Kip Kinkel’s two closest friends, Tony McCown and Nick Hiaasen, were walking onto Springfield, Oregon’s Thurston High School campus at about five minutes to eight on the morning of May 21st when a group of boys came running out through the double doors of the main entrance, shouting at the two freshmen to turn and run.
“These were guys we call ‘cowboys,'” Tony explained, “little hicks who are always hootin’ and hollerin’. Anyway, they came bursting outside that morning yelling, ‘You guys, run! Kip’s in there with a gun!’ We’re, like, laughing at them: ‘Get out of here, you guys.’ Then we saw that they looked honestly scared. But we still didn’t believe them. We thought they were just acting.”
Tony and Nick were less certain a moment later, when they saw several cars peeling out of the school parking lot. “It was parents who had just driven their kids to school,” Tony recalled. “We hear all these squealing tires and people shouting. Then we see these seniors, big old guys, running out to their cars, and we know something must be going on.”
The two boys turned around and headed back toward Nick’s house, just a couple of blocks from the school. “But we still really didn’t take it seriously,” Tony said. “The first thing that hit my mind was, ‘Well, at least we got an excuse for not coming to school.’
“But then just about the time we get back to Nick’s house, we start hearing the sirens. And we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not fake. Something’s really going on.’ Then we look at each other and go, ‘They said it was Kip.'”
Just minutes earlier, a school security camera at Thurston had caught several frames of Kip entering the school from the north parking lot, where he had left his dead parents’ Ford Explorer. The video detected no sign of the .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle the boy held concealed under a long tan trench coat, or of the two pistols tucked into the waistband of his black cargo pants.
Unnoticed, Kip strode down a breezeway toward Thurston’s social center, the school lunchroom, where around 400 students had gathered during the last minutes before the bell for first period sounded. Before reaching the cafeteria, Kip encountered a sixteen-year-old named Ben Walker, whom he knew slightly. “We’d always given Ben and his girlfriend a hard time for kissing in the hall,” Tony recalled. “Like, ‘Get a room.'” Just a few feet from Ben, Kip pulled the rifle out from under his trench coat and shot the boy once in the head. Kip kept walking, then saw a boy he didn’t know, Ryan Atteberry, and fired at him also, hitting Ryan in his right cheek.
Moments later, Kip put the rifle back under his coat and stepped into the cafeteria. Several kids who saw him come in through the side door thought it was odd that he would be back on campus; most students knew he had been suspended the day before, after a loaded pistol was seized from his school locker. Also strange was the way Kip looked. He was a little guy, just five feet five inches and 125 pounds, with red hair, freckles and a smooth baby face that normally gave him the appearance of someone even younger than a fifteen-year-old freshman. That day, though, Kip “looked bigger,” one girl remembered. “I thought he was an adult at first.”
Kip was barely through the door when he pulled the rifle out from under his trench coat again and “just started blazing,” as one of the kids nearest to him described it, methodically firing off each of the remaining forty-eight shots in his fifty-round clip. “He just kept walking toward us with a blank look on his face,” one girl recalled, “shooting and shooting.”
Several students who saw Kip with the gun, holding the stock against his hip and swiveling it from side to side, thought he was part of a skit connected to the school elections. A lot of the kids in the cafeteria, however, including many who were shot, never saw either Kip or his gun.
Many students thought the popping sound they heard was being made by firecrackers. A girl named Melissa Taylor told friends later that she thought somebody was shooting a paint-ball gun. When she felt a sting on her shoulder, then turned and saw a red stain, Melissa said, “I thought, ‘Man, that guy ruined my shirt.'”
Kyle Howes and his girlfriend, Melissa Femrite, both sixteen-year-old sophomores, were standing at the snack bar while she tried to persuade him to buy a bagel for breakfast instead of Starburst candy. Melissa heard the popping noises and turned to look, expecting to see smoke from a string of firecrackers. Instead she saw a boy with a gun. When Kip whirled toward the snack bar, Melissa dropped to the floor, but as she did she felt a sting in her right elbow. Looking down at the floor, she saw her own blood and realized, “This is real.” Kyle was still standing when the first bullet hit his left leg. A second bullet hit his right shin before the boy could move. Then he ran stiff-legged toward the nearest exit. Passing through the double doors, he dropped to the floor and waited for help.
The cafeteria was a madhouse by then: As bullets shattered the big plate-glass windows along the far wall, screaming students ran frantically for the exit leading outside into the courtyard, dived under tables or sought cover behind the fallen bodies of other kids.
Kip, meanwhile, kept firing away. “He put his foot on the back of one kid and shot him four times,” a classmate named David Willis remembered. “His face was casual, like it was something he did every day.”
More than twenty students had been shot by the time Kip approached the spot where seventeen-year-old Mikael Nickolauson had dropped to the floor, hit in the calf. Mikael was just lying there, clutching his wounded leg, as Kip walked up to him, placed the muzzle of the rifle against the back of the boy’s head and fired a bullet into his brain.
Mikael’s friend Ryan Crowley was next to him, watching his friend die, as Kip turned, put the rifle in Ryan’s face and pulled the trigger on an empty chamber, the last of his fifty rounds expended.
