So many to blame in this death
James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

February 7, 2001

Last weekend's fatal stabbing of 11-year-old Nestor Herrera at a Springfield cinema by an acquaintance of the same age has provided new inspiration to the legions of media hypercritics and scapegoaters who seek an easy solution to the challenge of youth violence. Championed by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), advocacy groups will likely interpret this horrific incident as more compelling evidence for his moral campaign against the excesses and indiscretions of Hollywood scriptwriters.

Yet the questions being asked about the killing focus narrowly on the presumed effects of the film: Was the Springfield murder a case of copycat behavior? Could the slasher movie "Valentine" showing at the Springfield theater, a film which features a crazed lunatic seeking revenge against terrified college coeds, have inspired the young assailant?

Such questions yield easy answers, but they also detract from finding effective solutions to the problem of our children's destructive behavior. While the violence contained in youth-oriented slice-and-dice films like "Valentine" may be tasteless (in the eyes of mature audiences, that is), it is a stretch to blame only the producers, the purveyors and the popcorn sellers for this tragic event.

While the research evidence does show that a steady diet of grisly senseless violence on the wide screen (as well as the TV screen) tends to desensitize young audiences and make them more aggressive, that is a far cry from suggesting that this particular violent act was inspired by exposure to a single movie. The causal connection is far more complex. It is just as plausible that violent kids are drawn to violent films - not the other way around - or that violent youngsters are just as likely to act out on the playground, in the classroom or at home.

For that matter, the movie theater surely did not hand out knives to intensify the movie-going experience. The killer apparently brought his own. The most important question may be: What was an 11-year-old boy doing carrying a weapon capable of stabbing someone to death?

The real concern should be not about the movie that the assailant had just watched but about why a group of youngsters was unsupervised before, during and after the movie. Children don't need inspiration from Hollywood to act out. A roomful of unsupervised youngsters looking to impress their buddies is enough of an impetus. The catalyst is often a snide comment, an insult, a shove - not a movie character who seeks revenge on screen.

Of course, the movie industry also cannot be entirely let off the hook.

How can it continue hypocritically to produce movies that are rated "R" (due to their graphic violence or sexual content) yet appeal primarily to a teen and preteen audience? How can a movie theater be so lax as to allow a horde of unruly underaged youngsters into films restricted to audiences over 17 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian? And, if the children were, as it appears, accompanied by an 18-year-old woman, how can anyone pretend that this is what the code of the film industry intended?

Actually, the motion picture rating system may be more harmful to our children than the films themselves. We may label especially violent TV shows "M" for mature audiences, but what mature person is really interested in scenes of unrelenting barbarism? All the rating system and the anemic efforts at enforcing it accomplish is to increase the appeal of gory scenes of murder and mayhem. If you're not part of the mature audience, does that make you immature? Even small children wish to be big shots in the eyes of their buddies. It's the media version of forbidden fruit.

For the victim, this was reportedly his first trip to the movies with peers and without parents, an experience described as an important rite of passage from childhood to maturity. Going to an adult movie would likely have enhanced the feeling of being important and grown up, for both Nestor Herrera as well as his assailant. For the offender, so would carrying a weapon.

Regardless of blameworthiness, one tends to find that at least three-quarters of those seated in the audience at most any showing of R-rated slasher films are not old enough to have driven themselves to the theater.

For most, mommy or daddy provided transportation, as well as the price of admission. They did not, however, provide what was needed most: adult supervision.

The solution to the problem of violence committed by pre-teenagers is not to censor entertainment but to ensure that kids remain kids, at least until they are old enough to understand fully the profound consequences of violence. They truly need to be put and kept in their place - a place that is right in front of the watchful eyes of parents and other responsible adults.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University. They recently co-authored "Dead Lines: Essays in Murder and Mayhem."