In 1954, a single book destroyed the popular notion that children are innocent souls. In that book, a plane of such innocent souls crashes on a deserted island. There, in a paradise of coral and coconuts and wild pigs, the survivors soon revert to a state of nature. But such a state, author William Golding warned us, is not an idyll of flower sniffing and poetry writing. In The Lord of the Flies, the children turn savage, inspired not by beauty or the common good but, rather, the will to power.
The Lord of the Flies takes place during a time of war. On a tropical island far from civilization, Ralph and Piggy and Jack reproduce the dynamics of the heartless society from which they’d been torn. The children become savages because savagery is an integral part of the modern world, with its trench warfare, nuclear weapons, and periodic genocides. The island to which devilish Jack sets fire during the final hunt for Ralph mirrors the world of their parents: a world in flames.
It’s no longer a shock to learn of what the very young are capable. In Britain in 1993, two 10-year-olds abducted, tortured, and killed a 2-year-old boy, James Bulger. In Norway in 1994, two 6-year-olds beat their 5-year-old playmate with stones and left her in the snow to die. In America, which seems to be suffering an epidemic of children killing children, an 11-year-old last year shot dead his 8-year-old neighbor because she wouldn’t let him see her puppy.
By the time they become adolescents, young people become even more prone to impulsive, often violent behavior. They also reveal a greater susceptibility to peer pressure that can translate into gang membership or an obsession with cults. Our school shooters are usually teenagers. Our suicide bombers also tend to be quite young–the average age of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, was 24 and of suicide bombers in Israel only 21. Of course, that’s also the age when young people acquire the legal right to kill when they enlist in armies.
What’s most unsettling is the sheer unpredictability of youth-on-youth violence. Consider the recent Washington Post story about a soccer game last month in an Iraqi village 40 miles south of Baghdad.