Coming of Age in the Age of Terror

I couldn’t stop thinking about the layout of my sister’s elementary school, worrying that her classroom was too close to the school’s entrance. I eyed closets and windows in my own classrooms, imagining where I would hide were a shooting to happen. – Elizabeth Love, West High School SLC, UT – DOB: April 2000

Nearly a generation has passed since the Columbine High School massacre. That means students today have never known the day when their greatest threats were fire, a bully, or a note home about their behavior.

One wonders what an evolutionary psychologist would uncover if she compared the wiring of today’s high school students’ brains to those of preceding generations: 1998, Columbine eve, the first computer savvy graduates; 1978, the color-TV generation that came of age witnessing social unrest and political assassinations; 1958, the post-WW II, duck-and-cover generation; and so on.

The human brain is hard-wired for safety—self-preservation—thus, adapts to the person’s changing environment and circumstances. Traumatic events impress themselves on the brain causing the individual to go on auto-response when something triggers it. We call it PTSD.

Elizabeth recalls vividly the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. She was in the seventh grade. On Vox, she writes, “My friends whisper about who they fear would attempt something similar. They discuss how hard it would be to escape were an attack to happen on the lawn where we eat lunch.”

Survivors of the Marjory Steadman Douglas High School massacre describe how little, once-not-noticed noises such as a stuck door being forced open instantly trigger panicked responses just as a backfiring car does for war veterans suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

After the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, FL, gay friends relate how they’re ever vigilant, constantly checking their surroundings when in public. They will, for example, ask to be seated near an emergency exit at a restaurant.

A consistent theme in age-appropriate literature is coming of age. It entails characters modeling expectations for becoming more independent, responsible, and sophisticated. Think of coming of age in social terms, growing up as a never-ending evolution of discarding one’s newly found maturity, as a snake sloughs its skin, for the next higher level one. No sooner does a sixteen-year-old learn and accept responsibility for driving a vehicle, she is confronted with the reality of post-secondary life.

Over the past two decades, a wrench has been thrown into the coming-of-age mix, something that had been foreign to American kids: terrorism. Until Columbine, it was something that happened “over there.”

Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion” upon a certain population. At the Pulse, the target was gays and lesbians. But at school? It boggles the mind. But it makes perverted sense.

Government—society—is indifferent to a child’s spiritual development but given his/her basic skill development is paramount for a successful, functioning society, educating one’s child is a legal obligation. For most, school becomes home away from home. Teachers are de jure in loco parentis, the child’s virtual parent during the time he/she is in the teacher’s charge. Accordingly, we confer sanctity on schools for they are our secular churches and student’s second homes. Couple the church-home metaphor with the innocence and vulnerability of childhood, gunning down innocents induces heightened shock and outrage.

Many point to gratuitous violence extolled in media from video games to Clint Eastwood movies. Those undoubtedly contribute to worsening deranged minds. But when super violence is extolled as the only viable response—think Dirty Harry—to super violent assaults, the problem becomes the answer: Only more WMM—weapons of mass murder—can prevent use of WMM. It’s a simple-minded, circular construction.

The threat of horrific violence is contributing to rewiring our youth’s brains in disturbing ways. But theirs are not the only ones being rewired. Parents stay on edge throughout the day, exhaling sighs of relief when their child makes it safely home. Teachers, already wearing an abundance of hats, have donned another: Shields for their charges.

In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan asks, “How many deaths will it take ’til he knows /
That too many people have died?”

How many before WMM are expelled from our “civilized” society?

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