“Bored” Teens with Murder on their Minds

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.

31 thoughts on ““Bored” Teens with Murder on their Minds

  1. For sure America is dealing with unaddressed cultural dysfunctions. At the same time America’s gun laws make it too easy for people with undeveloped good character to utilize for when they do act out. It’s a lot easier to kill people and in mass with a gun which is distance based and mechanized than it would be for example a kitchen knife readily available to all. This should be intuitively obvious.

    Australia where this young man who was killed recently here in the states enacted gun laws of their own that since has stopped mass shootings over there. So effective gun laws do work. But your right it not the root of the issue. That is why the dysfunctions of our culture need to be addressed. But as you have already pointed out not everyone can develop good character even with intervention that is why sensible gun laws have to be included in America’s plan to curb violence.

    I’d be curious to know how you think the government should act to address cultural issues. You cited poverty which most people would agree has a negative effect but there are places in the world were people are impoverished and not only do not commit violent crimes so much but even can find happiness in the mist of their problems.

    Ultimately such problems are a spiritual one. When I say spiritual I do not mean religious when much violence has been committed in the name of religious dogma. When I say spiritual I mean both the connection one makes with the divine and his/her creation I.e. creation, as well as ones own personal self actualization.

    Now there are elements that an individual can incorporate with what I just said and still develop good character enough not to commit violence as spiritual development is an ever evolving process.

    Some might say the government could do nothing to influence culture for the better than it is up to the individuals collectively to do so. And to some degree they’d be right. But think just how much money America wastes on just it’s military alone which is the most expensive in the entire world. This has less to do with protection that it has to do with corruption and money but that’s another story. But again think if America put its money into programs for developing children like boys and girls club and grants for schooling, etc, how much of an effect that would have. If people could be paid to be outreach coordinators for wholesome programs what effect that might have? My ideas are still undeveloped about this issue and could be refined further but my intuition says this is the right direction on the governmental level.

    Of course we can ever continue as citizens to try and effect each other for the better. That will always continue.

    1. I don’t know about the governmental things, but this post of yours sounds very well-thought-out, Paolo.

      It does ring true that investing in activities that include socializing and otherwise being in touch with other people can really raise the awareness of how important socialization is. Sure, even amongst us more socially proper, not everyone is necessarily going to care about others. I’m not saying all such persons, who don’t care about others, would be schizoids, although some can be. I’m not saying, either, that most of us would care first and foremost for ourselves(otherwise less people would address troubling realities). What I’m getting at is the trap that people can fall into, thinking how some things has nothing to do with them and shouldn’t bother them. That trap is indifference. Isn’t indifference a huge enabling factor in passively creating and worsening problems?

    2. Very thoughtful and insightful comments, Paolo. I agree with a whole lot of what you say here. And once I’ve formulated my thoughts a bit better, I’ll address further some of the issues you raise.

    3. Okay. I’m a bit more prepared to address these issues more fully.

      America’s gun laws do make it “easier” for underdeveloped characters to behave irresponsibly (notice, I didn’t say “act out” because the rampant misuse of that term is my most ardent pet peeve) and to do a lot more damage than they might do with a lesser weapon. But then, of course, all the materials necessary to make a “pressure cooker bomb” and wreak even more havoc are even more readily available. And we could debate endlessly the fact that lawbreakers are never deterred in gaining access to materials they want (e.g., drugs, weapons, etc.) just because their are restrictive laws on the books. But my two biggest problems with focusing time and or attention to the weapons issue is that it so totally ignores the real problem. And, as always, the first step in tackling a problem is admitting and accepting what the problem is. Easy access to destructive materials is a risk-enhancer. Poverty and despair are risk factors also. None of these is the cause. And America puts more money not only into education but also into various social programs than does any other advanced society. And that’s just taxpayer money and not all the efforts by charitable institutions, churches, and foundations. But again, the problem is the same because merely spending money to reduce environmental risk factors doesn’t adequately address the character-development impoverishment problem. Addressing that has to happen at the most fundamental levels of family and community.

      One of the most fundamental paradigm shifts in psychology has been the cognitive-behavioral revolution. At its core, the perspective focuses on the inextricable relationship between thinking patterns and attitudes (not “professed” attitudes and beliefs but actually deeply-held ones) and behavior. Family and community efforts need to target both the distorted thinking that leads to problem behavior as well as the behaviors that enable and reinforce problematic attitudes and beliefs. And just “educating” or “preaching” about such things won’t cut it either. Only holding folks accountable will. The laws of behavior are relatively simple and hard to debate unless you’re full of prejudice. There’s so much dysfunction out there because the “cost” of it to the dysfunction perpetrators is relatively low in our permissive, relativistic society, and the “benefits” of instant gratification always seem to them to outweigh the cost of unreliable and definitely not immediate consequence. That – in a nutshell – is the perfect “formula” for social dysfunction.

