With a median per capita income of $12000 (against a national average of $54000), White Pine is a tiny 96% white, blue-to-dark-grey collar town of 2000 in eastern Tennessee. Although one in four residents of this town lives well below the poverty line – in trailers and ramshackle mobile homes, barely able to make ends meet – gun ownership is 85% and fire-arm and ammunition sales boom all year round.
White Pine has been voting Republican en masse, for over five decades now. During the 2000 Gore-Bush Presidential fight, when Gore had ratcheted up his rhetoric against gun violence and the NRA, the town found itself briefly in the spotlight after an NRA commercial appeared on network TV, stressing how guns have kept the little town safe.
This is redneck country.
Some say that the NRA destroyed Al Gore’s chances of an outright win. Very few gun-lovers were able to sit through Charlton Heston’s fiery rhetoric at the May 2000 NRA convention, without feeling goose bumps all over. To them it was like as if God himself (or maybe Moses) was speaking –
For the next six months, Al Gore is going to smear you as the enemy. He will slander you as gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, bloodthirsty maniacs who stand in the way of a safer America. Will you remain silent? I will not remain silent. If we are going to stop this, then it is vital for every law-abiding gun owner in America to register to show up at the polls on Election Day and vote.
Heston then paused to pick up a replica of a flintlock rifle and with his best Moses-meets-Ben Hur tone, he boomed…
So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that dare to take our freedom away, I want to say these fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore : ‘I will give up my gun when you peel my cold dead fingers from around it.’
Residents of White Pine watched the ‘pulpit’ speech that night with their jaws hanging open and cheered – every last one of them. Why wouldn’t they? Everybody there owns at least one gun.
The most popular fire-arm at White Pine is the single-shot 12-gauge shotgun. It has a single barrel from the end of which emerges a solid lead ball, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, hurtling forward at slightly above 1800 feet per second.
At 100 feet, the 12-gauge shotgun can drop a moose and at 5 feet, it is devastating, crushing bone and cartilage and mushrooming as it bludgeons it’s way through the body, leaving behind a half-foot wide hole as the exit wound. Surviving a 12-gauge round in the chest at close range is almost unheard of, even for fully grown adults – let alone 8-year old Makayla Dyer.
Last Saturday, an 11-year-old White Pine boy was arrested for murdering the angelic little girl, when she refused his request to play with her new puppy. The gun that the boy used was a single-shot 12-gauge shotgun of the kind described above, which belonged to his father – a gun that the said gentleman legally owned and did not have to register or provide any documentation to buy. By American law, he was not even required to store the gun in a secure child-safe location. So, he didn’t. It wouldn’t even have occurred to him anyway.
According to unconfirmed reports, the father had trained the boy to shoot, probably at a firing range and/or out in the wilderness, of which there is plenty around this scenic little town. Overnight, the boy’s parents are now a haunted couple.
Jefferson County Sheriff G.W. “Bud” McCoig says that the boy has been charged with first-degree murder and prosecutors are toying with the possibility of moving the case to an adult court, where he could be tried as an adult – something that McCoig and his creed seem to be salivating over.
It is easy to understand McCoig’s zealousness. America is a nation which thirsts for blind, raging, reason-defying vengeance and it is likely that McCoig’s wish shall indeed come true. In the state of Tennessee, like in most US states, a child above the age of 10, can be charged and tried for first-degree murder, like an adult. And then, if guilty, he can be incarcerated for life without parole.
Sending an 11-year-old to live with rapists, pedophiles, bank robbers and murderers inside an institution where sexual abuse is endemic, may seem crazy to us outside the US, but for Americans? Well, y’know – shit happens, he got what was coming to him, man.
I just found out that there is no real system in place in the US, to deal with little children accused of murder. Children kill and when they do, they face the possibility of being charged as adults and sent to adult prisons and then left there, to fend for themselves.
If the boy is tried as an adult and found guilty, he will be sentenced to life in an adult detention facility where he will be sexually assaulted night and day, until he becomes eligible for parole, in 2040, when he is 36 years old. If he is tried as a juvenile, he would most likely be incarcerated inside a Darwinesque juvenile detention facility till he reaches the age of 21. The chances of the former happening – the kid going, not to a kiddie jail, but a real jail – are more likely, since the justice system is trying so hard to make it happen.
Either way, the little guy will go to jail. And even if he survives the incarceration, it will corrupt and criminalize him completely. In effect, his chances of growing into a normal productive member of American society are now next to nil.
What is significant is the ease with which the boy decided to use the gun without a second thought. I try to imagine my own son, when he was 11. He wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a gun. It’s simple – that’s the way he has been brought up, to never use violent means of any kind.
But is the reason why my son has turned out to be a well-adjusted human being – upbringing? I wonder. After all there are literally thousands of brutalized, abused and neglected children who have grown into not only productive members of society but even beacons of hope and inspiration.