Ryan flailed at Kip’s face as the boy reached for the 9 mm Glock in his waistband. Jake Ryker had just been hit in the chest and was lying nearby. Nearly a foot taller and almost a hundred pounds heavier than Kip, he pushed himself up off the floor and lunged at the smaller boy, knocking him down, but not before Kip got off a shot with the pistol that tore a piece from Jake’s finger. As Kip struggled to his feet, half a dozen other boys rushed him. Adam Walburger caught the hand holding the Glock and pinned it behind Kip’s back. As he went down again, Kip reached for the .22 semiautomatic pistol that was still in his waistband. Boys reached for the gun from every direction; someone knocked it out of Kip’s hands and sent it skidding across the linoleum until a substitute teacher who had rushed into the cafeteria trapped it flat against the floor.
By then Kip was buried beneath the bodies of four or five boys. “Just shoot me,” he told them. “Shoot me now.”
Chaos spread through the community at about the same rate that communication did. Most of the roughly 900 Thurston students who were not in the cafeteria at that moment were stunned when the voice of their vice principal came over the intercom shouting, “Shots have been fired! Everybody go to the closest room!”
Fourteen-year-old Krystina Sacrison was at the coffee cart on the south side of the school. “At first I thought it was some sort of a drill or something,” she said. “But he kept saying it: ‘Shots have been fired! Shots have been fired!’ And I looked out into the hallway, and everybody was running and screaming.”
Krystina ran to her first-period classroom and asked a friend what was happening. “Summer said that Kip shot a whole bunch of people,” she remembered. “I didn’t believe her at first, because I didn’t think he would ever do something like that.” Just that morning, Krystina recalled, she and another friend had been talking about Kip’s getting caught the day before with a gun at school. “I was saying, ‘Why would he bring a gun to school? He wouldn’t shoot anybody.’ And Ginger said she didn’t think he would, either.”
Megan Wymore, a freshman, was still on her way to school when the shootings occurred, and she had the same reaction later. “It seemed like something that someone who was in more, like, trouble would do,” she explained. “Something more of a bad kid would do.”
No Thurston student had a harder time believing it was Kip than Tony McCown: “After Nick and I called our parents to say we were OK, we called Kip at his house. ‘Cause we’re like, ‘It wasn’t Kip, was it? It couldn’t be.’ But there was no answer. So then we were really worried. I said that maybe he and his dad had gone somewhere so he wouldn’t be alone all day.” When Nick and Tony turned on the radio, they heard a report that the shooter was a boy who had been suspended the day before. “And then I knew it was Kip,” Tony said. “I was just in a daze.”
In Thurston’s classrooms, “the teachers told everybody to get in the back of the room and turn off the lights and pull the curtains on the windows,” Krystina Sacrison remembered. “Because they thought that whoever shot everybody was loose and might go by.”
“The wave of panic that swept through this community, it was just overwhelming,” recalled Debbie Wymore, who was with her daughter Megan in the school’s parking lot at about 8:45 that morning when Thurston principal Larry Bentz waded into the group of anguished parents. He carried a small sheet of paper with a list of twenty-three names on it. As he began to read aloud from the list, the name of each injured student drew shrieks and wails from the crowd of parents. Women fainted. Men stood sobbing uncontrollably.
“My God!” one woman screamed above the noise of the crowd. “This can’t be happening.”
The scene outside the school was terrible, yet deeply moving, Debbie Wymore recalled: “I was standing by this one dad when a reporter came up and said, ‘I see you found your son.’ And the dad says, ‘I couldn’t find him, but he found me.’ This kid is this big, tall kid, but the dad grabbed him by the neck and they were hugging and kissing. I bet they hadn’t hugged and kissed in years. There were so many stories like that.”
Most of the stories told in the parking lot that morning, though, were tales of horror. Kids who had watched Kip shoot Mikael Nickolauson in the head sobbed and vomited as they described it to other students. The mother of the boy who had been dating Debbie Wymore’s oldest daughter, Faith, wore a desperate expression as she made her way through the crowd, searching in vain for her own daughter. The girl was found nearly an hour after the shooting had ended, still hiding in a corner of the cafeteria, crouched with her head between her knees. “She was pulling out her own hair as they led her down the hallway,” Debbie remembered, “sobbing and shaking.”
Tony McCown walked back to Thurston High at about ten that morning “to look at the list.” “I wanted to see who Kip had shot,” Tony said. “I was shocked by how many names there were. Somebody said it was a compiled list of people who were shot and people who were trampled trying to get away. So I was thinking, like, ‘Maybe only a few of these people were shot, and the rest were run over or something.'”
All the names on the list, however, were those of students who had been hit by bullets. Mikael Nickolauson was pronounced dead at the scene. Ben Walker would die that evening. Tony Case and Teresa Miltonberger were each in critical condition; doctors doubted the girl would make it.
Kip Kinkel was uninjured and in custody at the Springfield Police Department. Though he was, in the words of Springfield Police Capt. Jerry Smith, “very calm” at the time of his arrest, Kip was not so subdued as he appeared to be. The officer assigned to question him locked the boy in an interview room, then left for a moment to secure his pistol. By the time the officer returned, Kip, small and flexible, had wriggled his cuffed hands to the front of his body and was holding a Buck knife that had been taped to his leg. Kip lunged and tried to stab the man as he re-entered the room, barely missing before being disabled with pepper spray.
