ATLANTA — Atlanta. I overheard a chilling conversation on the subway the other day. It involved two teen-aged boys. They were 14 or 15 years old, maybe 16 at the most.
One youngster was telling the other about an argument he had had over a basketball. It seemed the brother of one of his friends thought the ball was the one he had lost, and was demanding that it be handed over.
''At first, he was acting like he just wouldn't give it up,'' the boy said. ''I almost had to pull out my gun. I hate to have to shoot somebody over a basketball, but that's the way it is.''
''I know what you mean,'' the other boy said.
OK. So this might have been merely the macho bragging that boys have been doing for generations.
But the way I remember it from way back when, guys tried to impress each other by expressing a willingness to use their fists. Are there really now kids who believe pulling a gun is the purest demonstration of manhood? If so, that is chilling.
It also is horrifying and tragic, and based on what's going on across the country, it is not isolated thinking among segments of America's young.
According to the Kids Count Data Book put out recently by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the rate of violent death among teens in the United States increased by 12 percent between 1984 and 1988.
A report last year by the National Center for Health Statistics said that homicide was the leading cause of death among black males between ages 15 and 19, and that 80 percent of those homicides were committed with guns.
Various explanations have been offered for the increasing carnage among our children. Drugs and the drug trade have been blamed, especially after attention-getting drive-by shootings and other drug-turf battles that leave innocent children dead in the crossfire.
But police departments across the country also report that they see more and more cases of children killing children, and for less and less motive.
Kids have died in arguments over jewelry, shoes, jackets and, no doubt, basketballs.
Grass-roots outcries have arisen over these crimes, particularly in the poor, inner-city communities where they are most prevalent. Punish these young killers more severely, the demand goes, make them take responsibility for their acts.
I can understand such demands, but I fear they obscure a larger issue. It is how our society sends out messages, major and minor, that mold the minds of these young people and influence their actions.
What must these children think when the nations of the world wage war over their differences and decide that matters can best be settled by ever-increasing cycles of violence?
What must they think when our politicians bow to pressure and continue to make the most lethal weapons easily available by perpetuating this country's insanely lax gun laws?
What must they think when the Georgia Legislature refuses to ban corporal punishment from the state's schools, and lawmakers rise to extol the virtues of a good whipping as the best means of making children do the right thing?
I think they might get the message that they are growing up in a society that doesn't see violence as the problem. It all too often sees it as the solution.
John Head is an editorial writer for The Atlanta Constitution.