      The biggest obstacle to even beginning down the road we inevitably must go down is the difficulty we face having a truly open and honest discussion about these issues (given everyone’s political “prejudices”). With enough pain, hopefully, that will change.

  2. Dr Simon, you’ve talked a lot about how traditional psychological perspective have the erroneous assumption that everyone’s personality is basically constructed of defenses against cold, cruel world.

    However, haven’t traditional psychoanalytic perspectives, for instance Freud and Jung, also addressed the existence of radical evil?

    1. Yes, they have. And while some of their musings on the topic are nearly poetic in character, they couldn’t be more off-base. Freud, of course, viewed everyone, including antisocial, narcissistic, and psychopathic individuals as dealing with fears and insecurities, and most especially anxiety that raged because of conflicts between their primal urges (their “id”) and their conscience (superego). That, of course, assumed that they had a conscience to engender the anxiety. And, as always, he thought that they unconsciously used the more “primitive” neurotic ego defense mechanisms of denial, projection, splitting, etc., to mediate that anxiety. Jung, added a very interesting concept in that he believed that when people tried way too hard to be good, thus overly repressing their baser instincts, their “shadow” or darker and repressed side of their personality was liable to bust out from time to time and do horrible things. All the psychodynamically-oriented theorists had some aspects of their frameworks that had some degree of validity for some of the more neurotic personalities. And they all overgeneralized the principles they thought they’d discovered, conceptualizing EVERYONE as neurotic, and the very, very, very, neurotic (whose “defenses” finally broke down under the weight of extreme neurosis) as psychotic. None of them accounted very well for the realities we now now underlie character (notice I didn’t say “personality”) disturbance. Admittedly, the above summary is a bit of an oversimplification but you have the gist of it.

      1. What I don’t understand about the whole OVER blown self esteem topic is this:
        If their self esteem is real then why do the act so over the top about it? It seems to me that people who genuinely feel good about themselves and their accomplishments don’t need to put on such a show about it. OR is that just because they have the character development that balances and tempers the “I’m all that and a bag of chips” attitude and have earned self respect because of who they ARE vs overblown self esteem about what they can DO and what they HAVE?

        1. Would you be asking this question about any other personality trait? For example, would you wonder why some people go beyond the normal degree of conscientiousness many of us have and get so darned obsessive-compulsive about things and then speculate that it must be because underneath it all they’re an incompetent, disorganized mess? Or would you speculate that someone whose penchant for physical aggression and abuse goes far beyond the normal person’s temptation to strangle their misbehaving children must be struggling with feelings that they’re completely inadequate in setting limits? I’ve never understood what it is about the self-esteem issue that gets folks to buy into traditional notions so easily. Remember, as absurd as it sounds to us now, Freud also thought that his female patients (most of his patients were female) and who suffered from bizarre conversion disorders, and who reported traumatizing episodes of disturbing contact of a sexual nature with their fathers were (as opposed to probably being victims of abuse) simply incapable of reckoning with their unconscious feelings of lust toward their parents. We laugh at such notions if someone proposed them these days, but when it comes to the self-esteem issue and the classical explanations for ego inflation, well……And just as you ask, many have speculated about all the all the dysfunctional and hard to understand behaviors: “why else would they do it?” And if you have about thirty years to spare, I could start listing the hundreds of possibilities. I think that it’s precisely because the old paradigms provide at least a plausible-sounding explanation and help reduce our cognitive dissonance that they’ve persisted so long, despite their inaccuracy.

          1. Yes……cognitive dissonance,,,,,,,,,,I’d really like to have that reduced if you please!!
            I just seemingly can’t stop chewing on this!!
            Oh Dr. Simon………I’ve never before in my life wished I could turn back the hands of time and wish this all away. This has seemingly forever changed me and I miss the way I used to be before this. That might be what bothers me most, the loss of my ignorance about these types of people. It really does feel like a nightmare I can’t wake up from. Perhaps a sign of my own disorders or disfunction.

          2. The urge to “keep chewing” on the issue and reduce dissonance is quite similar to what happens with some trauma survivors. And, it’s natural to feel like you “can’t” end the nightmare. But in fact, though difficult, you can, especially if you heavily reinforce yourself for internalizing the lessons and moving on in a more assertive, enlightened, and empowered way than ever before.

        2. Self-esteem is overblown in some folks who do not compartmentalize. They are competent in one area and they assume they’re “all that” in every area.

          Recovering from a relationship with such a person, the victim, too, mus re-learn (or learn for the first time) to compartmentalize. They “messed up” in one area of their life, (and probably many relationships) but it does not mean they’re incompetent in every area.