After searching Kip for other weapons, officers locked him in a holding cell. The boy went into a rage, officers later would tell Tony McCown, screaming at the top of his lungs and karate-kicking the walls. Kip spent himself within ten minutes, though, and was ready to cooperate by the time Capt. Smith sat down to interrogate him. That afternoon, Kip agreed to go back to Thurston High and be videotaped as he walked the police step by step from the spot where he had parked his parents’ Explorer to the cafeteria, pantomiming the motions of aim-and-shoot as he described in detail each movement he had made that morning.
The bodies of Bill and Faith Kinkel were found in separate rooms of their home at about 9:30 A.M. Horrifying as the murder scene must have been, police were far more alarmed by a series of discoveries they made shortly thereafter.
Alerted to Kip’s fascination with explosives, officers immediately inspected and searched his room. In Kip’s closet police found a live bomb constructed from three soda cans, set with a “hobby fuse” that worked off a flashlight battery. Moments later, they discovered the bomb Kip had built into a fire extinguisher and equipped with a digital timer. This explosive carried a charge large enough to cause “collateral damage to the neighborhood,” Lane County Sheriff Jan Clements said, explaining his decision to order the evacuation of fifteen nearby houses.
Fearing at this point that Kip might have wired the house with booby traps, police delayed removal of the bodies while bomb squads searched the Kinkel home. During the next twenty-four hours, officers made one startling discovery after another. In the attic of the house, they found an assortment of fireworks that had been cut open in order to remove and collect the explosives inside; with them was a collection of vinyl pipes attached to electronic circuits and fuses. Eventually, police cut a small hole into the side of the house beneath the porch and deck; in the crawl space under the floor they found two small, crude pipe bombs, then a six-inch cube of white, chalky powder wired with batteries and a kitchen timer.
One by one, the devices were disarmed with small disrupter blasts as the search continued. Faith Kinkel’s body would not be removed from the house until Friday afternoon, more than twenty-four hours after it was found. Another bomb was discovered only moments later, however, and police postponed the removal of Bill Kinkel’s decomposing corpse in order to continue their search. It was not until Friday night, more than forty-eight hours after his death, that Bill’s body finally was carried out of the house. By then, a total of twenty devices had been discovered.
Some of these bombs were very sophisticated, Sheriff Clements told the media, suggesting that the boy who had made them must be quite intelligent. “What’s remarkable,” the stunned sheriff said, “is hooking all this up to a fifteen-year-old.”
Kip looked more like twelve when he appeared in court on Friday morning to be charged with four counts of aggravated murder. Wearing a loose black University of Oregon sweat shirt that covered the body armor he had on underneath, the boy shuffled into the courtroom, shackled hand and foot, staring at the floor with an expression that managed to seem at once meek and sullen.
He spoke only two words, answering “yes” in a soft voice when the judge asked whether his name was spelled right and whether his date of birth was August 30th, 1982.
Sitting in the second row of spectator seats was a man named John Walley, whose son Jesse had been shot in the stomach the day before. He had seen a boy “with nothing unusual about him,” Walley told reporters after the brief proceeding. “That’s the scary thing — he just looked like a kid. There’s no sense to this. And there’s not going to be.”
By then the public recriminations already had commenced. The big question was why Kip Kinkel hadn’t been locked up — at least overnight — after his arrest at Thurston High for possession of a loaded gun on school grounds. Police and juvenile authorities denied reports that Bill Kinkel had asked on Wednesday afternoon that his son be held at the Skipworth Juvenile Detention Center, in Eugene, and Springfield Police Chief Bill DeForrest rejected accusations that his department had been “robotic.” “There was no probable cause to believe that there was any imminent danger to Kip or others,” DeForrest said. “The police department was in custody of the gun, and he wasn’t going to get it back.”
But as one Thurston student after another began to tell reporters of all the dreadful things Kip had talked about doing, from torturing animals to setting off a bomb during an assembly to accumulating firepower for the day he finally started killing people, the pointing finger turned toward school officials.
Thurston principal Larry Bentz came to the defense of both his school and his community. “This is a good place,” he told reporters. “I don’t think it’s a stigma on our community. It’s a statement about a poor kid with a tortured soul.”
Then Springfield school superintendent Jamon Kent, confronted by story after story of the terrible things Kip had said at school, retorted that none of the students who’d heard such statements had ever brought them to the attention of teachers or administrators. Some of Kip’s most outlandish “statements,” however, had been made in the presence of at least two Thurston teachers during the course of oral presentations in class.
The teachers were not as quick to come forward and defend themselves as county and city officials had been, perhaps because their message was one that few people wanted to hear: They hadn’t reacted with greater alarm to Kip’s malevolent remarks because a lot of kids at the same school — and at schools all across the country — were saying things that were every bit as unsettling.
