Manhood and Violence: The Deadliest Equation

by Michael Kimmel, PhD

In the days and months following the tragedy at Columbine, the nation stared at the pictures of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold trying to understand the unfathomable - how these two young boys could arm themselves to the teeth and open fire on their classmates and teachers. We continued to stare at those pictures as the explanations began to pour in from the experts and the pundits alike.

We heard from psychologists who drew elaborate profiles of misfits and loners, of adolescent depression and acting out. Cultural critics on the right threw some blame on Goth music, Marilyn Manson, violent video games, the Internet. More liberal critics told us it was guns. President Clinton chimed in about violence in the media. We even heard about fatherlessness and the disappearance of modesty. The Denver school board banned the wearing of black trench coats and some lawmakers called for the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools.

All the while we continued to miss the point - even though it was staring right back at us: the killers were middle class white boys who lived in gun states.

Skeptical? Try a little thought experiment: Imagine that the killers in Littleton - and in Pearl, Mississippi, Paducah, Kentucky, Springfield, Oregon and Jonesboro, Arkansas – were all black girls from
poor families who lived in New Haven, Connecticut, Newark, New Jersey, or Providence, Rhode Island.

I believe we would have had a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would have been on race, class, and gender. The media would have invented a new term for their behavior, as they did with "wilding" a decade ago after the attack on the Central Park jogger. We'd have heard about the culture of poverty; about how living in the city breeds crime and violence; about some putative natural tendency among blacks towards violence. Someone would even have blamed feminism for causing girls to become violent in vain imitation of boys.

Yet the obvious fact that these school killers were all middle class white boys seems to have escaped everyone's notice.

In these cases, actually, it's unclear that class or race played any part in the shootings, although the killers in Colorado did target some black students. But that's the point: imagine the national reaction if black boys had targeted whites in school shootings. We would have assumed that race alone explained the tragedy (some would, of course, have blamed rap music and violent movies). Or if poor boys had targeted those with the fancy cars we'd have assumed that class-based resentment caused the boys' rage (that Dylan Klebol drove a BMW did not prompt the Denver school board to consider banning those cars, did it?).

That young boys with guns committed all these murders raised not a ripple. We continued to call them "teens," "youth," or "children" rather than what they really were - boys.

Yet gender is the single most obvious and intractable difference when it comes to violence in America. Men and boys are responsible for 95% of all violent crimes in this country. Every day twelve boys and young men commit suicide – seven times the number of girls. Every day eighteen boys and young men die from homicide – ten times the number of girls.

From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired. Four times more teenage boys than teenage girls think fighting is appropriate when someone cuts into the front of the line. Half of all teenage boys get into a physical fight each year.

The belief that violence is manly is not a trait carried on any chromosome. It is not soldered into the wiring of the right or left hemisphere. It is not juiced by testosterone (half of all boys don't fight, most don't carry
weapons, and very few actually kill). It is, unfortunately, taught to our boys.

It is taught by their fathers, nearly half of whom own a gun. It is taught by a media that glorifies it, by sports heroes who commit felonies and get big contracts, by a culture saturated in images of heroic and
redemptive violence. It is taught and reinforced by their peers.

And this horrible education is made more lethal in states where gun control laws are most lax, where gunlobbyists are most powerful because all available evidence suggests that all the increases in the deadliness of school violence is attributable to guns. Boys have resorted to violence for a long time, but sticks and fists and even the occasional switchblade do not create the bloodbaths of the past few years. Nearly 90% of all homicides among boys aged 15 to 19 are firearm related, and 80% of the victims are boys. If the rumble in West Side Story were to take place today, the death toll would not be just Riff and Bernardo, but all the Sharks and all the Jets – and probably several dozen bystanders.

Some will throw up their hands and sigh that "boys will be boys." In the face of these tragic killings, such resignation is unacceptable. And it doesn't answer the policy question; it begs the question: if boys have a natural propensity towards violence and aggression, do we organize society to maximize that tendency, or to minimize it?

Perhaps the most sensible reform that could come from these tragedies is stricter gun control laws, at least on assault weapons and handguns. Far more sweeping - and necessary - is a national meditation on how our ideals of manhood became so entangled with violence.

Make no mistake: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were real boys. In a sense, they weren't deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn't just get mad, they got even. Until we transform that definition of manhood, this terrible equation of masculinity and violence will add up to an increasing death toll at our nation's schools.