Monday, March 28, 2005

Bullied Teen Terrorists

One of the joys of living in a corporate-owned country is that everything gets branded. Human commodities require bar codes and bright labels, 'else there'd be no way to fully understand what anybody says. Arguments, beliefs, poses, attitudes -- all need neat, distinctive tags in order to be sold and responsibly consumed.

The latest brand -- to me, anyway -- is Bullied Teen Terrorist (BTT). Snappy. Very Anthony Burgess, or maybe Burroughs in his "Wild Boys" period. Simply take a perennial social category/problem -- bullied teens -- and yoke it to the Grand Term of our time -- terrorist. New product! Perfect for cable chat! (Once Terri Schiavo passes on, that is . . .) Fresh meat for sociologists, child psychologists and professional moralists!

Much of this noise comes in the wake of Jeff Weise's Red Lake, Minn. murder spree, a deadly Columbine knock-off that sent a few dozen more volts through the body politic, making every moody picked-on teen who seethes and makes hit lists the Next Danger, or BTT.

Now, this doesn't mean that there aren't genuine threats from a few nihilistic teens (esp when, like Weise, they give a strong hint of what's going through their stormy minds). I doubt, sadly enough, that he'll be the last boy to cut loose with firearms and/or bombs. Part of the battered landscape, alas. But if every teen boy who's pushed around, belittled and intimidated by bigger kids decided to go ballistic, then we'd be in a serious mess. There'd be several shootings a day.

Still, there are teens who, fed up with getting hassled, fantasize about striking back, their hard feelings usually expressed through hit lists, a very American pastime (is there another culture where lists enjoy such popularity?). A recent Detroit Free Press story examined a couple of Michigan teens who are being held as potential BTTs, one of whom had an arms cache at home, the other simply caught making a hit list. Both have been charged under an "anti-terrorist" law passed in 2002 by the Michigan Legislature. And while even prosecutors admit that perhaps this law is on the broad side, such legislation is seen by many as a necessary step in the War on Terror (another hot brand).

Sullen bullied American teens = Islamic fanatics? Looks that way. Americans love overkill while pursuing the easily defined. This is the beauty of With Us Or Against Us: anyone can become a deadly enemy at any time for any reason. And those who have the power to make and enforce enemy distinctions do so by -- that's right! -- making lists. Hence the need for ready labels and the branding of human emotion.

Having been a bullied teen myself, I empathize with those kids who, because they are sensitive, shy, artistic, weird, confused, queer, undecided, rebellious, get the shit kicked outta them by jocks and young Repub goons who feel threatened by their presence. In my case it got so bad that in the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I began martial arts training -- Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Chinese Kenpo -- and really devoted myself to it. After four solid months of exercise, drills and sparring, I returned to school with a different attitude, and had exactly one fight: a big farm boy who singled me out in gym and came after me behind the bleachers. Two sharp kicks and that was it. On his back. When he finally got up, he wanted to be friends. So not only was I able to defend myself, I gained a physically large ally in the process. I never had a problem with bullies again.

The idea of stockpiling weapons and shooting up the school never occurred to me, and I was used to being around relatives who owned firearms (a few years later, however, some of my martial arts buddies got into handguns, resulting in one of them getting accidentally shot and killed). A different time, though I'm certain that the majority of bullied teens today wouldn't dream of going Columbine. That's why exploiting isolated tragedies like the Red Lake shootings to justify perpetual war overseas and assaults on liberty at home is absurd and insane but ultimately useful. It expands the target field for those who are on the hunt, and it makes criminals of kids who've done nothing but catalogue their fear, anger and desperation.

Perhaps, in time, the BTTs can be rehabilitated and encouraged to channel their raw violent feelings in a productive way -- like warblogging, for example. There they can advocate mass murder and torture without alarming the authorities. Context is everything, or as Nike chief Phil Knight likes to say, the brand is sacred, assuming it's the Correct Brand.