At my suburban public school, fistfights were not uncommon. Blood flowed on school playgrounds when pick-up basketball games got out of hand. For those a bit older, there were bar fights and alleyway rumbles. I was born in 1959, and a vast majority of men in my cohort have at one time or another thrown punches—and suffered them. It was brutish, in some instances cruel, and often laced with racial animus.
Youthful male preening and bloodlust are pure vice. Yet the punches and kicks also taught lessons. We knew what it was like to inflict pain—and have pain inflicted. The blood, bruises, and broken noses were real. These experiences disciplined us, as realities always do. Teachers at my high school seemed to recognize the pedagogy of hard knocks. They would rush to break up fights in the hallways. They pushed aside the boys crowding around the pugilists, letting a punch or two be thrown before stepping in. “That’s enough,” they’d say. It’s as if they knew that there’s also a danger in “not enough.”
Perhaps my teachers were right, and if they were, we’ve lost something. Today it’s not just unimaginable that a vice principal at a middle-class suburban school like the one I attended would allow two eighteen-year-old seniors to fight it out for a minute or two before intervening—it’s actionable. He’d surely lose his job. A friend recently asked his seventeen- and twenty-year-old sons if they had ever been in a fight. “Never,” they said. Then they asked him about his youth. He laughed, “At least one hundred.
…My purpose is more basic: to spotlight a puzzling paradox. To a great degree, we have succeeded in taming the adolescent male’s age-old impulse to battle with his fists. Yet we seem to have created the conditions under which disordered middle-class male minds have an unprecedented mental freedom to do terrible things.
…The teenage school shooters are different. They seem to find no need for permission—or perhaps feel it automatically. There were angry, frustrated, and mentally unbalanced young men at my high school in the late 1970s. As seniors in 1978, any of my classmates who had passed his eighteenth birthday could have bought a shotgun or hunting rifle on Monday morning and gone to school in the afternoon to kill teachers and fellow students. None did, because they couldn’t imagine it as a real possibility.
Why were we constrained in this way? Why were we hemmed in, fighting in the hallways, perhaps, while not even the most troubled among us was thinking of slaughtering whomever crossed his path? Was it the still living legacy of a biblical view of life, which prizes human dignity? Was it the background of domestic stability that, though shaken by the divorce revolution, had not yet vanished? Was it our experience of less-than-lethal violence, an experience that is sobering? Was it the fact that our therapeutic mentality, which tells us that the greatest evil is repressed desire, had not yet become all-powerful? Read more»
R. R. Reno, “Permission to Kill,” First Things (April, 2018).