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 Making Killer Kids


Copyright © 1999,
Dorian Scott Cole
 Current Events Series

Warning: This commentary relies less on fact than my previous article on Children with Guns. It is provocative. It is not intended to be a factual report. Please note the difference and use your discretion about reading it.
Making killer kids | Making a Difference

Nine... Ten... eleven... twelve school shootings as of April 29, 1999. It spread to Canada. But who is counting?

Making killer kids

I'm not an expert on making killer kids. It hit me that if we look intensely at how to make one, it might provide some insight into how not to make one, which might actually be helpful. Of course I have my own peculiar (warped) way of looking into things,  so I will blunder on.

Raising children is difficult. My three specialized in difficult. I expected us all to spend life in prison - or an asylum, whichever came first. We experienced all of the difficulties everyone else experiences. They each took great pride in driving others to the very edge of insanity, and then trying to nudge them over. One picked up extra money hiring himself out to irritate people. He probably conned me into signing his reference. They borrowed the neighbor's scissors and then cut the same neighbor's plants down with them. This was sometime after they led a scavenger group to dig a large hole in my neighbor's yard, and even got another neighbor lady to help them. I still don't know what they were trying to dig up. I don't want to know. 

One of mine could never work up any interest in school, and another hated school until he was finally freed of it. Neither of them tried to bomb it (as far as I know - I'm sure I don't want to know.) They turned out very well, for which I take no credit. One has a masters degree and works as a speech therapist. She did this on her own - worked full time. Another works in a lawyer's office, and the third is a computer network guru. I'm still in hiding from them. I thought you should know this up front.

What would I do if I wanted to turn some young person into a terrorist and blow up say... a school? I think every kid has a fantasy once in his life about blowing up the school. But fantasy aside, it isn't easy to get people to do things - most of them have over one million reasons why they can't, don't, or won't. These reasons have been memorized through constant groping for reasons and rote recitation. They are well entrenched.

I've worked with young people some, and it's difficult to get them to do anything at all. I was a Scout Master for way too many Webelows, a Sunday School teacher - those kinds of things. By my calculations (watch out - I like math but I was never very good at it) it takes one hundred tons of sustained work to get one ounce of "do it" out of a youth. As soon as a youth sees a request coming, they go into high energy resourcefulness mode and are set to spend ten million tons of "no way" to counter the one hundred ton attack so they won't have to do the one ounce of "do it." So getting a young person to blow up a school - figuratively speaking, not literally - could be a very large undertaking. Why do I get myself into these things.

There are a number of things I could try. First, I could be a bad parent - but that usually doesn't work. There are a tremendous number of parents who aren't effective, and are even bad role models. Half the time (there's that math again) the young person sees his parent's failings - or lives through them - and says, "I don't want to be like him when I grow up," and turns out entirely different. Scratch that as a cause, it just isn't dependable.

I could try poisoning him with angry and violent music. After all, studies have shown that if you feed classical music to cows, the cows give more milk. The opposite must be true then, if you feed hostile music to cows, they will put the stopper in early. Except, I think in the studies they fed rock and roll to flowers and I don't know if it was hostile - just loud and raucous. I don't know if they fed the cows the classical Anvil Chorus, which isn't exactly peaceful. I just know that someone assumed that people are a lot like cows and flowers and would react to music the same way that cows and flowers do. I used to raise cows, and I confess I never once saw a cow show any signs of rhythm or of carrying a melody. Commercials, yes, cows have to look contented and happy so we will buy corporate milk. Reality, no - they just stand there and chew. Same for plants - their petals only move if the speaker vibrates them. What seems more likely to me is that if someone likes Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach, and you force feed him angry and violent music for ten hours straight, he might kill someone. Studies seem to become broad generalizations that reflect the bias of some person. Flawed. I don't know - I just have no guarantee that feeding twenty five million tons of hostile music to a young adult would be enough to make him kill someone.

I could make him sit through endless hours of violent and hostile movies. Well, I have sat through a large number of violent movies - my stomach sometimes gets tired of eating that stuff, but so far I haven't gone out and killed anyone. Statistically though (there's that math again) I guess I could snap tomorrow. "What happened to him - he was such an as... uh, nice guy."

As usual, I'm not going to find a sure-fire simplistic method to blame it on. I guess I'm going to have to work at it.