During the last two weeks of the school year, a panic-driven wave of juvenile arrests and school suspensions spread across Oregon and into adjacent states like some sort of infectious disease that produced symptoms at once horrific and absurd: In Grants Pass, a fifteen-year-old boy was arrested for threatening to kill two classmates and claiming he had enough explosives to blow up the whole school. In the town of Lebanon, a twelve-year-old was suspended from school while police investigators tried to determine what charges were appropriate for “allegedly making threatening remarks and machine-gun-like sounds.” In Vancouver, Washington, a six-year-old boy was suspended from school after another kid reported that he had bragged he was going to bring a gun to school. “Paranoia,” the boy’s father said. The suspension was strict, allowed the school district’s assistant superintendent, “but in today’s world there are issues that are scary for us.”
The arrival of June and the start of summer vacation were perhaps never more welcomed by Americans than in 1998; there wouldn’t be any more school shootings until at least September. The academic year had ended in a quasicomic climax triggered by a pair of pranks played by teenagers at opposite ends of the country. In Oregon, two boys were arrested for menacing after they pointed toy pistols at a school bus. At Exeter High School, in Exeter, New Hampshire, fifty-two senior boys were disciplined for squirting underclassmen with Super Soakers during lunch.
Like most of our overreactions, the crackdown on kids who brandished cap pistols and squirt guns only served to further blur the fuzzy line that separates causes from effects in American culture. The truth was that no one knew for sure what was happening — let alone why — in this society where the only cycle of life you can count on is the one that turns the unthinkable into the commonplace. One of the first of the multiple-victim school shootings by white teenagers in rural communities or small towns that have so wounded the national psyche in the past two and a half years took place in February 1996, in the farm town of Moses Lake, Washington. The killer was a fourteen-year-old honor student named Barry Loukaitis who strode into math class one day and shot two students, then fired a bullet into his teacher’s back. “Sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” Barry asked as he stood over a boy who was choking to death on his own blood.
Like nearly every one of the young killers who came after him, Loukaitis was a depressed boy of above-average intelligence, who suffered an inferiority complex and was enthralled by violent images from film or television. The next to follow this pattern, almost exactly a year after the shootings in Moses Lake, was sixteen-year-old Evan Ramsey, who walked into his high school in Bethel, Alaska, and used a twelve-gauge shotgun to kill a popular athlete. Then he shot and wounded two other students, before stalking and killing the school’s principal. More shocking was the shooting at Mississippi’s Pearl High School in October 1997. After stabbing his mother to death, sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham drove to school, found the girl who had broken up with him a year earlier and fired a bullet through her heart. He then shot eight more students, killing one. “I knew what I was doing,” he told the police immediately after the shootings. “I was just pissed at the time.”
Two months later to the day, four-teen-year-old, five-foot-two-inch Michael Carneal strolled into Heath High School, in West Paducah, Kentucky, and used a Ruger .22 semiautomatic pistol stolen from a neighbor’s garage to open fire on a prayer group that gathered each morning in a school hallway; he killed three and wounded five. Prior to the shootings, his most violent act had involved blowing sugary powder from a Pixy stick into a girl’s hair during a trip to Indiana on the band bus.
Arkansas was the next state hit. Two weeks after the shootings in Kentucky, a fourteen-year-old boy was arrested for a sniper attack outside a school in the small town of Stamps that left two wounded.
Then on March 24th came the shootings in Jonesboro, which set a new national standard for shock value. It was the age of the killers in this case — thirteen-year-old Mitchell Johnson and eleven-year-old Andrew Golden — combined with the level of planning that went into their massacre that people across the country found so frightening. As they pulled into the woods near Westside Middle School that morning, the two boys were driving a van belonging to Mitchell’s parents. Inside were three high-powered hunting rifles, seven handguns, two crossbows, a machete, eight knives and a huge cache of ammunition. Also in the van were a Dr. Seuss book and a pink stuffed bunny. Most of the guns had been stolen minutes earlier from a house owned by Andrew’s grandfather.
Skinny Andrew walked into the school and pulled a fire alarm while chubby Mitchell set up a sniper position. By the time children came rushing outside, Andrew was also ready and waiting with a rifle. No more than a minute after the two boys began firing, four sixth-grade girls and a teacher lay dying; ten other children had been wounded.
After Jonesboro, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these ghastly episodes was that people had ceased being amazed by them. The shootings that took place during late April and mid-May at schools in Pennsylvania and Tennessee barely made headlines in other parts of the country, because in each instance only a single person was killed.
By this point, the array of theories being offered in the media to explain such spasms of ultra violence had become almost as overwhelming as news coverage of the actual events. Any flash of insight that surfaced was almost instantly obscured by a competing opinion. Like virtually all public discussion in this wretched era of sound bites and talking heads, the subject of school shootings swiftly became absorbed into a process of polarization.
From the right, of course, came calls for tougher laws against juvenile offenders, led by demands for passage of the Violent Youth Predator Act, which has been kicking around Congress since 1996. It’s a bill that would, among other things, permit children to be housed with adult prisoners.
Liberals argued that this latest crime scare was nothing more than media hype and noted that the murder rate in the U.S. had fallen in 1997 for a fifth consecutive year. But that information was hardly reassuring for those who knew that the rate of juvenile homicide in this country is still twice what it was in the 1980s.
