Little terrorists may grow up to be big terrorists

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

from "The Second Coming," William Butler Yeats

That first stanza of Yeats's chilling, prophetic poem comes to me more often lately. The disturbing images with their portent of chaos are nightmarish. Recently, I thought of the poem again after learning about the terror attacks in Reno.

You heard about them as well, only the news reports called them "school vandalism." Those words do not begin to describe the destruction wreaked by two stepbrothers, aged 14 and 15, who demonstrated what is worst in us.

In what KRNV News called "one of the worst cases of vandalism in the (Washoe County School) district's history," the damage inflicted on Stead Elementary School is estimated at $40,000-$70,000. The school had been vandalized six times this summer, so finally school police set up surveillance and caught the budding terrorists in the act. They may be responsible for other cases of vandalism as well.

The list of their destructive acts at Stead Elementary is appalling: they broke hinges on windows; sprayed classrooms and computers with fire extinguishers; squeezed mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise into laser printers; dumped paint onto computers; spilled soda onto keyboards; poured bubble solution everywhere that was to be used for science; threw coffee, yogurt, creamer, tea bags, and sugar on walls, floors, and ceilings; burned matches on the carpets; piled books into a heap and tried to burn them; went through teachers' desks and destroyed or stole the contents, including student records, lesson plans, and personal property; and, in perhaps the most pathetic and telling act of violence, spray painted "BITHC" on walls. They destroyed a school but don't even know how to correctly spell the "B" word.

It's easy to point a finger at these boys' parents, and they should, with their children, make full restitution and then some. Nothing excuses them from knowing where their young children are - whether it is broad daylight or the middle of the night. Nothing excuses disrespectful, dangerous behavior. And nothing excuses robbing society of children who have the potential for productive citizenship if only they had proper guidance, support and role models.

But the problem is bigger than that. If it were that simple, parenting education, severe punishment, and social intervention would be showing more positive results. I suspect that antisocial behavior is most effectively discouraged, not by government intrusion, but by the high expectations of society - by decent, responsible people like you and me who set good examples for our children and who do not give implicit or explicit permission or excuses for bad behavior. When we as a culture stop tolerating disrespect, lack of self-control, abdication of personal responsibility, and just plain rudeness, then maybe our kids will have a fighting chance.

These days, more than ever, I believe in the wisdom of the African proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child." And if that is so, then our village is in big trouble - we apparently are raising little terrorists, like the boys who vandalized Stead Elementary School.

They have no fear of consequences and no empathy for the teachers or the children whose classrooms they destroyed. They have no respect for their parents, who presumably pay taxes to support education, and they don't care what the community thinks of them. They destroy property and potentially can destroy lives - if the boys had successfully burned down the school, someone might have died. That someone might have been my child or family member - or yours - and that makes it our business. If our village is raising children who are morally bereft and who deviate from what is best in us, then, no matter how well intentioned we are as individuals, our village is failing.

Most disturbing is the loss of hope that this type of turpitude suggests. By destroying their schools, these children are destroying their own future. Sadly, maybe they are telling us that they don't see much of a future for themselves.

If these lost children's behavior is a precursor of things to come, like that of canaries in a coal mine, then we need to listen up. Many of them have stopped singing. Many of them live in spiritual darkness. Many of them batter themselves against the cage door in ways that should be warnings to us: things are falling apart; the center cannot hold. Chaos may be closer than we think, perhaps hatching in our very midst.

n Marilee Swirczek lives and teaches in Carson City.


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