Well, if I truly wanted to get a young person to do something tragic, here are the four areas that I would work on:

  1. Isolate the young person so he has no input from good peers.
  2. Create attitudes to focus his motivation toward one goal.
  3. Emotionally connect his attitudes to powerful reinforcing images.
  4. Increase his motivation to the point that he actually does it.
If you want a real life demonstration, join the Klan.

Isolation and indoctrination

Young people are trying to separate themselves from their parents and form an identity that stands on its own (individuation). That means exploring the world on their own, taking risks, and making mistakes. It often means rebellion and marking their parents off their "to do" list. If they didn't do this they would be tied to their parents forever, unable to become independent and support themselves and run their own lives. This may be why there are so many 27 year old children lying around some houses. Hopefully during those teen years (11-20) the parent at this point is able to be tolerant, understanding, and supportive because the young person is going to do what they have to do one way or passive-aggressively.

Being intolerant and unsupportive just means making it more difficult on the parent and possibly driving the young person away from good counsel and toward bigger mistakes. At this point in their lives, young people are sharing with people who are more like themselves - those who are going through the same things. My point is, the parent isn't the kid's idol anymore, and he isn't all that influential. The young person's peers are more influential. The parents, courts, and school systems would like for parents to be more influential, but that doesn't mean it is possible. After all, like young people on a tirade, the schools, courts, and parents are looking at a situation that is nearly hopeless and on the verge of being out of control, and they feel like they have to place the blame somewhere.

So the young person is already isolated from his parents - that's a given. How isolated depends on the youth and his circumstances. There are many other people in the community who act as role models and counselors. These hopefully are where the young people have turned. So to turn this young person into a terrorist, I need to get rid of these people. First, I should just convince them that they are not welcome in this person's life - they are not his parent. I should also get community authorities to convince the adult that the young person is the parent's responsibility and they shouldn't be put to the inconvenience of helping them. A little bit of indoctrination from selected psychologists on TV and a few newspaper columnists biased toward parent responsibility should take care of this.

I could also discredit these people by casting doubt on their knowledge and their motives. I see this done all the time - I know the pattern. Parents get jealous and tell the young person that "so-and-so doesn't know what he's talking about and one day I saw him poison a dog, and he's just using you. He wants you to do what? Oh, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard of - everyone will think you're stupid." It doesn't take much to turn a young person away from good sources.

Once the young person is isolated from helpful adults in the community, I can start isolating him from the other fun things that young people do that keep him involved with his peers. He will no longer have their input, and he will no longer have a sense of belonging and accomplishment. You can just refuse to help the young person with good things - sports, music, clubs - no time to take them. And instead of encouraging them to do well at math and science and reading - encourage them to go outside and do something fun like shooting cans, rocks, sticks, bottles, and birds. It is a tiny bit of influence that a parent has - influence by default - that is, by doing nothing. Now this won't turn a kid into a killer by itself - this is actually more like the way I was raised. We moved to the country and my high school years became increasingly limited to classes and bus rides, and I never wanted to kill anyone. But isolation is a necessary step.

Create attitudes to focus his motivation toward one goal

Attitude is a combination of feelings, knowledge, and action. People have emotional feelings toward something, such as comes from an experience or from fearful feelings, such as inadequacy to meet many challenges. Example: being stung by a wasp. People have knowledge about things - a wasp can fly, can sting, can move quickly, is not aggressive but will sting if threatened. People have responses to things, actions - avoid the wasp - run. Their attitude becomes: wasp - run. Even though the person knows that the wasp probably won't hurt him and he can probably kill it, his emotional feeling about it overrides what he knows. Wasp - run. People have a difficult time overcoming their fearful attitude and response to insects. They may never have been stung, but their fear response actually reinforces what they feel so that their attitude and response become strong.

Attitude is a powerful thing. I once arranged for one of my people to be transferred back to the State that he was from - he wanted to go. A military reserve, he liked military things and guns, and he was always active with youth, and was always helping someone. He had been struggling financially for a couple of years, he wasn't well liked within the group he was in because he wasn't matched well with his responsibilities, and his wife had filed for divorce. By the time of the transfer he was really emotionally upset. A lot of his experiences had been bad. On his last day in the area, he showed up at the office wearing military camouflage pants and a T-shirt with the words, "Kill 'em all - let God sort 'em out." He wore his attitude on his chest. Did that mean that he might return with a gun and shoot the place up? Probably not. So far his anger wasn't that focused on any one person or group, and he didn't have enough bad attitudes to overcome the good person that he is.