Bill Clinton, naturally, has tried to have it both ways. In his Saturday radio address two days after the shootings in Springfield, the president simultaneously put the blame on a culture that “desensitizes our children to violence,” and urged passage of his own juvenile-crime bill. Like the Republicans’, Clinton’s bill calls for treating more juvenile offenders as adults but also for spending more money on prevention programs.
The debate about appropriate punishment for the violent young seems misplaced. Kip Kinkel, if convicted, faces life in prison without possibility of parole. Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson face shorter sentences — they’ll be released from custody no later than their twenty-first birthdays. But more to the point, there isn’t a shred of evidence that any of these boys knew or cared what the penalty for their crimes would be.
The issue of gun control has been similarly buried beneath the bombast of the right and the pieties of the left. Objectivity in this instance is a double bind, however, because the only position more ridiculous than the one held by liberals who maintain that guns are the main cause of violent crime in America is the one staked out by conservatives who insist that guns are not the problem at all but actually part of the solution.
After the school shootings in Arkansas and Oregon, gun-control advocates rallied behind the Children’s Gun Violence Prevention Act, a new bill introduced in Congress by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that would impose criminal penalties on adults who let children get their hands on loaded firearms. The National Rifle Association immediately voiced its opposition, complaining that a law like this one could prevent gun owners from protecting themselves in an emergency.
The NRA was enjoying an unusual degree of media attention at the time, due in large part to the election of Charlton Heston as the organization’s new president. At the group’s annual convention in June, however, the biggest public relations coup was not Heston but rather an appearance by young Jake Ryker and his family. Immediately after the shootings at Thurston High, Jake was hailed across the country as a hero who had saved any number of lives by tackling Kip Kinkel in the school cafeteria that morning. But the media’s romance with him cooled rather quickly after his father, Rob Ryker, showed up at a news conference wearing an NRA cap. He wanted “to make a point about where I stand on the issue,” Ryker senior (an NRA “life member”) explained. “I’m pro-guns. This event doesn’t change how I feel about it.”
At the NRA convention, members lobbied Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to support an “experiment” that would test the group’s theories of crime control: Along with vigorously prosecuting gun-related crimes, imposing harsher sentences, eliminating releases on bail and refusing to plea bargain, the NRA leadership explained, encouraging more law-abiding citizens to own guns would vastly reduce violent crime in this country.
How many firearms, though, do Americans need? There are already roughly nine guns for every ten of us, and another 4 million are manufactured for civilian use each year. Just about anybody can get a gun in America today, including juvenile offenders and convicted felons, who avoid such obstacles as waiting periods and criminal-background checks by shopping at gun shows.
Having noted all of the above, however, I found it difficult to disagree when Rob Ryker accused “the liberals and the media” of blaming guns and gun owners for school shootings when “the real problem is the way kids have been acting lately.” The reality most adults refuse to face is that whatever it is we need to do about the kids has to start with us.
There’s more than a little evidence that concern among older Americans about where our society is headed has turned into an undeclared war on adolescents. Public discussion of what we owe our children has taken on an increasingly angry, punitive and dismissive tone. And it isn’t the glassy-eyed, stone-hearted products of abuse and neglect who most frighten and outrage adults these days, but rather the middle-class kids who are “spoiled, nasty, misbehaving and off-the-wall bad,” as the conservative columnist Georgie Anne Geyer has put it.
In Oregon, funds for virtually every extracurricular activity, from sports and music to drama and dance, have been slashed, while more money for prisons is made available each year. It’s a pattern that’s being repeated in states across the country. Nearly all of the kids killed in multiple school shootings since 1996 came from small suburban and rural communities. Watching the myth of sylvan innocence go down in a blaze of gunfire has been a profoundly discouraging experience. There are no safe places left.
Perhaps even scarier is that these “crazy murders,” as social scientist Charles Patrick Ewing calls them, have no obvious motive. Americans at the end of the twentieth century live in the wealthiest society in the history of humanity, at a time when the economy is booming, when we have more than we’ve ever had before, and yet our children seem to be the most damaged and disturbed generation the country has ever produced.
A psychiatrist who examined Barry Loukaitis put it this way to the New York Times: “One of the things that we’re seeing in the population at large is that all the mood disorders are happening earlier and earlier. The incidence of depression and suicide has gone way up among young people.”
It’s true. Suicide rates among young Americans have increased steadily for forty years, leveling off recently at their all-time highs. The National Institute of Mental Health says that more than 1.5 million Americans under the age of fifteen are seriously depressed. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry claims the number may be twice as high.
The same “experts” who can tell us that, however, have a considerably more difficult time explaining why. The most promising area of study for those who want to avoid personal responsibility seems to be brain chemistry. Some studies have suggested that children with low arousal in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain behind the forehead) may seek stimulation by engaging in violent activity. But the evidence produced so far is not nearly significant enough to serve as a sweeping explanation for youth violence.
