Male factor in violence needs to be addressed

March 28, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

Birmingham, Ala. Sept. 15, 1963. Four little girls.

It was 35 years ago that Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. Denise McNair, only 11 years old, and three Sunday school classmates -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14 -- were killed. All decent Americans were shocked, outraged and heartbroken by the act.

Jonesboro, Ark. March 24, 1998. Four little girls.

It was nearly a week ago that two boys sprayed a hail of bullets into their classmates and teachers outside Westside Middle School. Brittany Varner, only 11 years old, and her schoolmates -- Natalie Brooks, Paige Ann Herring and Stephanie Johnson, all 12 -- were killed, along with one extremely brave teacher, Shannon Wright.

The similarities between Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, and Jonesboro on March 24, 1998, are striking: the same number of girls killed, one 11 years old and the other three older and all the same age. There are some obvious differences, of course. The Jonesboro victims were killed by two juveniles run amok in an act of idiotic and horrible violence. The Birmingham victims were killed by grown men dedicated to preserving segregation and who routinely used violence as a weapon of state-sanctioned terror against blacks.

The Birmingham bombing led Americans to re-examine their attitudes about race. The Jonesboro shootings -- coming on the heels of similar incidents in Pearl, Miss., and Paducah, Ky. -- have renewed an already heated debate on exactly how tough we should be on juvenile crime. Should the accused in the Jonesboro case -- 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden -- be tried and treated as juveniles or adults?

Liberals and conservatives will debate that issue well into the next century, all the while ignoring the essential question about violence in America and elsewhere: Why is it overwhelmingly a male phenomenon? Once that question is asked, we face another one just as vexing: What do we do about it?

We won't come to grips with the second question until we've faced the first. And we haven't. A few writers have pointed out that the historical roots of American violence lie in the South, that the tradition of American violence is essentially a male, Southern one. But, amid all the outrage and sorrow that accompanied the Jonesboro and Pearl and Paducah shooting sprees, no one has pointed out -- or asked why -- all three occurred in the South.

The 1963 Birmingham bombing that killed four little girls was not the first in that city. Bombings -- mainly directed at civil rights leaders and activists -- had gone on for so long and happened so frequently that Birmingham was nicknamed "Bombingham." Men placed the bomb that leveled the 16th Street Baptist Church. One, according to Spike Lee's documentary "Four Little Girls," stood nearby after the bombing, gleefully watching the chaos and destruction he had wrought.

Men being who they are, the American tradition of violence did not stay in the South. The four-day Chicago "race" riot of 1919 that left 38 people dead, more than 500 injured and about 1,000 homeless was, in essence, a male riot. The participants -- white and black -- were males ranging in age from 15 to 22.

Try convincing someone that the 1919 Chicago race riot was essentially a male riot and you'll get looks of confusion or derision. America's main problem, we've all convinced ourselves, race. Male violence is at best a side issue and at worst a red herring.

That's our delusion. Try convincing the parents of those four little XTC girls in Jonesboro, or the parents, husband or child of teacher Shannon Wright that male violence is not a serious problem in America.

Solving the riddle of male violence in America may be as simple as randomly lobotomizing boys at birth, I used to joke to myself. I'm starting to see less humor in the joke now. We all know the dreadful statistics about violent juvenile crime and its relationship to males between the ages of 14 and 24. We know some -- thank heavens, not many -- boys will be prone to violent acts as they approach the age of 14. How to prevent them from committing such acts remains an enigma.

A friend once asked me how long it took me to get over Sept. 15, 1963. I told her I haven't yet. I'll never get over March 24, 1998, either.

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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