          (Another gem from the Pressman book.)

          1. That’s a great comment there, Claire, looking at this thought distortion, over generalization, from different angles.

            Albert Ellis pointed out this thought distortion along with many others, when it comes to folks with neurosis, in his rational emotive behavior therapy. Dr Simon has discovered the long-ignored character disordered side of the thinking distortion equation(just a colorful term I came up with on the spur of the moment).

    2. What I was getting at was the existence of radical evil. It’s a different perspective, of course, the Jungian one, but I feel it does relate to how some people allow it to manifest in themselves.

      1. J,,,,,,,maybe it’s like a muscle,,,,,,,,if you exercise and use the muscle it becomes stronger, if you don’t it grows weak and atrophies. Since we are all human beings with free will, we all have the choice to either exercise our bad muscles or our good muscles. I think the CA, malignant narcissist, Spath, Evil, etc have chosen to develop their bad muscles and at some point have actually been encouraged, sometimes covertly, do do so. it benefitted them in SOME way and they went with it. At a certain point, the bad muscle becomes so strong and dominant and the good muscle has become SO weak that there is just very little chance of turning it around, especially if using the bad muscles is being reinforced and encouraged in some way.
        What do you think?

      2. That’s an interesting analogue.

        What amazes me is that the existence of radical evil has been acknowledged, but many traditional-minded psychologists still miss that some people are evil.

  3. J, I think the word “evil” is confusing……..to me anyhow. It labels the person rather than the behavior the person chooses to develop and maintain AND, in a sense, makes it sound like their behavior is beyond their control because they are EVIL.
    I think I lean more towards my above assessment……that they choose “evil” behavior, attitudes, etc.
    From the book People Of The Lie, this is an interesting definition of evil:
    “At one point I defined evil as “The exercise of political power-that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion-in order to avoid……spiritual growth.”

    I see that the word “will” is a key ingredient here. “Will” translates into actions. “Free will” is the ability to CHOOSE your actions……..for good or bad, selfish or the benifit of someone else, right or wrong. Strong willed people bow to no one, many times to their own undoing. It IS a pathological determination to have one’s own way no mater the cost to others and even yourself. The term “cut your nose off to spite your face” comes to mind here.
    Right now I’m more hurt, more angry, more confused, etc…..than i have ever been in my life and I would be lying to say that there isn’t a part of me that has entertained thoughts of revenge. I have been done wrong in more ways than i care to put into writing and FEEL justified at getting him back for the damage he has done heartlessly. BUT….because i know that i would be stooping to his level and I KNOW that it’s the wrong thing to do, I am able to reign in that desire and impose my will on my actions to not “go there”. It’s difficult at times and I have spent time trying to think my way around it but it always comes back to the same place…..HE is a low life POS and I am not. I can’t justify what I would have to do to feel vindicated. I have to suck it up and try try try to swallow a very bitter pill. To not do so would be to sacrifice my true values and it’s not worth it.

    I hope that made sense! It felt like a bit of a ramble……maybe thinking out loud.

    1. Is it really sucking it up? Perhaps you simply haven’t gotten yourself back together. Really, in life, there are many ways to go wrong and no certain ways to go right.

      Also, thank you for your answer to my question about evil. Perhaps some evil miss the factor of free will from the equation. Okay, some people may have become evil honestly(in other words, they’ve simply developed that way and know no better way), but others just know there are better ways and still choose to be evil, because they think being nasty and vicious is the best.

      1. J, I personally think that we all have the potential for good or bad and it’s a constant choice which path we take. I have impulses to get even with Spathtard in some way that is not violent but I don’t choose to act on those impulses. I don’t ALLOW myself to go down that road. Some wisdom helps me choose the right path, like knowing that even if I did act on my desires for revenge or getting even, it would come back on me in several ways. The most important way it would come back on me is how i feel about myself and knowing that I betrayed my values. However, I DO have a belief that he will pay in some way……I do believe that he is creating his own Hell in the way he chooses to live his life and treat other people. When his mother dies, he is going to be on his own unless he can milk his sisters into taking him on. From what i have seen of him in my experience and obviously my experience couldn’t have been THAT different then his 3 exwives…….he will never be able to make a woman feel loved and safe.

