Man Kills Children: Is It News?

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by Robin Banks, robinbanks@disinfo.net

An Associated Press story from May 8, 2001 described a man who, while "rambling and saying religious stuff," stabbed four children at Mountain View Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska. The story goes on to say that the attacker was subdued by police, who fired three rubber bullets at him before taking him into custody.

This news item brings up several interesting issues because it is obviously reminiscent of the numerous tales of school violence to which we have been subjected in recent years. This time, of course, the attacker is an adult, and he is armed with a knife instead of a gun. So what difference does this make?

First, I seriously doubt that we will see a national outcry about "an epidemic of adult violence," or even an uproar about adult violence against children. Child abuse is a serious issue, but the many stories of adults who regularly abuse children is not nearly as interesting as a single narrative about a troubled teen who one day decides to shoot up his school. The latter story sells more papers and gets higher ratings than the former story, so despite the fact that children are (statistically speaking) much safer in school than they are in their own homes, we will continue to hear about those mysterious teens who dress in black and listen to weird music -- and we'll hear hardly anything about those adults who dress normally and listen to normal music but still assault children. I would bet that if the Anchorage attacker had simply stabbed his own children, in his own home, and then stabbed his own wife to death, then the story would not received nearly as much coverage, simply because that sort of thing happens quite often. It tells us something about American society when it is considered commonplace for a man to execute his spouse or girlfriend and their children.

Second, I also doubt that we will hear any impassioned pleas for knife control. We will not hear any legislators proposing that all knives be registered or limited to a certain length or type of edge. If a gun had been involved then you can certainly bet that all kinds of new, invasive legislation would be introduced within a week.

Third, I don't think we will be seeing any Congressional investigations into the pernicious effects of religion. Of course, the vast majority of religious people do not go out and attack children with knives -- but the vast majority of teenagers who listen to underground music or play violent video games do not go out and shoot up their schools, either. And yet we all find it so easy to blame the wicked rock bands or the evil video games -- both of which are extremely commonplace and easy to obtain -- for a few isolated incidences of adolescent terrorism.

It would also be easy to dismiss the knife-wielding attacker in this case as "insane." Plenty of insane people spout delusions about religion. But when we discover that a kid with a gun listens to a certain type of music, or spends time on the Internet, or plays an obscure style of game, we lose all reason and attempt to pass the blame for potential violence -- even though there are thousands of kids who listen to even weirder music, or spend even more time on the Internet at far more bizarre websites, or play more violent games for longer periods of time. So it would only be fair and consistent for the American news media to initiate an in-depth investigation into the ways that religion warps the mind and causes normal adult men to become throat-slashing maniacs.

Finally, I'm wondering if there will be outrage over the way police subdued the attacker -- with rubber bullets. Cops all over the country regularly "subdue" unarmed black men with REAL bullets, so what stopped the Anchorage cops from simply executing this guy right on the spot? After all, he was armed with an actual weapon -- a knife -- and had already attacked several children. In Cincinnati, or Detroit, or Louisville, or DC, or New York, or LA, or dozens of other cities in the U.S., the attacker would have been dead on the ground. Or would he? After all, he wasn't black. One wonders how this story might have ended if the knife-wielder had had significantly darker skin.

Let's review the facts. A white, religious, adult male assaults schoolchildren with a knife. There's a story there, but it wouldn't hold our interest beyond today's headlines. Change "religious" to "nerdy," "adult" to "adolescent," and "knife" to "gun," and suddenly you have a story that will resonate in the American news media for weeks, if not months. Change "white" to "black" and the story would have changed its ending, if not its significance. And if you were to only change "schoolchildren" to "his wife/girlfriend," then you have a total non-story that might not even make the national news.

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