Back to the youth. Once the young person is far enough behind others that he can't do well in their presence, then he will no longer want to be with others who achieve in those aspects, so he is isolated from them and their opinions and goals. He no longer has a strong emotional attachment to them, so his attitude toward them is weak. Of course, some young people tend to do this all on their own. Now, that I have him isolated, I need to change his values. If a young person has self-confidence and good values - it is difficult to get him to do something he knows is wrong. So I have to undo that. I will have to change his value system. I will have to make him think that he is no good as a person - that most people have value and he has none. Then he will start looking for value.

Now, the idea that people have or don't have value is pure hot air. Most of us dote on babies, who can't do anything, we support keeping people alive in a coma for years, and we typically prevent the terminally suffering from ending their lives. A life is a precious thing regardless of its state. But it is easy to get side-tracked into thinking that people have value. It seems to be partly related to self-esteem (which is a word I have been dropping from my vocabulary because it is misleading.) So if you have a person believing in hot air, it is easy to push his buttons and get him to do what you want. Young people don't have much to base their self-image on, so every new piece of information is highly influential to them. Tell him he is wonderful and his ego puffs right up like a balloon. Tell him he is terrible and his ego deflates to nothing - he feels like a worm. If he buys the idea that he can have value, or that he doesn't have value, he will now begin looking at the entire world this way. This person has value. That one doesn't. But sooner or later I will have to give him a value standard to use to judge people.

If I can isolate him from enough of his peers, then what is left is a small subset of misfits. These will be handy later.

Continuing to work on the young person's attitude, I need to convince him that he has no future. I need to convince him that he is stupid, incompetent, not as good as other people - basically a loser (another hot air word) who can only hope for a dismal future. I can enlist the support of many other people for this. He is at school, which is the locus of where he tries to prove himself, and depends on others for feedback about himself. Already the young person doesn't participate in extracurricular things that the others do. Instead of getting others to help him become involved and build his talent, I have them rule him out as a participant, make fun of him, ridicule his grades, say disparaging things about his efforts in class, mark him a loser, march him back and forth to the principal's office, and mistreat him every time his peers see him. This is great - this is accomplishing more in just a year than I could do in ten.

What I have accomplished, with a little help from my friends, is to isolate this young person from everything and everyone that most of us value. I have done this by shaping his attitude. But I have to be careful - at this point instead of becoming a killer, he  might just drop out and become a druggie or commit suicide. So what I have to do is get a few others to build him up - but with different values. I need to fill him full of hot air about his value.

He is desperate for any reason to feel good about himself, but I have him convinced that he has no hope and he has no control over his bleak future. So I take this group of misfits that he belongs in (by default), and they already have some values that are counter to what others think is good. They got these values from their older friends who are like them. They like things like anarchy, violence, causing others pain, getting revenge, blowing things up, and having control by being disobedient and destructive. He is primed, pumped, ready to pop the clutch. So he hurts things and he is immediately their hero - they love him. He gets revenge on a few friends, and they worship him - he is a god. They encourage him to do more. They reinforce his attitude that the world is full of jerks who want him to be a miserable failure. But he and they all know that he can do things - he can hurt things, he can be their hero, he is a god - invincible and powerful - he can control his future.

His attitude now is that he will be successful by going in the opposite direction from the rest of the world. He has control, because whatever they value, he can destroy. They tried to take away his respect and love, but he is loved and he is respected. He has value to a select group of others. He is emotionally bonded to them - they have the utmost meaning to him - they are his real world. The rest of the world is a bunch of losers who have no value.

Emotionally connect his attitudes to powerful reinforcing images

So far I'm doing well - I've created an angry young man (juvenile delinquent). But as good as this is, juvenile delinquents aren't really that predictable for killing people. You know, one day they are angry, the next day they have themselves under control - they are just not happy or productive. They vacillate between wanting what the rest of us want and denying us. They mostly are just destroying themselves at this point, and doing some little act now and then to keep it all going - kind of a maintenance event. They only strike out when really provoked, and even then it usually takes chemical abuse for it to get serious. I really need to galvanize this guy into a monster - give him a pure image to identify with that will give him a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. His friends tend to listen to music that sounds like angry noise to me.

That's good - I'll get him some CDs from these angry noise and violence groups. How do I get him to like noise? I know the button to push - I tell him he can't play them because the lyrics are so violent and destructive. Therefore he will play them day and night for the next 100 years as loudly as the speakers will go to crowd all other thoughts out of his head. He can think about nothing but anger and violence. A certain part of his brain gets addicted to this stuff so that he has to have it continuously. All other sound is now trash, and he is now incapable of thinking about anything but anger and violence. Well, maybe sex and food on good days.