  4. J, I am definitely not “back together”! LOL!!
    When I say suck it up i mean that I have to let it go with no retaliation. I would never ever ever hurt someone physically but I do have many male friends who at my request would jump at the chance to teach this POS a lesson by publicly calling him out and verbally dressing him down to the point where he goes crawling home to mommy to get hi dirty diapers changed.
    I DO have people in my life that care about me and who have known me for over half an adult life time. They HATE what he has done to me and can’t believe how much it has hurt me and affected me. Out of character for me. I was talking with one of my male friends yesterday as a matter of fact and he started to become irritated with me that I was not entirely over this until I spelled more of it out to him and by the end of the conversation he was ready to get in the car and come here. He didn’t understand the mental damage this has done to me on top of the emotional heart break.
    I KNOW what would make me feel better because I know myself and it’s a constant battle to not do what would make me feel vindicated. He is very lucky that this didn’t all go down in an area where I’m actually from or an area where I have long time steadfast friends. I wouldn’t doubt one bit that this was part of the risk calculation from the beginning.
    In spite of the fact that I have not lived here all that long and have friends but not “good friends” I even had people offer to confront him. Guys KNOW what other guys do, why they do it, etc and a guy who doesn’t stoop to the low life tactics Spathtardx did/ does has very little respect for someone like him, um, dare I say NO respect. People like Spathtard give decent guys a bad name.
    I’m venting J,,,,,,,,can you tell??

    1. Sure. I see the words “suck it up” as questionable myself. Except isn’t the aim of sharing the assistance in healing process?

      1. Thanks for saying. Too many thoughts crammed into one post/paragraph, I see. That’s usually when anyone has trouble understanding me. I clarify.

        First I commented that “Sure”, I can tell you’re venting.

        Then further about the words “suck it up”. I think sucking it up doesn’t really help. If we always just suck it up, just swallow it, doesn’t it encourage us to take a hit after another, be less ready to do what’s necessary to build our life and enhance it in positive ways and stand. We ought not to think of swallowing it, because it implies we are left stewing with another person having few to no effects on them and walking away like nothing happened. Which leads us to the topic of selecting battles.

        There’s another thought I want to remark alongside this empowerment tool Dr Simon has given us. If we think we are supposed to just swallow it, it makes us feeling like we betrayed ourselves, didn’t do something we were supposed to, and may even lead us to later do something we regret. We mustn’t forgive or forget just anything. When we feel some nasty feeling that previously we thought we were just supposed to swallow, we know it really means we don’t view just anything as acceptable.

        1. J, Thanks for clarifying your thoughts! I see where you are coming from now.
          I don’t know how to respond because I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place. I have these feelings that don’t seem to deminish. I hurt more deeply than I can describe. I don’t understand why, even though I don’t know a lot of things FOR SURE POSITIVE, I know enough to know that Spath or no Spath (and my money at this point is on Spath), he was not treating me right. I believed who knows how many lies and built my feelings (that he was perfectly aware I had) on nothing more than a liar loser.
          I have certainly batted an eye but I feel chained to this now. He took a dump in my mind, in my heart, in my body and in my home and left it there. I just honestly don’t know how to be rid of it.
          I have been through break ups before, doomed relationships before……..nothing compares to this. Not the level I invested my heart, not the level of manipulation, deception, disrespect, I was given back on my investment. I STILL can not imagine telling someone you love them over and over and over among so many similar statements……”we’re good together Puddle. We’re good together because we love each other”. One of the cards he gave me……..”It would take me forever to tell you how much I love you! I hope your not doing anything!” On and on and on and on and he KNEW I loved him and wanted to be with him in spite of the problems yet led me along with empty, false promises of change, love and devotion…….knowing he meant NONE of it! And stayed at my house, slept in my bed, allowed me to pleasure him. OMG!! It’s inconceivable! He raped my body, polluted my home, crushed my heart and spit on my dignity. And he got away with it because of one thing and one thing only………I could not conceive of someone doing this to someone they love so i continued to see the whole picture through that lens. Little did I know that in his world the word “LOVE” translates into “LIES”.
          So J, I do NOT find any of this acceptable and didn’t find a lot of his behavior and treatment acceptable and yet foolishly thought he meant his promises and believed his excuses when he didn’t keep them……poor poor Spathtard……such a mess. He just doesn’t understand what I want or something. Maybe I’ll explain it again in a different way because he LOVES me and i know that If I can just figure out how to say or do things differently it will all come together just like he says he wants as well.

      2. I’m not saying we need to retaliate. It’s about the attitudes towards supposedly unsavory actions. If no one bats an eye to such, then it enables more of such. General attitudes.

      3. Also, about venting, I think venting can be great, as long as it helps you heal from nasty experiences rather than keeps you stuck.

        1. I know J, I don’t know if I’m stuck or healing. For a while I thought i was getting better but now I feel worse than ever. It seems like every day I take one more sip of reality and i feel like I’m drowning in it.

  5. Puddle,

    Are you familiar with the term “love bombing”?

    I also married one of those. It’s beyond heart breaking when you realise it was all lies. It’s worse knowing how common it seems to be.

  6. CF, I’m very familiar with the term and i’m sorry to hear that you are too. Yes, I’ve been reading about all of this for a long time now, 8+ months. It’s all very confusing to me.

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