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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New York Mayor Ed Koch, for one, does not care to hear excuses for the violence of the young. "You name one societal reason," he said, "that would cause people to engage in a wolf-pack operation, looking for victims." Throughout the week sociologists obliged, proffering familiar theories about why many delinquents of this generation do not content themselves with stealing hubcaps and breaking windows. The experts argue that too many families are broken, too many schools and communities are crumbling, too many drugs are available for children to acquire a sturdy sense of mercy or morality to guide their behavior.

Into this vacuum the circuits of popular culture transmit images of brutality without consequences. Children play video games in which they win points for killing the most people. They watch violence-packed cartoons. They listen to songs titled Be My Slave and Scumkill. Or they are baby-sat by vastly popular movie videotapes like Splatter University and I Spit on Your Grave. Says sociologist Gail Dines-Levy of Wheelock College in Boston: "What we are doing is training a whole generation of male kids to see sex and violence as inextricably linked."

But such theories, however valid, ring hollow in the face of crimes like the Central Park attack. Pornography, even the most gruesome kind, is commonplace in countries where the level of violence does not approach that in the U.S. The impulses behind the most brutal attacks are extremely complicated. "What we're seeing is a real distortion in personality development," says Michael Nelson, professor of psychology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. "It's not nice little neurotic people acting out problems."

If a culture of violence can corrupt affluent suburban adolescents, it plays special havoc when mixed with the pathology of the ghetto, where danger surrounds children every day, sometimes inside their homes, always outside. At least one of the Central Park suspects was sexually assaulted when he was a child, and the private histories of the others are still a mystery. In such brutal conditions, a youngster's peers can become his family, and wilding can be a way to prove his masculinity. "Kids who roam in groups gain a sense of power that they do not have individually," says Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Caught in a mob frenzy, each boy believes he is the only one hesitant to go ahead with a destructive act, and will not resist or show remorse out of fear that the others in the group will think him a coward.

As the explanations and indictments rolled in last week, the New York City case continued to feed a debate about freedom and fear, anarchy and obligation. "Blaming society, parents, poverty, racism, school systems and neighborhoods for teenage violence is too easy," said Dr. Edward Shaw, director of mental health for the New York State division of youth. "It does not answer the question Why do some teenagers in the same environment get into trouble and others do not?" There were those still willing to look for the hard answers last week. But others could only watch a woman in a coma, hear the noises of the city and wonder what might come next.

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