By now almost everyone has heard about the three teenage young men who were “bored” and thought they just might amuse themselves by finding out what it’s like to “watch someone die.” So they got into a car and randomly targeted someone to kill. Their victim happened to be an Australian baseball player visiting the U.S., and the teens killed him in a “drive-by” shooting. Aside from providing yet another egregious example of the character crisis plaguing our society today, there are some important lessons that can be learned from this tragic event, that is, of course, if hearts and minds are open to to accepting the sobering realities.
I wish I could say that the attitudes and thinking that accompanied this senseless and barbaric act are rare. But in fact I’ve heard countless stories in the same vain from young hoodlums with mischief on their mind for the pure purpose of excitement. And I wish I could say that the attitudes and crazy sounding thinking that accompany such acts are merely the result of psychopathy – a character disturbance characterized by a marked incapacity to have empathy for others that many now think is largely biologically-based. Rather, the sad truth of it all is that I’ve literally come across thousands of individuals who never developed any of the qualities that make for good character, and most of them failed to develop those qualities not only because of their biological predispositions but also because of the extreme “poverty” of the cultural environment in which they were raised. Fortunately, some of these individuals, when able to access the right type of intervention and formative environment, eventually became socialized. Some of these individuals were even able to look back with some horror on the kind of persons they once were. But there were also those cases where biological predispositions were so strong and learning failures were so deep that socialization proved simply impossible. A sad, tragic reality with which we’re all being forced to reckon.
Aside from the tragedy itself, I’m also outraged by some of the reactions I’ve seen and heard on news programs. Some Australian officials thought it wise to warn potential tourists that given the cultural climate rampant in some sectors of American society, it might be “unsafe and unwise” to travel or vacation in the U.S. Predictably, political pundits in the U.S. argued that “guns” and the “gun culture” are the real problem and that to point the finger at our cultural norms as a problem or asserting that travel in some areas is unsafe is wrong. But I go on record to say emphatically that the critical voices in Australia have it absolutely right. To simply blame guns and to not be outraged by the mindset (e.g., entitlement, no empathy, mindless sensation-seeking, disregard for the value of life) that prompted the senseless murder of an innocent tourist is not only the epitome of denial but a stark reflection of some ideologues’ steadfast refusal to reckon with the defining social issue of our times. It seems self-evident that if someone is “bored” and unreservedly entertains the notion to kill someone for the pure excitement of the experience, the weapon they choose for their act is totally irrelevant to the shocking reality prompting their intended crime. And, as 12-step adherents have known for decades, the first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing clearly what it is and accepting that it’s there, which is something we simply haven’t done when it comes to addressing the reasons for the explosion of senseless violence in our society.
When I was in the early stages of formulating my perspective on character issues, I just happened to be blessed with an experience I have never forgotten. I was sitting in the back row of a “group meeting” at an inpatient psychiatric facility that primarily attempted to provide treatment and guidance to young persons with conduct problems. I maintained a low-profile in this meeting, observing for the most part, because some of my opinions were already becoming known and were not all that well received by the rest of the staff at that time (circumstances have dramatically changed since then!). I observed one young man flicking his finger against the ear of a young man in front of him, causing the other man to express irritation. Still, the ear-flicking continued for some time until the other man raised his fist in a sign of imminent retaliation. During the incident, I motioned to some of my colleagues to observe the event. One commented “John has ‘anger issues’ and we’re working on that in therapy.” Another said: “I’ve always thought John is struggling with depression and he ‘acts out’ his hurt by lashing out at others.” Sometime later, I sought out the “victim” and asked him about the incident. He commented: “Oh John does that kind of stuff all the time. We both do. When we’re bored, we’ll do almost anything to amuse ourselves. Sometimes we don’t do nice things. But it’s all part of the ‘game.’ I don’t mind it unless he goes to far, and then I let him know. And if the staff gets onto him for it, I’m really gonna be pissed.” I relayed this information to the staff at a team meeting, but it was completely disregarded. After all, the professionals knew best and had their informed perspectives to guide them! I remember it all vividly to this day. I also reflect sometimes on the fact that one of the young men, who got into some big trouble later on but ended up in one of the groups I’d fashioned at a juvenile facility eventually confronted his distorted thinking and problem attitudes and actually fashioned for himself an enviable character. He is a devoted husband and father now, and a responsible citizen. The other young man eventually went to prison where he still engages in reckless, aggressive thrill-seeking. I have both of these men and countless others to thank for teaching me so many important things about character development and its impediments.
As tragic as it is, it’s in some way fortuitous that this case came to light at a time in which I was planning a series on character development. In the next several blog posts, I’ll be exploring in depth what I refer to in my book Character Disturbance as the “Ten Commandments” of sound character development. We’ll be taking a look at the kind of life lessons that have to be learned (as well as the biological and environmental obstacles to learning those lessons) for individuals to function responsibly in society. And we’ll be discussing how today’s dominant culture and various sub-cultures foster or impede the development of sound character in our young persons.