I don’t know what it is about this country, but every few years we
seem to get absolutely hysterical over things that in retrospect turn
out to be sheerest sort of fantasy. Three hundred years ago, teenage
girls claimed to have seen old ladies change themselves into cats, fly
away on broomsticks and dance naked with the devil by the light of the
moon. And the result was, if a cow got sick in the village, they’d hang
an old lady as a witch.

Fifteen years ago in the McMartin pre-school case, Los Angeles
therapists (and the credulous prosecutors who relied on them) accused
some 80 local residents of a whole string of improbable offenses,
including the butchering of babies on the altars of local churches,
digging up corpses, beheading horses, molesting children in hot air
balloons, speedboats, car washes and in the storage room of the local
convenience store. Although no one was ever convicted of anything
(despite the longest, most expensive trial in American history), copycat
accusations spread around the country and the world.

Five years ago the Los Angeles media suddenly decided that the city
was suffering from a freeway shooting spree in which irate motorists
were blasting other drivers right off the road. At the height of the
(thankfully short-lived) hysteria, some people were afraid to go out to
dinner at night or attend night classes for fear they wouldn’t make it
home alive. It ought to have been obvious to anyone not in a canvas
restraining coat that the media was blowing things wildly out of
proportion (and indeed it was soon revealed that frequency of freeway
shootings, low to begin with, hadn’t increased at all).

Well here we are five years later right in time for our next national
hysteria — the every-boy-a-bomber syndrome, which, as a parent,
makes me feel a little bit absurd myself. No sooner do I get done
telling my two sons what a great country we live in because the First
Amendment protects our right to free speech then I pick up the paper and
read about a Virginia Beach high school junior who was kicked out of
school because two months ago he wrote a story for a state standardized
test about a boy who came to school wearing an atom bomb strapped to his

Although the boy wrote the story well before the deaths at Columbine,
when state test graders
finally got around to reading his essay, they immediately notified his
principal, who immediately began proceedings to expel the boy from
school. And this happened in spite of the fact that there was zero
evidence that it was a threat, was meant as a threat or could have been
a threat. It was a creative writing essay, not an ultimatum. Besides,
where is a teenage boy — or anyone else — going to get an atomic bomb
to strap to his chest? How could he possibly carry any such threat out,
even if he had wanted to? Do they even come that small? No matter. The
school had “a zero tolerance policy” of nuclear weapons in the
classroom. And the kid was out on his ear.

In Port Huron, Mich., a week ago four other teenage boys (two 13 and
two 14) were arrested for conspiracy to blow up their school after a
girl overheard them saying they were going to buy guns and steal other
weapons, which they then planned to use to blow up the school and rape
the girls. The boys (at least according to the press reports I read)
hadn’t actually done anything concrete (a pipe bomb was found in the
woods near the school but wasn’t connected to the boys). The charge
against the boys was rather conspiracy, which as I read it probably
meant that the boys were sitting around one day laughing and guffawing
and elbowing each other in the ribs in stitches over their wildest
fantasies. A lawyer for one of the boys said the worst thing his client
had ever done was “talking in class and running in the halls,” but now
the boy (and his three friends) are facing charges which carry the
potential of life in prison.

Bringing the matter a bit closer to home, two weeks ago my own
14-year-old son was thrown out of school for having drawn a plan for
blowing up the high school auditorium. If my son can be believed (and I
believe he can), he made the drawing (actually a crude hasty sketch)
with a couple of other kids more than four months ago when a winter rain
forced his gym class to spend an idle hour in the high school auditorium
with nothing to do (the same auditorium, incidentally, in which a few
months later he would be wildly-applauded for his portrayal of Franklin
Roosevelt in his school’s production of “Annie”). But after the incident
at Columbine, some literal-minded girl in his class suddenly remembered
(or was told about) the drawing, whereupon she told her mom who called
the assistant principal who then called me into his office to confront
me with the evidence. Not only was there the sketch (which my son says
he’d long ago forgotten was even in his notebook), but my son was
“carrying two wristwatches” and had a photo of a bloody blender in which
my son had supposedly pureed the family hamster.

To this day I don’t know what the problem with the two digital
wristwatches was (one was a Christmas present from me and the other was
one my son found at a city bus stop), unless the assistant principal
thought they were timing devices for as-yet-unassembled bombs.
As for the notion that my son was planning to blow up the school, well
my son may very well have had passing fantasies that day of blowing up
the auditorium and the gym instructor too, but that’s all they were —
adolescent fantasies.

The difference between him and the probably 200 or 300 other kids at
the same school who at one time or another probably felt the same way
was that he put his thoughts down on paper (and then left the page in
his notebook). Indulging himself in destruction fantasies, wasn’t smart,
but it also wasn’t rare — otherwise books and movies like Stephen
King’s “Carrie,” in which a teenage girl burns down her school, wouldn’t
be so wildly popular. Besides, I know exactly where he gets his notions.
I remember spending the better part of my entire sixth grade drawing
F-86 Sabre jets blasting MiG-15s out of the sky, shooting up ships and
blowing up buildings, including no doubt my local elementary school too.
The difference was, the school principal in those days had the common
sense to dismiss my “violent” drawings as the idle musings of a bored
kid with too much time on his hands.

As for the supposed serious psychological problems demonstrated by
the hamster in the blender, we didn’t have a hamster. What we did have
was some fruit, food coloring and milk. One evening a couple of years
ago, my son set out to make a fruit frappe in the blender. When he
turned it on, it did indeed look so bloody awful it made him burst out
laughing. I was there and when he called it to my attention I laughed
too. With typical teenage excess, he thought it was so funny he got a
camera and took a photograph. It reminded him (it did me too) of the
scene in “Gremlins” where the mom explodes a gremlin by trapping it in a
microwave and turning on the power.

But in the wake of Littleton even innocently warped teenage humor was
seen as proof of twisted minds and dangerous tendencies. I really think
the assistant principal (who made a copy of the blender photo)
half-believed that had it not been for his prompt action in kicking out
my son, there wouldn’t be anything left but a smoking crater where the
auditorium used to be.

This is nuts. It’s nuts for my son and it’s nuts for all the other
boys around the country who, according to the ACLU, have been
disciplined, grilled or expelled in the last couple of weeks for such
crimes as coloring their hair, wearing black trench coats, carrying
chemistry books (to learn about explosive compounds?), or merely
displaying a tendency to “brood.” To punish boys for thought crimes
(especially at a time when — despite Columbine — school killings and
indeed all school crimes are on the decline) is as ridiculous as what
they did to witches 300 years ago in Salem, Mass. It’s also troubling —
what is wrong with our country that every decade or so its citizens go
crazy over nothing?

Is it that people need crises in their lives and when there are no
real ones around they make them up out of thin air? Is it because we’ve
lost our national sense of community, don’t know our neighbors (or their
children either)? Is it because we rely too much on the
sensation-seeking and ubiquitous media (academic studies show that
people who rely on the media for their information about the world are
more paranoid than the rest of us)? Or is it just periodic
manifestations of our latent reptilian id? As human beings we’re just
wild at heart, and nothing will ever much change that?

Paul Ciotti is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and is
currently freelance writer and filmmaker.

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