Saturday, November 23, 2013


Several assorted thoughts on CNN's article regarding a series of teenage assaults, titled "Terrifying teen 'knockout' game assaults spreading". First, some excerpts from the article:
- A sick so-called game known as "knockout" -- where teens randomly sucker-punch strangers with the goal of knocking them unconscious with a single blow -- is catching the attention of law enforcement throughout the nation.
Authorities have reported similar incidents [to one occurring in New Jersey] in New York, Illinois, Missouri and Washington.

One of the latest attacks happened on Friday, when someone was allegedly punched on a street in Brooklyn. Police brought four men in for questioning and arrested 28-year-old Amrit Marajh.
Youth violence expert Chuck Williams blamed the media and parents for what called extreme aggression by America's youth. Negative attention, he said, is often rewarded.

"That's America. America loves violence and so do our kids," Williams said. "We market violence to our children and we wonder why they're violent. It's because we are."

Williams, a professor of psychology and education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said some young people are desperate for attention. He called it the "Miley Cyrus effect," where teens will do anything to get noticed, no matter how heinous or unconscionable.

"These kids know the consequences," he said. "They want to get arrested. They want to get caught, because they want that notoriety. They know they won't go away forever because they're kids. It's a win-win all around for them."
Republican New York State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco on Wednesday proposed new legislation he's calling the "Knockout Assault Deterrent Act," calling for juveniles charged with the random assaults to be tried as adults.
Now, my reactions:

First, I am 100% confident that this is not a national trend. There are several reasons for this, starting with the fact that these "terrifying teen crime-as-game wave" stories always turn out to be overblown (at best). Remember "wilding"? I'd ask how the media gets duped by this over and over again, except "duped" is the wrong word for "actively enflaming social anxieties in an effort to sell copy". Beyond that, there being reports of teenagers attacking people in five states does not a meaningful trend make. This would be true even if the one of "teenagers" cited as being part of the trend wasn't 28.

Second, I am 100% confident that "the media" and "culture" are not to blame for attacks by teenagers. Aside from the causality problem evident from the fact that everyone is exposed to this same culture yet most young people are not turning violent, juvenille crime rates have been consistently falling for the past 15 years. At the moment, our rates of juvenile murder and rape are lower than they were in 1960. Perhaps we should start contemplating what horrors were wrought by the horribly violent culture of the Leave it Beaver era. Or perhaps we can talk about our ongoing media culture of sensationalizing fictive "crime wave" stories which serve to justify over-policing and further damage trust relations between the police and communities they serve.

Third, I am 100% confident that the vast majority of young people contemplating engaging in random acts of violence do not have any sense of the legal framework and sentencing guidelines which govern their contemplated offenses. I base this on the fact that I'm pretty sure I was in the 99.9th percentile of legally-aware teenagers, and I had no idea about what criminal penalties existed for various offenses. To the extent that teenagers do have beliefs that their sentences will be relatively lenient, I am sure it comes not from poring over the latest statutes to emerge from the legislature but rather from a vague sense that "juveniles don't do hard time," which won't be sensitive to changes in penalties. Moreover, the youths most at risk for this sort of behavior are also those most likely to know from personal experience that teenagers can and are sent to prison for long periods of time.

Honestly, stories like this make me really angry. They're the same "mistake" over and over, and unlike the majority of American teenagers they actually do pose a systematic threat to the safety of our nation, by misdirecting legal and police resources and by reinforcing narratives that lead to the police and young Americans seeing each other as enemies. It's disgraceful.

UPDATE: As if to mock me, CNN posts the video entitled "Is The Knockout Game Even Real?" They spend 95% of the time rehashing the knockout game sensationalism, followed by quickly noting that there may be nothing distinguishing these attacks from other random acts of violence (let alone warranting a "trend story"). Even this caveat is immediately brushed aside on the grounds that we all should be terrified of this wave of violence.


PG said...

At least the CNN coverage was a little less racially tinged than where I first saw the story:

EW said...

For what it's worth, the original muckraker Lincoln Stephens created a crime wave. That is, during a long, boring summer covering Sacramento, he and his fellow journalists decided to see what would happen if they all decided to cover more crime stories. Sure enough, pretty soon legislators were decrying the growth of lawlessness in society.

In short, this dynamic has been around a long time....