Horror too common

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 March, 1998, 12:00am

Of all the adjectives bandied about when a crime of appalling violence occurs, one word is becoming redundant. The Arkansas school shooting will cause horror and outrage in America, but, away from the immediate neighbourhood of the small and peaceful community where the tragedy occurred, it is no longer likely to be regarded as unbelievable.

In the US, one in five violent crimes is committed by a juvenile. Fortified schools where pupils are frisked for guns before admission are a fact of life in some neighbourhoods. The right to bear arms remains one of most cherished American freedoms, and the gun lobby will continue to defend that right even as the nation debates the reasons for this murderous act by an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old.

A bill before the Senate seeks stiffer sentences for juveniles. If passed, delinquents aged from 14 to 17 - and, less often 13-year-olds as well - could be tried as adults. In 1996, of 300,000 young offenders, fewer than 300 were in the federal criminal justice system. If the Arkansas boys are charged, they will go before a juvenile court, but if they are held in custody the decision would be reviewed every two years. They cannot be held beyond 21 years of age.

This is a syndrome where prevention is more urgent than punishment. Before Jonesboro, schoolchildren had killed six fellow pupils and wounded 14 in three separate shootings in the last six months. Something has gone terribly wrong in a society where these crimes occur so frequently.

The Governor of Arkansas expressed anger with a culture which glorifies violence. He might, perhaps, have questioned how and why weapons are so accessible that schoolboys can arm themselves with hunting rifles and handguns.

But even the cult of the violent hero and the endless diet of blood and mayhem on television and in the cinema cannot explain the apparent lack of feeling in the perpetrators, or the inability to foresee the consequences of their actions on their own lives.

President Clinton has promised that the latest shooting will be analysed by experts to try to learn why these events occur, and to halt any similar killings. Tragically, that has become an ever more urgent task in end-of-century America.