarino, who is professor of human development at Cornell and a director of its Family Life Development Centre, has just finished a book of the same title in which he tries to unravel the factors that lead children to extreme aggression. His approach is to listen to individual cases as they are presented to him and attempt to understand what causes a child to become a potential killer.

"Sometimes as I listen to people talk about violent youth... it seems that few people really care about hurt little boys who have grown up to be violent teenagers. It is as if we want to forget how they got to be kids who kill in the first place," he says.

"Perhaps we feel that understanding them is unnecessary because punishment is the only issue, or perhaps we feel that an attempt to understand them is dangerous because it may excuse their actions."

Factors cited to explain why a child may kill include genetic inheritance, parental upbringing and the increasingly toxic nature of contemporary American society. "These boys fall victim to an unfortunate synchronicity between the demons inhabiting their own internal world and the corrupting influences of modern American culture: vicarious violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean-spirited competitiveness and spiritual emptiness," says Professor Garbarino.

The problem usually begins in early childhood. Over the last seven years, child abuse has doubled: 42 out of every 100,000 children are abused every year in the US. Many of the children Professor Garbarino talks to at his family centre were either abused or abandoned by one or both parents.

Boys often react to abandonment in two main ways, according to the Professor: they gradually lose the capacity to feel emotions, as well as externalising the pain, so that they attribute how they feel to the actions of others. They feel victimised, and deal with their distress through action, particularly violent action. The condition is known as "covert depression", since the sufferer fails to acknowledge his own feelings. Depression is a particular problem for violent boys. Professor Ronald Kessler, of Harvard Medical School, has shown that the rate of serious depression among American youth has risen from 2 per cent in 1960 to 25 per cent today.

Abuse and abandonment are crucial factors here, but one of the more controversial areas in psychology is the theory that criminals are born, not made. One programme begun in the Sixties showed that children who were aggressive at eight turned into 38-year-olds who hit family members, got into fights and drove aggressively. "This gives a developmental spin to road rage: it may start as `tricycle rage'," says Professor Garbarino. However, he argues that a combination of nature and nurture is the key. The very kind of environment a person grows up in will affect his genetic legacy. For example, a child growing up in a deprived area could be subject to poor nutrition and industrial carcinogens; a child with the same genetic make- up, in a middle-class area, may have the benefits of intra-uterine surgery or nutritional therapy for a genetic disorder. "Biologically based predispositions to violence translate into behaviour only when they occur in social situations that permit or encourage that."

A recent study by the psychologists Sarnoff Mednick and Elizabeth Kandel, conducted in the Netherlands, looked at children who had a slight physical defect, such as a misshapen head. This can indicate a underlying minor neurological disorder arising during pregnancy, which may lead to mental instability and learning disorders. Those children who grew up in stable families had no greater risk of being arrested for violent crimes by the time they were 21 than any other child; yet 70 per cent of those who were in unstable, troubled families had been arrested by the time they reached the age of 21.

Professor Garbarino whole-heartedly believes that being born difficult does not mean you will end up difficult. In his own words, he was a "cranky, troublesome, wilful and aggressive" child. He was saved by social circumstances, and by his teens he had become a model citizen. Although he was born on an urban American housing estate, it was not the war zone these have become in inner-city America today. His parents both cared for him; he lived in a safe area with no guns, drugs or gangs; television at the time was tame; and his teachers were supportive. The opposite is true of many children in America today.

It is not that people have changed; rather, the social milieu has altered. America, as Colorado has so aptly demonstrated, has become a gun culture, especially in the southern counties where nearly 50 per cent of households have guns. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia discovered that nearly a third of boys carry a lethal weapon with them, and 12.5 per cent carry a gun to school every day.

There are four basic reasons why children are drawn to guns, according to Professor Jeremy Shapiro and colleagues from Cleveland University. They need to be the type of person who reacts aggressively to shame: if someone insults you, you have to fight them. Secondly, gun-carrying children are not worried by other people possessing firearms; thirdly, guns excite them; and finally, they feel powerful and secure when in possession of a gun.

Coupled with easy access to guns is the pervasive spread of violence on TV. A typical American child can witness more images of death and destruction in films and television than a policemen or a soldier sees in a lifetime. The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a survey of TV violence and showed that nearly half the violent acts committed are perpetrated by the hero; more than two-thirds of the time the aggressor shows no remorse and receives no criticism or punishment. Though there is no simple correlation between screen violence and real violence, the APA states that the link between the two is as strong as the correlation between smoking and cancer.

In the absence of any change in attitude in the gun culture of America, where the National Rifle Association still holds huge influence, is there any hope for disaffected, violent youth? Professor Garbarino believes that some lost boys can be saved. He cites the example of one such boy, Malcolm, who is on death row. He has participated in drug-related kidnappings as a victim and perpetrator, has been fired at during drive-by shoot-ins and has been involved in them himself. He has committed armed robbery, committing murder for the first time at the age of 13; he has been scarred by beatings from his mother, his uncle, his stepfather, drug bosses, neighbourhood rivals and the police; and he lost his baby son after his heavily pregnant girlfriend was shot at. Garbarino remembers that when he gave Malcolm a book, the hard-boy image suddenly crumpled with emotion. "This is for me, really? Thanks, man. Nobody ever gave me a book before," he said, as a tear ran down his cheek. As the Professor says, "A single tear is a precious commodity in the emotional economy of boys like Malcolm."

`Lost Boys' by James Garbarino is to be published in May by Free Press

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