Wilding in The Night

A brutal gang rape in New York City triggers fears that the U.S. is breeding a generation of merciless children

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From time to time a new word bursts into the lexicon, capturing with shocking force the latent fears of a troubled age. The latest such word is "wilding," the term used by a band of New York City teenagers to describe the mischief they set out to commit on a clear April night in Central Park. Looking, they said, for something to do, they roamed the park's northern reaches, splintering into smaller groups and allegedly assaulting one hapless victim after another. Finally, one pack came upon a 28-year-old woman jogging alone past a grove of sycamore trees. According to police, they chased her into a gully, then spent the next half an hour beating her senseless with a rock and a metal pipe, raping her and leaving her for dead. When she was found three hours later, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and had lapsed into a coma.

By last week the attack had escalated from a local tragedy into a morbid national obsession. Perhaps the story resonated across the country because the victim was a wealthy, white financier with degrees from Wellesley and Yale. Or because the scene was Central Park, the backyard of powerful news media and a symbol of everything Americans most fear about New York City. Or it may have been because of the word wilding, which seemed simultaneously to define and obscure the transformation of a group of teenage boys into a bloodthirsty mob.

Last week six youths were indicted for rape, and two others were indicted for a separate attack on a male jogger. According to investigators, these were not crimes of drugs or race or robbery. Newspapers claimed that the suspects came from stable, working families who provided baseball coaching and music lessons. The youths, some barely into their teens, may not have been altar boys, but they hardly seemed like candidates for a rampage. One was known for helping elderly neighbors at his middle-income Harlem apartment complex. Another was a born-again Christian who had persuaded his mother to join his church. Only one had ever been in trouble with the police.

If children so seemingly normal went so horribly wrong, the obvious question is Why? The youths, described by police as smug and remorseless, have offered only one motive: escape from boredom. "It was fun," detectives quoted one suspect as saying. "It was something to do."

The evidence that youthful offenders are becoming more violent is everywhere. Two Denver students have been charged with stabbing a man to death so they could steal his credit cards and use them to buy camping equipment. At a Los Angeles Greyhound station, a 15-year-old girl was kidnaped at knifepoint by two men, held captive for five days and repeatedly raped. She managed to escape and flagged down a passing car. "Get me out of here!" she begged the three teenagers inside. They did, and took her to a park in East Los Angeles, where the eldest of the boys, 18, allegedly raped her again.

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