Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Adolescent Screams

Yesterday morning in a hallway of the Junior High School here in Stillwater, OK, a 13-year-old boy took out a handgun, turned it on himself and, in the presence of his stunned peers, ended his life.

The city is still reeling from the shock. Speculations about why he did it are rampant. Bullying was quickly blamed, but there is scant evidence of this. The truth is we don’t know why he did it, and we may never fully understand.

What we do know is that on this particular morning, of all the things this boy might have done, he chose to end his life in a very public and shockingly dramatic way.

He didn’t just choose to end his life. He chose to scream.

What I mean is this: When this boy killed himself in full view of his classmates, he was communicating something to his peers in a way that could not possibly be ignored. Like a scream, the act was ambiguous in its meaning. A scream can mean horror or despair, fear or outrage. What it lacks in clarity it makes up for in inescapability.

Screams are loud. So is killing yourself in a public hallway with a gun. Other forms of self-destruction are quieter. Consuming a lethal overdose of drugs communicates something, too; but the message and the delivery are different. The feelings and motives that would drive someone to do the former might not inspire them to do the latter.

And this boy was motivated, for reasons we may never fully comprehend, to do the former: to scream more loudly and inescapably than human vocal cords can scream. He wanted to express the depths of his negative feelings in a way that, however inarticulate, would seize hold of those around him and require them to pay attention, to take the scream as seriously as anything they’d ever heard.

And he had the means to do it. He had a loaded gun.

I don’t know where he found it, and I have no desire to place blame. In this country there are almost as many guns as there are people (9 guns for every 10 persons, the highest proportion of any country in the world), and that creates enormous opportunity to get your hands on a gun if you’re determined…even when there are no legitimate avenues (in Oklahoma, it's illegal for minors to purchase or possess handguns).

We don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t had access to a gun yesterday. Maybe he would have found some other way to scream, and maybe this other choice would have been just as lethal. Or maybe he would have closed inward, quietly longing for a way to express the depths of his feeling, and maybe someone would have noticed the darkness and reached out. Or maybe an opportunist would have preyed on that darkness in one of countless ways.

We can’t know what might have been. But actions are a stew of means and motives. So are human tragedies. Change the motives and tragedy may be averted. But the same is true of changing the available means.

There’s more than one way to do that. Not every kind of scream is as loud, as inescapable as a gunshot. But those quieter options are often more articulate, better suited to conveying meaning, to ensuring that the person crying out is not merely heard but understood. We need to find ways to increase access to those options and do our best to ensure that our young people appreciate their power. The more they trust in the transformative potential of written words, performance art, social activism—and the more they trust that there are those who will hear and understand—the less likely they are to turn to the modes of expression that are both more brutal and more irrevocable.

And yes--although this is the more politically charged piece of the puzzle--we also need to think about how we can make those darker options less accessible. Anyone who has been through adolescence knows it to be an impulsive and dramatic age. And although there are important differences of degree, everyone at some point in that stage of life has felt the urge to scream. When that urge hits, it would be better if there weren’t a gun at hand.

I won’t pretend there are easy answers. The issue of controlling access to guns faces, in this country, a culture in which guns are linked to traditions and hobbies and family heritage, not to mention convictions about personal liberty and self-defense. Regulating legitimate access to guns through careful screening and licensing of prospective gun owners might be crucial to keeping guns out of the hands of those who really ought not to be armed and dangerous—but such regulations will have limited effect unless the pathways to illegitimate access are relatively few. And with the guns already out there in such great numbers, achieving the latter may be difficult. We might propose trying to reduce the number of guns in circulation, but that would be no small challenge. I’d hate to be the police officers assigned the task of confiscating the weapons of those who believe the right to bear arms is synonymous with freedom from tyranny.

There are no easy answers. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wrestle with the questions. And we shouldn't focus on one set of questions to the exclusion of the others. We need to wrestle with the question of motives in an attempt to better understand what drives adolescents to such extremes. We need to grope for better policies to prevent or mitigate the forces that inflame and dehumanize—such things as verbal and physical abuse by peers ("bullying"), such things as systemic social exclusion and deep loneliness. None of these things may be what lay behind yesterday's tragedy in Stillwater. But every such tragedy should move us to think on forces that drive people to the brink, and to renew our commitment to diminish their power in the world.

But every effort of this kind will be imperfect. There will always be adolescent screams. And so we need to think about our collective commitment to fashioning constructive outlets, offering a diversity of avenues for self-expression—even for the expression of those feelings that frighten us, for those extremities of outrage and anguish we would like to pretend our young people never feel.

And we need to wrestle with how more effectively to protect adolescents from themselves, how to minimize their access to the most destructive ways of screaming.

In relation to these questions, I believe there are many things that Stillwater, as a community, is already doing well. This is not about blame or recrimination, but about trying to come to terms with tragedy in part by learning what we can from it and changing where it makes sense to change. And to wrestle seriously with any of these questions, we have to set aside partisan polarization and pat slogans in favor of substantive conversations in which diverse perspectives are heard and weighted thoughtfully, critically, and respectfully. To engage in such conversations is a way of honoring the victims of tragedy. But we do not honor them unless we really listen and honestly share, unless we strive to find solidarity amidst differences in the shared goal of making our community a safer and healthier place for all.

How do we do this?

Today, this day, it is Stillwater’s turn to ask that question. Today, this day, it is Stillwater’s turn to decide not only how we will grieve, but how we will come together to draw lessons from this tragedy, to honor its victims by trying, however imperfectly, to make its like less likely to happen again.


  1. This is so incredibly sad. It is so hard to say what he was screaming about and I only wish he had just reached out to someone, anyone!

    I recently spent 80 days in a women's safe house because the man I lived with screamed all the time. I kept asking him why he was screaming. It turned into raging and in the end I was locking myself in safe rooms and sending messages to the news team via WiFi.

    I was so scared, then angry, then sobbing. I desperately wanted to help him. He is 54 years old. I knew him for seven years and lived with him for 29 terrifying months. He did not scream at me during those first five years.

    His cousin killed himself on April 28th. I am getting therapy but also want to talk to other women who have lived with a man who is violent. Towards the end he talked so casually about being whipped for hitting a baseball incorrectly by his father.

    In the end I could not help him. I pray every single day for all of us. I pray for him, for myself, and this nation. We must start talking and stop the violence which seems to begin inside homes. I am in no way suggesting this is the case in this instance, I am just suggesting that American culture has become increasingly aggresssive.


    This link contains some strong language and is off topic except for the issue of guns, so watch at your own risk. I really like Sarah Silverman. I thought this might make you laugh, but if it is too inappropriate, do remove the comment. Anonymous