In our attempts to stop the monsters terrorizing our children, we have ourselves become monsters.
We never notice when the transformation occurs. We don’t even fully realize it until years into our rampage. But one day, we wake up and look into the mirror, and the face peering back at us is unrecognizable.
On Friday, Gawker posted the result of a nearly yearlong investigation into the arrest of a student at Bartlesville Senior High School in eastern Oklahoma. The arrest, approximately four hours before the Newtown shooting, grabbed headlines and shocked the nation — then faded into white noise, like most stories not actually dripping in blood seem to do. The subject: 18-year-old Sammie Chavez, who told friends the day earlier that he was thinking about committing a school shooting.
The article itself is a stunning piece of longform shoeleather journalism by Camille Dodero. It profiles Chavez, his family, and the town of Bartlesville in great detail. It is a heavy indictment of our entire system — education, justice and otherwise.
At the time of his arrest, Sammie Chavez had an ancient .22 with a broken firing mechanism that he had purchased for $15; no ammo; a small amount of marijuana; and several “therapeutic” journals he had been asked to keep by psychiatrists. His bail was ramped up to $1 million from an initial warrant estimate of $200,000, and he faced 10 years in prison on felony conspiracy charges. More than 20 Bartlesville residents submitted victim-impact statements aimed at increasing his sentence to life in prison. Oklahoma state legislators sought to codify that sentiment into law, writing multiple bills to change the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime of thinking nasty thoughts. Children as young as 13 could be tried as adults if any of these bills pass.
Remember, no one was hurt. In very real terms, no actual crime was committed.
The press called Chavez a monster. He was 18, barely holding it together in school, and had a terrible support structure at home. When he mused aloud that he wanted to commit this act of violence, his friends did exactly what they were supposed to do: Friends told someone else; someone else told their parents; parents called the school; school called the cops; cops got a warrant. No questions asked, no offers of help, psychological or otherwise. Throw the book at him. Instamonster. Gold stars and commendations all around.
According to Dodero, “[Chavez] learned about the Newtown massacre from a television in Washington County Detention Center, the Bartlesville jail where police brought him after his arrest. Seeing the news reports, he broke down crying so badly that guards changed the channel.”
Chavez received his sentence in November: 30 months in prison, a $5000 fine and a year of evaluations from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. People from Bartlesville want him locked up longer. Future cases will reflect the “nuance” prosecutors gleaned from dealing with someone who apparently planned a school shooting without having access to the resources for — or the desire to actually carry out — one.
And the rest of us roll on in our “meaningful discussions” about gun control, funding for mental health facilities “that could house someone like Chavez,” violence in popular media, etc. We lament the fact that the system currently in place didn’t notice Chavez before. According to the profile at Gawker, he was a seemingly “perfectly normal teenage delinquent” leading up to his arrest. The entire infrastructure is rotten at the foundation, but according to its rules, everyone did exactly what they were supposed to here, down to the last smug pundit.
We lock our monsters away because we don’t like the fact that we can glean similarities to ourselves from them. We look at their behavior and think, “god, what a terrible human being, why would they do such a thing?” but who among us hasn’t had so much as a terrible thought? Even in passing? We just don’t want to face this.
Earlier this year, I wrote that the occurrence of gun violence was a wicked problem, that it could not be answered simply. I said that even though people would still be raised to love cops and soldiers, praise the wars and accept more casual violence, we could commit to an absurd answer to this wicked problem: we could struggle to teach our own children to reject killing, to reject domination over each other, to reject that systemic violence. It isn’t working. The state, feeding on the anguish of every (domestic) parent who has ever lost a child to the barrel of a gun, is simply going to react more violently every time something like this happens.
It all just needs to stop.