Are teenagers like fundamentalist terrorists?
At first blush, it's merely outrageous. Across the country, teenagers are being tried as terrorists over plots to shoot their enemies in the lunchroom. Often they are charged under terrorism laws intended to keep us safe from al-Qaida, not from anguished Goths with delusions of grandeur.
Prosecutors say that angry teenage boys who amass guns and bombs really are terrorists; that the children killed in 1999 at Columbine are terror victims as surely as those killed in the WTC. Defense attorneys suggest that these prosecutions are overblown, enabling prosecutors to claim massive terror victories when they've merely put a pimply misfit behind bars.
The annual crop of Columbine wannabes flourished yet again this year. And where they may once have been charged with conspiracy or attempted assault, they are now charged as terrorists. Which probably rules out college.
In April, timed, as ever, to coincide with the seventh anniversary of Columbine, a string of disturbing plots were met with even more disturbing charges: Four New Jersey teens, aged 14 to 16, were charged with first-degree terrorism for plotting a lunchtime massacre of at least 17 people at Winslow Township High School on April 20.None of the students had even been able to obtain weapons. Two 17-year-olds in suburban Missouri were charged with making terrorist threats, in a plot to use guns and explosives in an April 20 assault against Platte County R-3 High School, again on the anniversary of Columbine. Prosecutors are now deciding whether to file terrorism charges against a 16-year-old boy in Oxford, Mich., who's accused of accumulating homemade bombs, napalm, and high-school blueprints in his parents' basement. And Andrew Osantowski, 18, of Macomb County, Mich., was sentenced to at least four and a half years in prison last June, after a jury found him guilty ofterrorism and terroristic threats, for a plot to massacre students at his suburban Detroit high school. Amassed in his home were an AK-47, pipe bombs, a Nazi flag, printed materials about Adolf Hitler, and a schematic diagram of the school.
There is a difference between terrorists and angry schoolboys, and using stiff anti-terror laws to ratchet up penalties and punish juveniles as adults blurs an important distinction. As Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security recently told USA Today, charging troubled teenagers as terrorists "cheapens the war on terror." There's a profound difference between fundamentalist Islamic terrorism and domestic terrorism like Timothy McVeigh's attack in Oklahoma City. And there's a vast difference again between both of those things and juvenile plots to shoot the cool kids in study hall. Charging all three classes of offenders as "terrorists" only serves to blur the already porous legal definition of terrorism. It suggests that the lonely kid who posts bomb threats on his MySpace page is the moral equal of Mohammad Atta.
But that lonely kid can nevertheless prove to be a lethal kid, and as Columbine's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo all proved, the mere fact that you're in high school and suggestible hardly matters when your victim is dead of a gunshot wound. While it's clear we shouldn't be using terror laws to prosecute teen death threats, the striking parallels between fundamentalist terrorists and alleged school shooters offer some intriguing insight into the policy strategies for addressing both.
One of the striking similarities in all these school shooting plots is their stunning lack of originality. There's always the stupid Nazi flag. There's always the school schematic. There's usually an almost pornographically detailed written plan. It's as if the same adolescent drive to own the same Nikes as all the other kids animates a need to read the exact same fascist books and plot the exact same killing spree. Indeed, one might wonder whether one of the parallels between the Sept. 11 bombers and would-be school shooters is a fundamental passivity; a failure of imagination; a willingness to be led without thought.
There's another telling similarity between suicide bombers and teenaged would-be suicide-shooters: A comprehensive Secret Service study undertaken in response to the rash of school shootings in the late 1990s found that of the 41 teen shooters studied, ranging in age from 11 to 21, with little commonality in family background, income, or intelligence, the one common link was depression and suicidal tendencies. One commonality is that, like most terrorists, they are almost always male. Moreover, like conventional suicide bombers, the school shooter invariably sees himself as a victim. The Secret Service report indicated that more than two-thirds of the school shooters felt "persecuted or bullied." The motive for the shooting is frequently revenge. In a way, school shooters are a lot like terrorists in that they feel victimized and despairing, they hunger for revenge, and they need to have their lives matter, even if only in hindsight.
One of the most pathetic details that emerged with last month's release of nearly 1,000 pages of previously confidential diary entries, notes, and schoolwork of Harris and Klebold's was this: Sandwiched between the hatred and loneliness and alienation was a simple yet acute longing for girlfriends. As was recently reported in Newsweek, Klebold, 17 at the time, lamented, "I don't know what I do wrong with people (mainly women) it's like they set out to hate & ignore me." Later he mourned, "Want TRUE love ... I hate everything, why can't I die. ... " This is not unlike the complex sexual longings of the fundamentalist suicide bomber, whose religious beliefs often lead to a complicated mix of desire for and loathing of women. The extent to which such repressed sexual desire and frustration fuels violence in both cases is worth at least probing further.
Certainly, there are differences between disaffected Goths and suicide bombers. The role religion and the promise of a heavenly reward plays in the minds of the latter group can't be underestimated. More broadly, teenagers are teenagers, and they are just not criminally culpable in the way an adult might be, even when the results of their attacks are as lethal. And because teenage boys with grudges are fundamentally different from adult men with liquid explosives, we should resist the lure of using terror laws to prosecute them, even when those laws tempt us with the prospect of longer sentences and trial in adult court.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.