A lot of people want to believe that science can solve the problems of parenting. How else to explain the huge number of our young that we Americans medicate? The hundreds of thousands of children in this country who are on Ritalin is a subject that has been much discussed in the media. Only after it was reported that Kip Kinkel had been on Prozac, however, did reporters from the mainstream media begin to look at kids who are taking “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” or SSRIs, as such mood-altering drugs are called by the medical establishment.
SSRIs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for adult use only, but in 1997 doctors prescribed them to more than 200,000 children under the age of twelve and to another 700,000 kids between thirteen and eighteen. Studies have shown that people taking Prozac tend to be less aggressive and irritable than people who aren’t (whether they’re also less themselves remains an open question). But the issue that could be a central one at Kip Kinkel’s criminal trial has to do with whether people who go off Prozac become even more irritable and aggressive than they were prior to taking the drug. And the answer so far seems to be that no one knows.
When medicine fails to deliver, we turn to softer sciences. The American Psychological Association, in its “Violence and Youth” report, identifies four contributing factors that propel juveniles toward violence: (1) early involvement with drugs and alcohol; (2) easy access to weapons, especially handguns; (3) association with anti-social, deviant peer groups; and (4) pervasive exposure to violence in the media.
While the first three of these probably pertain to many but certainly not every kid in the country, the fourth indicator cited in the APA report is more problematic. The media’s influence on young people is arguably the most corrosive of all the factors cited and by far the most difficult to contain.
After the shootings in Springfield, columnists for the Portland and Eugene newspapers trotted out the now-familiar numbers: the 8,000 onscreen murders that the average American child will witness before finishing elementary school; the 106 deaths in Rambo 3 and the 264 in Die Hard 2, et cetera. But it isn’t the amount of violence in films, it’s the quality of it: the way onscreen killing is presented, the way it’s at once glamorized and trivialized. No intelligent person believes that the overwhelmingly graphic depictions of violent death in Saving Private Ryan are going to inspire maniacs of any age to rush out and start slaughtering people. There’s a considerable body of anecdotal evidence, however, to support the belief that movies like Natural Born Killers have influenced any number of young killers. Barry Loukaitis had told a friend, for example, that it would be “cool” to go on a murder spree like the one in Oliver Stone’s movie.
“We have movie role models showing violence as fun, and video games where you kill and get rewarded for killing,” observes Sissela Bok, author of a book (Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment) on the effects of violence in the media. Also, “A lot of violent movies blur the lines between good guys and the bad guys, and make a hero of anyone who fights,” points out Harvard Medical Center’s Alvin Poussaint. Even more troubling, Poussaint adds, is that “children now say in a proud voice that the violence doesn’t upset them, as if that’s part of growing up.”
Television is the medium that reaches into more young lives than any other, and perhaps the most compelling indictment of TV’s role in the perpetuation of violence comes from a scholar who has only recently begun to address the subject directly. In 1996, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army Ranger and psychology professor at West Point, published a book titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which challenges conventional assumptions about how men behave in war and deal with taking another human’s life. Before the advent of long-range weapons, Grossman explains, “battles were basically big shoving matches. These guys would face each other, threatening and shouting, pushing and cursing, until one side got afraid, turned and ran.” Human beings, like every other species, have a natural resistance to killing their own, Grossman maintains, citing studies of Civil War battlefields that suggest no more than fifteen to twenty percent of soldiers were firing their rifles at the enemy. It was a pattern that held, Grossman says, until the start of World War II, when “the top brass of the U.S. Army decided, ‘We have to change that.'”
The military increased the capacity of American soldiers to kill by instituting a four-part conditioning program. First, recruits were “traumatized and brutalized” in boot camp. “They were told, ‘We live in a violent world, and the only way to adapt is to become violent,'” Grossman explains. Second, soldiers were taught to laugh and cheer in response to violence. The third “and probably most significant” change the military made was to replace the fixed bull’s-eye targets on its marksmanship ranges with human silhouettes. “This was to get the recruits to aim and shoot without thinking,” Grossman says. “It became a purely reflexive response.” Finally, the recruits were given “warrior role models” — their drill instructors — who convinced them that killing the enemy was a noble act.
The success of the military’s new conditioning program was beyond the expectations of even those who designed it: By the time of the Vietnam War, the “fire rate” of U.S. soldiers had increased from twenty to ninety-five percent.
Only after his book came out, Grossman recalls, did he begin to realize that “this process I had described is exactly what we’re doing to our children through the mediums we use to entertain them.”
The effect of video games struck him first, after he agreed to testify for the defense at the trial of a South Carolina teenager who had shot a store clerk between the eyes while six cameras recorded the killing: “They asked why he shot this man, and all he could say was, ‘It was an accident.’ I realized it was true, that I was looking at a new breed of criminal in this country who has been conditioned to kill from a very early age. I started to watch kids playing point-and-shoot video games and realized that for a dollar or two they were getting the same training, at a much younger age, as we give Army recruits and police officers.
“Then I started to look at television and I realized that it was providing steps one, two and four of the conditioning process. It traumatizes and brutalizes kids with images of violence. Only this isn’t an eighteen-year-old just off the bus but a two-year-old whose brain is not cognitively developed enough to distinguish fantasy from reality.
