Ron Powers ("The Apocalypse of Adolescence," March Atlantic) paints an apocalyptic image of "murderous" youth in Vermont. But annualized crime data collected by the Justice Department paint a very different picture: In Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine an average of six juveniles were arrested every year for murder in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, and two in 2000. In 2000 Vermont's 37,000 youths aged fourteen to seventeen accounted for just one homicide, and thirty-three violent crimes, in the entire state.
The inference that random crimes, occurring over half a decade, are somehow evidence of an apocalypse is about as valid as the claim that Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson are indicative of their adult generations' predisposition to murder.
The Justice Policy Institute
I found Ron Powers's article disturbing in both its content and its claims. Although Powers confirmed my suspicions with his careful documentation of the precipitous rise in intensely violent crimes committed by adolescents in Vermont, he concluded—speciously, I think—that Vermont's adolescent criminals "are us."
Every teenager experiences precarious periods of suspended moral reasoning as he or she negotiates what the eminent social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg mapped out as the "six stages of cognitive development." But what kept Robert Tulloch's and James Parker's classmates from acting out in the same way they did? Why don't the poorer, more oppressed Vermont kids who aren't presidents of their student councils, as Tulloch was, or aspiring young artists and musicians, as Parker was, commit similar crimes? How can Powers claim one moment that Vermont is abandoning its youth by banning skateboarding in its parks and then report the next that a young criminal like Laird Stanard, who murdered his mother, received nurturing adult attention from her in the form of warm, cigarette-sharing talks about life? Perhaps Powers comes closest to an explanation for the egregious rash of recent juvenile crimes in Vermont when he quotes a segment of a letter from Theo Padnos, the unorthodox jailhouse teacher whom he romanticizes in the article. Trying to explain why Laird Stanard shot his mother, Padnos quotes "the shrink" assigned to the case: "I don't have any idea what the reason is, you know? Who knows?"
The examples Ron Powers uses in his article on murderous kids show that the primary disservice we do to them is to arm them. Laird Stanard's mother, in particular, would undoubtedly not be dead today if her son hadn't had the chance to shoot her in a moment of impulse. Jane Hubbard's story indicates that an attack is not the same as a killing—her attackers lost their nerve, and she survived. Ready access to guns elevates manageable family crises to tragedies; having guns around the house gives a child the idea that a gun may be used, no matter what "gun training" the parent may give. Guns are fetishistic icons promising power, vindication, and selfhood to those with little or no self-control. Americans have failed spectacularly to take responsibility for the harm an armed populace inflicts upon itself.
Carmel Valley, Calif.
Ron Powers is correct that policies favoring punishment over rehabilitation are not helpful. However, he is wrong to suggest, by his approving description of Theo Padnos's literature class, that providing an accepting environment in which young offenders can come together in groups will be of much value. The evidence indicates otherwise: cost-effective programs that reduce juvenile offending focus on ensuring that young people do not have contact with other at-risk or offending youth and that their home and school environments reinforce effective academic and social behavior while placing clear, consistent, but not harsh limits on undesirable behavior.
Oregon Research Institute
Ron Powers replies:
Jason Ziedenberg's reductive reading of my article amounts to a validation of Mark Twain's remark that "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics." His institute's own, highly selective "annualized crime data" have nothing to say about most of the issues I raised: a youth-gang efflorescence (aggressively curbed) in a state that had never before experienced youth gangs; a current heroin epidemic in a state where heroin, and attendant teenage prostitution, were virtually unknown two years ago; a 77 percent increase in the number of youthful jail inmates in a three-year period; a statewide eruption of public school bomb threats; a 50 percent increase in the number of school dropouts in the 1990s. Most damning, Mr. Ziedenberg's statistics are powerless to express the evolving quality (as distinct from quantity) of teen violence in Vermont. The crimes under examination were distinctive not for their volume but for their extremes of premeditated cruelty and thoroughness of preparation. In short, the inference that raw murder statistics are somehow evidence of adolescent tranquillity is about as valid as the claim that body counts in Vietnam predicted the outcome of that war.
Chard deNiord seems inclined toward the Manichean view that there are good folks and there are bad folks in this world, and trying to figure out who's which is a waste of time. I respectfully feel otherwise. I would hardly dissent from Jane Smiley's observation that our national love affair with firearms has grievously increased the toll of juvenile slaughter; but this doesn't account for the rising extremes of juvenile alienation—evinced, for example, by Robert Tulloch and Jimmy Parker's choice of SOG Seal 2000 combat knives as weapons in their assault. Similarly, I can't find reason to dispute Anthony Biglan's argument for keeping young "offenders" sequestered from one another. My article was intended partly as an impetus toward a first step in such a process—namely, to reduce our national denial that far too many of our children have grown angry and withdrawn in the face of a spreading blankness in their lives.
Charles C. Mann ("1491," March Atlantic) compellingly describes the melting of barriers between ecology and the study of human history and prehistory that is leading to a groundshift in the way we conceive of our relationship with ecosystems. He is also dead on when he asserts that this new knowledge is shaking the foundations of the conservation world. However, when Mann says that ecologists have "vigorously attacked" the view that the first European observers in the New World were not looking at wilderness, he misses the mark by a wide margin. In fact ecologists have been leading the charge to revise notions of ecosystem integrity.
The same science that has produced revelations about the impact of prehistorical human societies is also showing us how much more quickly the earth has been changing in the recent past. Careful consideration of major environmental issues shows that it is the rates of change and the sizes of effects, not the fact of their existence, that lie at the core of debates over what to do. Societies will have to face the same decisions they have always had to face. Fortunately, as the human population grows, so does understanding of our influence over the rest of the living world. Unfortunately, turning the earth into a "garden" for 10 billion people is not likely to satisfy anyone's notion of successful environmental conservation.
Associate Professor of Ecology
New Haven, Conn.
I take issue with two rather minor points in Charles Mann's article about pre-Columbian America.