Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

Should We Lock Up All The Boys?

Wherever there's violent crime there are males in their teens and twenties

A colleague refers to it as “TT”, testosterone toxicity.

By any name, the phenomenon is indisputable: males in their teens and twenties commit more violent crimes than other demographic group. The latest, deeply disturbing form of young male violence is the so-called “knockout game” in which an attacker aims to render his random victim unconscious with a single sucker punch. “Knockout game” assaults have been reported by police in multiple states all over the country. Some victims suffer only minor injuries. Others are not so lucky. Robert Santiago of New Jersey died of his injuries. Three teenagers, two 13 year olds and a 14 year old, have been charged with his murder. In a video that went viral you can watch as a 50 year old teacher walks down the street, is punched in the face, falls and hits his head on the curb. He remains there, motionless.

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Perhaps even more terrifying than the violence itself are the video interviews with other students who explain the game in matter-of-fact or even slightly amused tones. Have we become so inured to violence—or so helpless, apathetic or distracted—that we have come to accept the unacceptable? It looks that way:

Gang violence, where both shooters and victims are young males, seldom makes national news. Mass shootings, whose numbers have tripled in recent years, according to Attorney General Eric Holder, have also become routine.

It is males in their teens and twenties who cause this mayhem.

Even serial killers, generally older by the time they’re caught, begin their murderous careers by age 27.5 (see Hickey, Eric. Serial Murderers and Their Victims, 2nd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997)

Violence takes many forms, and involves different factors. Gang violence, like the knockout game, involve a pack mentality, a chance to prove oneself, an opportunity to gain status in the male hierarchy. Not all violence is the same. Nevertheless, where one finds violence, one finds males in their teens—early thirties.

We can call on evolution (the more aggressive male survives to reproduce), biology (raging hormones), and developmental psychology (incomplete frontal cortex development, poor impulse control, need to belong, develop identity) to help us understand the phenomenon. But they won’t help us curb the epidemic of violence unless we act.

We need to resist the pull of apathy, indifference and helplessness and get involved. It works. Boys in target age groups need more positive adult male relationships. They need to feel close and safe with good men whose approval they seek. We need to study what else they require in order to exercise and test their maleness without victimizing others.

It can be done. There was a time, not so long ago, that domestic violence was considered inevitable. There was the same shrug of “ain’t it awful?” when stories got told. But once it became truly unacceptable to hit your wife, laws and mores changed, prevention, treatment, interventions developed…and the incidence of domestic abuse came down.

We can do it. Let’s pay attention to the boys.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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