THE TROUBLING story of the Lovett boys of Oaklyn, N.J., evokes themes of victims and revenge familiar in Baltimore from last summer's furor over the Dontee Stokes case.
Fortunately, no one got hurt as 18-year-old Matthew Lovett and his two younger compatriots began to execute their plan July 6, allegedly to avenge the years of teasing he and his younger brother, James -- who has a speech impediment caused by a cleft palate -- had been subject to. Matthew Lovett was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in what police called a Columbine-style plot. They allegedly were armed with rifles, shotguns, handguns, knives, swords and 2,000 rounds of ammunition.
But the case of the Lovett boys raises questions that go beyond whether those who are teased relentlessly and abusively have a right to retaliation or whether the teasers pushed their victims to the breaking point and therefore brought the Lovetts' revenge on themselves.
The Lovett case highlights the need to invite all of our young people into higher standards of civility, connection and responsibility and to maintain those standards for ourselves. Teasing can and must be stopped, and children who are teased can be taught simple techniques for rebuffing it long before resorting to violence.
Our hearts bleed for the downtrodden, motherless Lovett boys -- partially disabled, inevitably traumatized, largely shunned and obviously troubled. Yet for all the Matthew Lovetts who are driven to take the law and morality into their own hands to avenge their victimization or reclaim family honor, there are others who reach in for what remains strong in themselves rather than for what's wrong.
These survivors realize living well can be the best revenge, so they seek to reclaim a different destiny for themselves, one in which they are not psychologically colonized by stories of perpetual victimhood.
Although many young criminals are alienated and mentally ill, many children tell us they feel disconnected and depressed because they are being raised by a "second family" of peers and the mass media since so many families are either single-parent households or have both parents working. Children yearn for connection in their immediate and extended families, and if that isn't available, they turn to each other and to their computers.
We wonder whether the Lovett boys ever came to the professional attention of caseworkers or counselors. But even if they didn't, and such an explosive outcome suggests they were most likely undertreated, any observant adult could have invited them into conversation around four main themes of preference and possibility:
The Past. What kind of male (and female) role models did they have? What lessons did they learn, what do they want to repeat and what would they like to do differently? Where did they learn how to be boys, and men?
The Lovetts' father, Ron, presents an ambivalent influence. He worked to keep the boys as a single father after the death of their mother and has immediately called for treatment for his incarcerated son. Yet he maintained an "extensive" collection of firearms at home -- often a very bad temptation for troubled teen-agers -- and had left his sons alone while he spent the weekend at the Jersey shore.
The Present. What kind of young men are they now? The quirky geeks who conform to the twisted expectations of their tormentors? Or can their difficulties inspire even harder work to portray more preferred views of themselves? What do they want to live their lives toward, not just against?
The Future. The toughest young men often rethink their revenge fantasies when asked about the legacy they wish to leave. How do they hope to be remembered in the future?
The Tombstone. If the legacy question doesn't invite more hopeful conversations, asking how they might like their tombstone to read can have a powerful impact. Even the most hardened criminals have told me they hope for more than just a graffiti tag on the wall of an abandoned building.
Matthew Lovett might consider that were he to go out in a blaze of glory, it would simply confirm his cruel tormentors' view of him and his brother as deranged, defective and doomed. Even the most powerless, who fantasize the most about power, don't want to continue to give this power away to their oppressors.
Matthew Lovett must be held accountable for his actions, and be offered treatment for his traumas and troubles, because to let him go would be to let his tormentors off, too.
Dan Buccino is a Baltimore psychotherapist who is on the clinical faculties of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.