Now that I have him addicted, I need him indoctrinated. Easy. One of the other misfits introduces him to hate groups. He is prepped. He reads this stuff like a new convert, believing every word. He now has a cause and a target - all the people they hate who have done terrible things to him. He begins small acts against the target group - painting swastikas, putting swastika tattoos on his arm, sending hate mail, putting hate sites on the Internet. These actions reinforce his attitude - acting out is a major component in attitude. Actions strongly reinforce what the person believes. When people start acting out, they are getting dangerous. This is powerful conditioning. He now sees that he has value, but a lot of other people don't have value and they deserve to die simply because of what they are. If he is going to kill, he has to believe emotionally and intellectually that the people he is going to kill have no value and deserve to die.

Next I indoctrinate him that the gun is the answer to his problems. You must have a gun to defend yourself. You never know when one of these people you hate is going to attack you. A gun is power. Stick a gun up someone's nose and he immediately leaves you alone. You are all-powerful, you are a god, his life is in your hands - he will respect you. A gun gives you the power over life that you didn't have before. Through association with the gun, he builds a mental image of control over everything.

But we're not even close yet. As absurd as neo-Nazis are, they aren't stupid - most of them don't go out and commit murder.

Next I need training for this guy. He needs images of violent acts that can stick in his head to remember and act out. I watch people leaving the movie theaters for anyone killing someone. Nah, I don't see anyone stabbing and chain sawing and bludgeoning and blasting and blowing up. OK, movies won't make anyone kill anyone. But this young man is angry and wrapped up in violence - he just needs a few good images. So I select some films with some good revenge and violence scenes. It works - he really gets into some of these scenes. This is also powerful stuff - this is what fantasies are made of. He can listen to his angry violent music and dream about acting out this scene.

I cap this off with a few weekly television series that capitalize on revenge. We have become a society in which the criminals are more in control than the citizens they hurt. The police often seem powerless. Everyone wants revenge. Everyone wants to make the criminals hurt and pay - and they especially want justice when our legal system seems paralyzed. So I make sure the TV is playing when these revenge shows are on. He gobbles it up. The whole world approves of revenge. If he can get back at the people who hurt him, he will be a hero in everyone's eyes.

His attitude is nearing completion. I have him emotionally convinced that some people are worth hating, have no value, and should be dead. I have him convinced that he is valuable mostly because he can control his destiny in negative ways and he can get back at other people. He has value, they don't. I have him emotionally identifying with it all the time. I have him fantasizing about what he might do - acting out his feelings. But he still isn't going to commit the crime. To do something this big, he needs a big payoff. So what we do is make the news commentators dwell on it. News stories run for days and weeks and months, showing the devastation, the pain, the sorrow - the whole world is hurt and sorry for the acts of these people - revenge is big. He will get more attention than the Pope, the President, the wars, and all other criminals. This will be his month in the spotlight.

His attitude is complete.

Increase his motivation to the point that he actually does it

He is fully ready to do the deed except for one thing. He has the attitude but he isn't quite motivated. Attitude doesn't make anyone do anything - it just focuses attention to a target. Motivation makes people go. He just needs for someone to push him over the edge. I know, first, his girl friend snubs him, then I'll have a teacher cause a big ruckus with the school principal over a pretty little girl who got her feelings hurt over an exam that might not have been fair, and some other students, including a couple of black students, jump on the bandwagon because it might not have been fair to them, and now everyone is worried that they all might be permanently damaged. Then a muslim immigrant with a handicap accidentally shoves him out of the way on the way into class and he calls him a... and his teacher escorts him one last time out of the class for flunking another exam and calling the other student a ... And the major assault he has been planning becomes a reality.


In jail, he feels sorry for the kids he killed, if he has any feelings at all. He can't quite figure out why he did this. He just can't quite get it in perspective. His mind is no longer able to fathom that he was once so capable of being a good person. And now he is confused about people and their value and his value.

There are probably other ways to create killer kids. Some probably even do it on their own. People can be made to feel they have no value, no control, and no hope through sexual abuse, through continuous rejection, neglect, and physical abuse, through putting them into subservient roles and making it plain that "you" feel they have no value, such as being a woman, child, or minority. It took a lot of cooperation and assistance in creating this monster. We see someone we don't understand and we pushed him away. A little push is all he needs to get going in the antisocial direction. We don't need to understand these kids, we need to find ways to integrate them into our groups so they don't continue going in the wrong direction.

