When Humanity is Disregarded

There was something familiar about a comment in a recent sermon that touched on the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, about the problem being less one of guns, or of mental health, or of whatever else, than of a lack of respect for people and for human life. It reminded me of some of the musings of Ken Corbett in A Murder over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, his account of the criminal trial for a shooting that took place in a school a decade ago, and of related events in the aftermath. That particular murder happened ten years ago this month, at E. O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, so perhaps this is as good a time as any to revisit the case.

One day in the middle of February in 2008, a Tuesday if I recall correctly, Brandon McInerney, after making up his mind to do so the previous day and laying plans that night, snuck a handgun into school and shot another student, in the back of the head, twice, during class. If there's any silver lining, it's that he shot only one person. The victim, legally Lawrence King but better known as Larry, never had any chance of survival. The facts of the case are stark and were never contested; the only thing police weren't clear on is whether McInerney attempted a third shot that failed because the gun had jammed, or whether it simply jammed when he dropped it after firing. Either way, King was dead. The rest of the class, as well as the teacher, was traumatized. The entire school's sense of safety was shattered. Bad as this was on its own, it all happened the year after the Virginia Tech massacre, and almost nine full years after the infamous Columbine shooting. So you'd think the condemnation of McInerney would be swift and universal.

But McInerney was white, while King was not, and it didn't help matters that strong undercurrents of racism ran through the community. McInerney was strong and athletic and regarded as handsome, while King not only was not but apparently had some form of learning impediment. McInerney knew how to curry favor with his teachers and other authority figures, and was so proficient at doing so that many of them continued to regard him as basically a good and reasonable kid even after the shooting. McInerney, Corbett quips, "could have been cast in an advertisement for 'Boy'." In contrast, and most damning of all in the eyes of many, King had not only been known as "gay" for years, but had, in the nine days leading up to the shooting, begun doing such things as wearing heeled boots or earrings or some eye shadow, and was starting to consider "Leticia" as a name. McInerney appeared to fit people's idea of what masculinity was supposed to look like; King had never done so and was apparently finished with trying to. To most of the teachers, that made King the problem, and they were the primary source of information for the news media prior to the trial. And so, McInerney, according to the predominant story at the time, was just a normal boy who had maybe gone a little too far, but was merely reacting to a problem that no one else had been willing to deal with.

Rumors abounded of ways that King supposedly tormented McInerney and other boys, and were used to paint the victim as the oppressor. Yet when the case came to trial, not a single witness to any of the alleged incidents was to be found. To the contrary, every student who took the stand, including McInerney's closest friend at school, was specifically asked whether they had ever heard King "say anything that was sexually inappropriate or provocative". Not one had. Similarly, when asked whether they were "afraid of" King, they plainly found the notion ludicrous. Even the teachers, including those who had previously told the media sensational tales of King harassing McInerney and disrupting the entire school, now had no choice but to admit that their accounts were constructed purely on rumor, never observation, and only after the fact, when trying to make sense of the senseless. There was no tangible evidence of any harassment, much less of widespread disruption, and neither could have excused murder regardless. Conversely, everything from witness testimony to McInerney's own account as relayed by the defense team's clinical psychologist made it painfully obvious that McInerney was the one who had been bullying King, and for far longer than nine days. At worst, King had begun pushing back when pushed.

Little attention was given to such facts about McInerney in the contemporary media coverage, which had largely taken the more vocal teachers at their word when they called him a good and respectful kid. McInerney's defense team wasn't inclined to acknowledge any of it, either. Still, it remained true that his father was abusive and his mother alcoholic. He had spent time in juvenile detention, where he had a habit of attacking other detainees without provocation. At E. O. Green, too, he was, although respectful to adults, a chronic bully with a history of violent behavior, and had been suspended more than once. His grades were falling and his attitude was described as sullen. He had few, if any, close friends, preferring to associate with a local neo-Nazi who was openly attached to White Pride World Wide and the Confederation of Racialist Working Class Skinheads. He was, his mother later recalled after cleaning up her own life, "so angry at everything and everybody in his whole life that that's the way he thought". In short, he was struggling with problems of his own that were more pernicious than any King ever posed to anyone, and had been turning to unhealthy outlets in his attempts to cope with them. Yet all signs of McInerney's troubles, and all his self-destructive behaviors, had been ignored as nothing significant, just a boy being a boy.