On another note, one wonders if children, given their developing brains and impressionable personality, can turn into psychopaths. By the cool manner in which the White Pine boy went about getting the shotgun and shooting the 8-year old, it appears to bear out the likelihood. Experts tend to believe that a child can develop psychopathic behavior, given the right combination of neurons in his brain – something that has absolutely nothing to do with his upbringing, though the way he is brought up does tend to act as a catalyst.
Research shows that children as young as five can turn into psychopaths, with an incredible capacity to adapt their minds so that reason ceases to exist and even murder begins to seem like normal behavior. The most vicious killers within Ugandan Guerilla leader, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, are 10-13 year old children.
William Golding’s path breaking novel Lord of the flies, though fiction, brings out the savage inside children vividly. The book is about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results. In the lawless wilderness of the island, they gradually descend into savagery, regressing toward a primitive form of existence that was more in character among hunter-gatherers, 15000 years ago.
Perhaps the best fictional depiction of a child psychopath is by Macaulay Culkin in the 1993 thriller The good son. Culkin plays the role of a murderously jealous and possessive 12-year old.
The idea that a child could have no innate empathy is one that most people struggle to accept. For me however, it is a concept that is easy to understand – I was in a boarding school filled with sadists. I recall one kid, two years my junior and maybe around 10-11, who would trap a sparrow inside the dorm changing room, shut the windows and swish his towel around, forcing the hapless bird to keep flying until it dropped, exhausted. He would then catch the sparrow and stick pins into it, while the little bird thrashed around in vain.
The fundamental question is – are children capable of understanding the consequences of their actions? Maybe not – recent studies suggest that the brain’s prefrontal lobe which, some scientists speculate, plays a crucial role in inhibiting inappropriate behavior, does not reach full development until age-20. But this scientific reality is lost on the American establishment.
America is by and large a very vengeful nation. This vengefulness may be tied directly to it’s deeply religious Christian roots. Excessively religious societies are usually intolerant and retributive, preferring to seek refuge behind an either-with-us-or-against-us mindset.
The image of American troops kneeling to pray, just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is an interesting irony. Seeking God’s aid to exact murderous revenge is an act that is practiced by all fundamentalist regimes. Al Qaida and ISIS cadres routinely recite verses from the Quran before they launch suicide attacks.
The thirst for revenge is set in stone inside America’s constitution – carefully cloaked in the guise of a right to bear arms, to be used ostensibly as an act of defense and not ‘first strike’. If someone hurts you or even looks like he might hurt you, don’t wait to seek justice under the law – kill him with your own two hands, that is the law, America seems to say, however real or perceived that hurt might be.
The hurt that the 11-year old Tennessee boy felt was the perceived lack of ‘respect’ 8-year old Makayla showed by refusing to let him touch her new puppy. In this, he was no different from any gun-worshipping, bible-toting American adult. In essence, that boy is what America really is – a vengeful, trigger-happy kid who perceives hurts where there really aren’t any.
What the kid didn’t count on however, was that like any closed-loop system, America turns around and feeds on itself – which it did this time as well – by first creating the conditions that can offer the boy the opportunity to get hold of a gun with ease and then turning around and charging him with first-degree murder.
Then there are the child killer’s parents. A poll taken right after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, showed that 83% of the respondents blamed the parents, some pegging them as being even more culpable than the murderous boys themselves. This is even though it is now a medically established fact that how a person behaves is directly related to the way his neurotransmitters are wired, usually from birth.
Some parents go into denial when their children commit heinous crimes – like the parents of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlin and Dzokhar Tsarnaev. The senior Tsarnaevs firmly believe even today, that their boys were victims of an FBI conspiracy.
But for most parents of children who have done terrible things, life is living hell. Besides being told, ‘he was your kid, therefore you are equally responsible’, they are made to feel as though they are not entitled to cry for their child, because he is still alive while the other child is dead. They feel so pressurized by society that if the court were to even pardon him, the burden of guilt would be so great that they just might say ‘no, keep him locked up’.
So, just how much are parents culpable, or are they at all? Should the justice system itself be rewired to look at crime differently – not just as something that requires punishment? These questions become more relevant, now that the you’ll-get-what’s coming-to-you philosophy doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
Perhaps the parents of the White Pine boy want to apologize, say how sorry they are that Makayla is dead. Unfortunately the courts usually do not allow a face-to-face meeting, for security reasons. Bereft of the opportunity to atone in the eyes of society, perhaps they are the real victims of the killing. All around them there are people, warm living bodies, walking around their daily business, but they – the boy’s parents – are pariahs, unable to reach out and touch any one of them, shunned by one and all.
Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, they are condemned to live, the albatross round their necks, wailing in despair…..
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.