Could we have created a kid who excels?  Part 2

Making a difference

I'm no expert on creating kids who excel. I'll bungle on.

One thing that I noticed right away when it came to working with kids and raising kids is that it is very important to them to be number one. With Webelows, the second meeting I had a kid in tears because I didn't give him the star part in a skit. Out of fifteen of these little monst... bright kids, I should spot his enormous talent and single him out? It isn't rational, but it is kids. As much as I tried to teach my own children that everyone is the same - they also wanted, often desperately, the glamour spot. Everyone needs to be number one occasionally. Egos to me are a false but essential construct for youth. Ego should disappear in the teen years.

I don't think that doing one wrong thing to people, even continuously, is likely to turn those people into monsters. Most people survive and do well. My brother has a theory that there is a window of what is normal and tolerable, and most people who survive in the normal range most of the time will turn out OK. I tend to agree, although I know some people are very sensitive, and kids often go through phases when a damaging statement can have long-lasting affects. Personally I primarily think that people have tendencies that respond to the environment they are in. It is easier to address the person's individual needs than it is to control every factor in the environment.

From the preceding in this article, following are the areas that I think can be addressed to make a difference for young people.

Most important, I think, is early intervention. Watch in the pre-teen years for youth who have trouble relating to others, expressing themselves, or who don't seem to fit in. Help youth learn social skills so they can fit in. Other young people are essential for the social development of youth. They need to fit in, have fun, feel like they belong, get a few bruises and realize that a bruise isn't social death - they are still part of the group, and even feel like they contribute to the group in their unique way.

Second, I think we strongly overemphasize one person's value over another. It is difficult in a highly competitive and glamour seeking world not to. People get "valued" for their looks, money, possessions, position, religion, and abilities. Advertising keeps a strong focus on value attitudes - use this or you are not as valued as another person. Individuals and entire nations slam and even kill others because of their race or religion. Somehow "heathen" (nonbelievers) are not valued by "our god" and are worthy of death. School systems glorify the athletes and sometimes others. Those born "without" the admired abilities sit on the sidelines and feel they have less or no value. We seem to have an entire nation of women feeling less valued because they don't have the physical attributes of either the seriously anemic scarecrows (emaciated) or the well endowed models, on TV. A woman simply can't have a good self-image. They mostly talk about learning to accept themselves, as if something was wrong with them.

We need to understand that "people value" is a false concept. Everyone has the same value - it's a non-issue - hot air. The more value is exaggerated, the more distorted self-image becomes, so that it is impossible for some to feel good about themselves. And later, it is not possible to feel good about themselves for many athletes and others who have been put on a pedestal. You can't be top dog all of your life, and often your next job is pumping gas - not a glamour job. When people are slamming other people, it's a strong indication that something is seriously wrong with the person doing the slamming. That needs to be addressed immediately.

Third, help youth learn to talk it out instead of act it out. The more kids talk to each other, the more they realize they are alike, so there are fewer walls between them. (I'm not talking about gangs talking things out. I'm talking about preventative things, not cures for those who have developed a serious problem.)

Fourth, watch for the brooding silent types who hold things in and don't participate or express themselves. They are at risk for leading themselves into dark territory. Help them find opportunities to talk, draw them out, and talk to them.

Fifth, watch for gun culture kids. Don't knock their culture, but try to include them in activities that will diversify their interests.

Do everything you can to prevent kids from becoming isolated and indoctrinated. Isolation is an emotional stance. Indoctrination is primarily a "knowledge" stance - information is organized around emotional needs - attitude.

Sixth, give all kids reasons to feel good about themselves - many are desperate for it.

Seventh, give all kids the knowledge that they are in control of their future and will continue to be, regardless of what happens at school. Help give them the opportunity to control their future. They need to accomplish things and see concrete results, and some kids need more personal attention than others to accomplish things.

Eighth. Don't knock music, movies, and guns. I don't like guns, but I have fired them many times, and even disassembled and reassembled an M1 blindfolded to see how fast I could get at it. It didn't make me want to shoot someone or even give me a feeling of power. Guns aren't the problem - attitude is. People who are angry, identify with these things and choose to dwell on them. They look to them for an answer to their problems. The rest of us use these things and are unaffected.

Ninth. I do think that the more available weapons of mass destruction are, the more people are going to be killed by them. The Colorado kids planned to blow up the entire school, and then maybe crash a plane into New York City. What's next?

It's something more to think about. My two-cents.
- Scott

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