So, though it was King who was portrayed primarily as a problem to be solved and seldom if ever as a person to be understood, McInerney was never really acknowledged as a person, either. The defense team made sure to reinforce the "normal boy" label at every opportunity, while simultaneously striving to steer attention away from any possible motivations other than King's unorthodox presentation. Character witnesses from the local community who testified on McInerney's behalf spoke more in support of their town than of the boy; Corbett describes their words as being for someone "whom they did not exactly know, but knew they were supposed to love." No one seemed to know or even be aware of the individual. McInerney's girlfriend, perhaps inadvertently, may have summed up the prevailing attitude better than anyone: "I don't care to know what I don't know."

The witnesses weren't the only ones who didn't care to know. The trial resulted in a hung jury, but that evidently wasn't good enough for the half dozen jurors who went on to treat McInerney's defense as an activist cause. They raised money for his legal fees. They wore "Save Brandon" bracelets. They approached local and national news outlets, eventually making an appearance on 20/20. They repeated talking points from McInerney's defense team—a defense that had never called the facts of the case into question, and that the prosecutor had aptly described as "nothing more than a character assassination" in her closing statements—calling King the "bully" and McInerney the boy with "no way out" in spite of the evidence, and going so far as to accuse an assistant principal, who had merely followed district policy and state law, of pushing a "gay agenda" and forcing the issue by not compelling King to conform to the norm. In short, they largely refused to acknowledge what everyone agreed McInerney had actually done. As Corbett puts it:
The activist jurors responded to Brandon's youth and his pain, as good citizens must.
But they could not think about his will to murder or his hate, as good citizens must.
Even in their defense of him, they treated him more as an abstraction than as a real person. For all the effort they put into fighting to save him from what they seemed to think of as an unfair justice system, and into insisting that the school should have sheltered him from King's budding self-confidence, they never asked how McInerney might have been saved from himself, nor even seemed to realize that he had any troubles of his own that he might have needed saving from. And perhaps viewing King as an impersonal problem to be dealt with had led to viewing McInerney as an equally impersonal solution.

Not that any of that excuses McInerney, of course. There's no changing that he murdered a classmate in cold blood. He could have backed down at any time, could have realized what it meant that his peers recoiled when he told them pieces of his plan, could have taken it as an opportunity to reconsider when he accidentally left the gun inside at home and had to go back to get it, could have paid more attention to the doubts that he reported having when he was in the counselor's office minutes before the shooting. Instead, he made a series of deliberate choices to kill. Yet we can wonder how things might have turned out differently if his parents had been nurturing instead of neglectful. If there had been someone for him to talk to. If his community had been more accepting of those who weren't quite of the norm. If our society didn't so often treat masculinity as something to be proven through aggression and violence, and defended at all costs from any perceived threat, however insubstantial. If his white supremacist mentor had been condemned instead of tacitly endorsed. If someone had noticed that his rage and violence were not simply a boy just being a boy, and had at least tried to get him some help. If his teachers had not reinforced his prejudices when they treated King as a problem and refused to make any effort to understand. His decisions remain his own, but it's also undeniable that the adults in his life had failed him. And by casting him as a normal boy even after the shooting, and misdirecting blame toward King and toward those who would not condemn King, they continued to fail him and others in situations similar to his.

I'd like to think that things would be different if it all happened now. That the media would report on the facts of the case and not repeat a sensationalized account woven from rumor and hearsay. That the horror of the shooting would be faced head-on and not glossed over. That national television would be more responsible than to dub a killer a "typical eighth-grade boy" who just "did something a little unexpected", as 20/20 did when they reported uncritically on what the activist jurors were claiming. That King would be respected as a human being and not dismissed as a problem to be solved. That McInerney would be recognized as a full human being and not just a "normal boy" cardboard cutout; as both a murderer and a victim of negligence, of the blind eye turned to his disturbed mind, of the bigotry that surrounded him, of a warped version of masculinity, and of his own undirected anger; whose course might have been changed had someone just acknowledged his problems beforehand and made an effort to do something about them.

But while some current events give me hope, others leave me not so sure that much would be all that different. Troubled people, mostly boys and young men, often in the grip of a toxic notion of what masculinity means, are still being overlooked and dismissed as "normal" until they do something too extreme to ignore. Scoring political points against opponents is often being prioritized over doing anything constructive. Patently absurd conspiracy theories, many dismissing the gravity of tragedies and casting the victims as instigators, are being reported and repeated, and taken seriously, perhaps more than ever. People are still demonizing each other for the most superficial of reasons. Remarks are being casually tossed around wishing violent deaths on others just for being on another side of a disagreement.

We're still struggling to see people as people, and not everyone cares to so much as try. So I'm not convinced that we've learned much of anything.

And that alarms me more than the killings do.

No comments:

Post a Comment