“TV not only teaches kids to laugh and cheer in response to violence, it also teaches them to associate it with their favorite candy bar or soft drink. And it’s certainly giving them lots of role models who kill the bad guys.”
The recent slight drop in the U.S. murder rate has been largely illusory, Grossman says. People tend to forget that crime is committed mostly by the young and that we have a rapidly aging population. Also, since 1970, the number of U.S. citizens who are behind bars has increased fourfold. “Medical technology is the main reason you can’t use the murder rate as a measure of violent crime,” Grossman explains. “If we still had 1940s medical techniques, the murder rate in New York City would be ten times what it is today. If you want to look at a category of crime, you have to look at aggravated assaults. And since 1957, when exposure to television first began to reach its saturation point, the per-capita rate of aggravated assault in this country has increased sevenfold.”
It’s not just here, Grossman adds: TV came a little later to Canada, but in the last twenty-five years the aggravated-assault rate in that country has increased fivefold. In Australia and New Zealand, the rate has gone up fivefold, as well, and in just fifteen years.
“What we know — and it’s been proven beyond dispute — is that television is a greater factor in this increased degree of violence in our society than all other factors combined,” Grossman says. “And that includes broken homes and abuse and neglect and all those sorts of things. The data linking TV viewing to violent behavior is three times better than the data linking tobacco and cancer.”
Grossman scoffs at those who say the data are inconclusive. “Of all the studies that have been done, just under a thousand have found evidence of a link between TV violence and real violence. Just eighteen have found no link, and twelve of those were funded by the TV industry.”
Grossman was summoned by the federal government to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro barely an hour after the shootings there to counsel the school’s teachers. When word of his presence got out, just about every newsmagazine in the country contacted him to appear on camera. “As soon as they heard where I was coming from, they didn’t want me anymore,” he recalls. “Not if I was going to say TV was the problem.”
“I met only one TV producer who would be honest with me,” Grossman continues. “This was a guy from CBS who had just come back from Bosnia. He sat with me in my living room, and I could tell he was really embarrassed to tell me they couldn’t use me. Finally he admitted, ‘Look, our own in-house people have told us what you’re saying. We know it’s true. I can tell you this: My own two-year-old daughter will never see TV until she’s old enough to read.'”
“Apparently,” Grossman adds, “he doesn’t care what he does to somebody else’s two-year-old daughter.”
Grossman isn’t advocating censorship, he hastens to explain: “What I’m asking for is education. The networks should run ads that tell people to keep their kids away from television until the age of at least five or six, until they’ve learned to read.”
Given the power of television as an industry, it would appear that Grossman has picked a fight he cannot win. But he’s found a group of unlikely allies in a national organization of trial lawyers who are preparing to file product-liability lawsuits against the TV networks, much like the ones that have been filed against the tobacco companies. “Now, I’d be the first to say we have too many lawyers in this country and that they’re like sharks swimming around in a barrel,” Grossman admits. “But they’re also the only hope we have of reaching the networks, because they can hit them where they feel it: in the wallet.”
For the time being, the only lesson we seem to be learning from the Kip Kinkels and the Mitchell Johnsons and the Andrew Goldens among us is that we can live with almost anything. “Killing your parents, going to school and shooting everybody, is an idea we’ve accepted,” Springfield resident Berry Kessinger told me shortly after Kip’s arraignment. “It’s on the screen. I think there will be many more of these things, and that they’ll get worse. Because the idea is out there. You don’t have to think it up — it’s available, ready-made.”
As a longtime friend of Bill Kinkel’s, a teacher himself for nearly thirty years and the father of three grown children, Kessinger had some credibility. He was tired of talking to reporters at that point, though, and spoke to me only after learning that I was the father of two young children, a twin son and daughter who had celebrated their first birthday on the morning after the shootings at Thurston High.
“I don’t envy you,” Kessinger told me.
Back in the early 1960s, when he was a student at South Eugene High, Kessinger said, “probably ninety to ninety-five percent of the kids were ‘good kids.’ They went to class and believed in trying to treat people and institutions with respect. Maybe two percent were the ones who hung out, skipped school, got in trouble.
“Today, sixty to sixty-five percent of the kids are in trouble, and maybe forty percent at most are ‘good kids.’ And they’re good only because they are real careful about who they hang out with. Seeing how careful these kids have to be to stay out of trouble really gets to you.
“In my day, it was hard to find a bad influence. Today, it’s hard to find a good influence, and the good influences that are out there, they’re very careful to protect themselves. It’s not just that we seem to be getting worse and worse, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be any end to it.
“By the time your kids are fifteen or sixteen,” Kessinger said, “the percentage of good kids could be down to five or ten percent. Sorry to be so discouraging, but I really believe that.”
“I really don’t,” I told him, then admitted a moment later, “At least, I really don’t want to.”
Perhaps the most unexpected and certainly the most uplifting aspect of what happened in Springfield during the days and weeks after the shootings in Thurston High’s cafeteria was how deeply Kip Kinkel’s rampage served to bond not just the community but the entire country. People found the consolation of connection on a scale as large as CNN’s live broadcast of Ben Walker’s funeral and as small as the social environment in Thurston High’s hallways. “Before, there were some snotty people among the most popular and preppy,” Megan Wymore would observe shortly after classes at the school resumed. “But now you see the, like, really popular people come up to the, like, nerds, and just hug ’em and stuff.”
