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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Smart Bombs

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There was quite an astonishing little item in the paper recently about the sort of thing that makes me glad I grew up in the inner city: i.e., the national proliferation of "assassination games" among mostly white, suburban, middle- and upper-class youth. High school students across the country, even in the wake of Littleton, organize mock war games as a rite of passage or of spring. "A.P. Assassination" is what one school in exclusive Westport, Connecticut, calls the hunting season that begins right after advanced placement testing. For approximately three weeks students track one another around town with toy guns. (At one school five car crashes were attributed to the chase.) The student left standing after this grueling process of elimination "wins." One exuberant 18-year-old who aspires to be a physics professor dismissed criticism as politically correct overreaction and likened the game to "playing cowboys and Indians." (No Indians were apparently available for comment.)

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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It began to dawn on me why all those kids in Colorado could go on and on about how "normal" Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were. I began to appreciate why the authorities might find it hard to pick out any further suspects from a student body whose poetic sensibility is suffused with the metaphors of blood lust. (Although if "assassination games" were played in the inner city, I wonder whether those same authorities wouldn't have cordoned off entire neighborhoods--remember the 3,000 policemen who showed up for Khallid Muhammad's Million Youth March in Harlem? I suspect they'd have gone door to door strip-searching anyone who blinked the wrong way. I think of the long, tragic history of what happens to minority kids who wave toy guns in public. I think about Dylan Klebold tootling around town in his BMW with its trunk full of bombs, and I can't help thinking about the black dentist in New Jersey who was stopped by the highway patrol more than a hundred times over four years before he finally traded in his BMW for something more drably utilitarian.) Perhaps the power of "the normative" to induce moral blind spots can be appreciated for its depth and complexity only when the world for some reason gets turned upside down.

The last time I can remember so much national soul-searching was around the Jeffrey Dahmer case. Dahmer, as you will recall, murdered and cannibalized at least seventeen men, mostly black, Hispanic or Asian, in Milwaukee. As in the Littleton case, there was lots of evidence that Dahmer had expressed intense hatred for very specific categories of humanity, particularly blacks and gays, yet, again as in Littleton, a kind of randomized, free-enterprise denial tended to diffuse the significance of that. As one commentator on the Dahmer case put it, "only" ten of his victims were black. Or, as one Milwaukee resident put it, "He could have hated women, he could have hated whites, he just happened to hate men."

This is not to say that the criminal acts of Klebold, Harris or Dahmer were in any way "normal." But it is intriguing that all of them were able to render their criminality invisible by operating within the lacunae of larger, socialized denial. Clever criminals will always do their worst. But a society enables those criminals when it allows itself to be predictably and collectively dumb about certain things, when it succumbs to the kinds of stereotypes that are barely noticed because "everyone thinks that."

Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, escaped suspicion for as long as he did because his bizarre, outsized hatreds were located in areas where a lot of saner people also lodge their little hostilities. Dahmer was on probation for child molestation, yet the social workers who were supposed to do home visits had missed that shrine of bones in his living room because they were afraid--not of him but of visiting the inner-city neighborhood where he lived. Most of Dahmer's victims were gay men, a community against which the national campaign of beating, disappearance and murder is so out of control that more than a dozen missing gay men in one city were not enough to alert anyone to the fact that a serial killer might be on the loose. One 14-year-old Laotian victim, who had escaped despite being drugged, naked and bleeding, was actually returned to Dahmer's apartment by the police after Dahmer told them the incident was a domestic dispute between the boy and himself. (Even in the face of repeated follow-up calls from worried neighbors, police issued casual assurances that the boy was an "adult.") Finally, there were charges that the police discounted calls from the women of the mostly black neighborhood who had complained repeatedly and urgently about everything from the smell emanating from Dahmer's apartment to his public drunkenness.

In retrospect, what is remarkable is the amount of official energy that went into denying the evidence that was right under everyone's nose. The Dahmer case was the product of a struggle among competing understandings held by communities with very different ideas of what is legitimate. Dahmer's status within those communities says a lot about those in power and those not--Dahmer as white man deemed legitimate in a largely black neighborhood; as gay man deemed exotically licentious in a world of heterosexist, militarily modeled police; and as child molester in a world that sexualizes children relentlessly. Dahmer's ability to fool rested solidly upon the socialized proclivities of those in positions of institutional power for seeing only their own expectations and then lending those expectations a stupid degree of veracity. It depended on a strong presumption about adult Asian men as soft, effeminate, exotic, sexualized and perpetually childlike; of blacks as dangerous; and of women, particularly black women, as hysterical and unbelievable.

We will find out more about what happened at Columbine High as time goes on. And I'm sure the young physicist from Westport will one day make his mother proud by developing some very smart bombs indeed. In the meantime, we need to take a good, hard look at the diversity in what we call "common" sense.

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