Megan’s mother believed that what had happened to the people in their town would last: “I can just see it in their eyes,” Debbie said. “At the fence you could see people stop, really stop, and think about life and about loving each other.”
“The fence” is a stretch of chain-link and steel posts that runs along the edge of Thurston High’s school grounds, put up originally to keep deer off campus but more recently intended as a barrier against drug dealers. In the days after the shootings, it was transformed again, this time into a sort of holy shrine, plastered with dozens of prayers, poems and homemade posters, and adorned with thousands of flowers, ribbons and religious symbols. “The Mending Fence” it was called now.
Like a lot of his schoolmates, Tony McCown “was just sort of living at the fence” during the days immediately after the shootings. “The first time I went, there was, like, one cross and two bouquets of flowers,” Tony recalled, “and within twelve hours half that fence was filled up, and then within another day or two that whole main fence was filled up, and then after three days they started to cover the other fence, and then it just kept expanding. It was amazing. It was like, ‘I can’t believe one of my friends caused this.’ I mean, the deaths and the injuries are painful, but what he did also caused everybody to pull together in a way I never would have believed was possible. It’s the worst and the best thing that’s ever happened here.”
On the day after the school shootings, flags flew at half-staff on all state buildings, and Oregonians offered to donate blood at a record rate. Buildings all over Springfield bore the blue ribbons of the “Let It End Here” campaign started by the city’s firefighters. Banks and credit unions set up funds to aid the victims; grocery stores and pizza parlors donated shares of their proceeds.
It was all so moving that I barely blinked when the Oregonian printed the advice of a psychiatrist who wanted parents to know that they should be concerned if their kids were starting fires, torturing animals or mutilating themselves.
No matter how ludicrously obvious their remarks or clichéd their symbols, it was impossible not to be touched by the efforts people made and by their deep desire to help. After a while, though, watching it all became a sort of dilemma, an experience of almost unbearable tension between what the heart felt and what the mind knew.
The most disconcerting moment of my time in Springfield took place shortly after what a lot of people felt was the most moving event of the ten-day mourning period that followed the shootings — the “Community Gathering for Hope and Healing” at Thurston High. The emotional climax of the evening had come when a local anchorman and devout Christian named Rick Dancer made a speech about the need to forgive that ended with a call to extend absolution even to Kip Kinkel.
“People were weeping and sobbing and hugging each other all around me,” Debbie Wymore recalled as I sat in her living room one morning a couple of days later. Suddenly Debbie’s daughter Megan, along with Krystina Sacrison and Rocky Montgomery, 15, began to tell me that they didn’t hold any hatred of Kip in their hearts, and that they really wanted him to get the help he needs. I asked Kip’s classmates how it was that they understood what he had done. All three sat silent for a few moments, thinking. Then Rocky said, “He made a bad decision.” The two girls immediately chimed in. “Yeah, he made a bad decision,” Megan said. “A bad decision,” Krystina agreed.
I sat stunned for a moment, then said, “What Kip did was shoot his father in the back of the head, then wait for his mother to come home, then kill her, too, then spend the night in the house with his parents’ dead bodies, then drive their car to school the next morning, then walk into the cafeteria carrying three guns, then shoot twenty-four kids. Somehow ‘bad decision’ doesn’t quite cover that for me.”
All three kids looked at me with confused expressions. Finally Rocky said, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
Tony McCown had thought of it that way, he said, but, nearly a month after the shootings, he still couldn’t bring himself to visualize what had taken place inside the Kinkel house back on May 20th. “I can’t comprehend that the Kip I knew could do this,” Tony explained. “It’s not a reality.”
At Kip’s trial, where either mental illness or “extreme emotional distress” will likely be the defense, Tony is certain to be called as a key witness. It has been a comfort to Kip’s best friend that even the detectives who interview him seem more confused by Kip than angry at him.
Tony was in the courtroom for Kip’s arraignment on the morning of June 16th, standing in the back right corner “up on my toes, as high as I could get, hoping he would see me” as his friend was led before the bench wearing ankle chains and body armor under his white polo shirt and khaki pants.
Also in court that morning was one of the kids who had been in the Thurston cafeteria, seventeen-year-old Nichole Buckholtz, who told reporters afterward that she was reassured to see Kip looking so “helpless”: “It was really comforting to know he is not as big and bad as he was in my dreams,” she explained. The girl’s mother, though, seemed to have exactly the opposite reaction to Kip’s baby face and diminutive stature: “I don’t know how he could do those terrible things,” the woman said through tears. “What goes wrong with these kids? You think killer, you think somebody big and bad and mean. He’s just a kid.”
Kip never showed a sign that he recognized anyone in the courtroom. Tony insisted that his friend had seemed “remorseful.” “He looked normal,” Tony said, “but like he was feeling really bad about what he did.”
About a week earlier, Tony had written Kip a letter. “I told him I was praying for him, and that I still care about him and he’s still my friend. And that I’d like to get in and see him as soon as possible.”