I came across a newspaper account last week of a government study "made in an effort to get at the causes of crime."
Some of the conclusions weren't all that shocking.
"Crime always has been and probably always will remain a problem of youth," the study reported. "Fully half of the convicts studied were 21 and under" (19 being the largest age group), and more than 63 percent came from "broken homes in which one and sometimes both parents were dead," it was reported.
"Even in the cases where both parents were living," the report stated, "bad family situations existed and there was frequent drinking, quarreling, immorality, non-support, poverty, unemployment or all and any of the social disabilities from which a family may suffer."
Sound familiar? Well, if you recall seeing this account of the study by the New York State Crime Commission, you've got a pretty good memory.
It was published on May 19, 1927.
I found this nugget in the archives of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat while hunting to see how the newspapers covered the only school massacre to take more lives than the tragedy last week at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Seventy-two years ago, "an apparently demented farmer" named Andrew Kehoe killed 41 people -- including 33 schoolchildren -- when he set off two dynamite explosions at the Bath (Mich.) Consolidated School. Kehoe, who had served as school treasurer, died in the blast, which also injured at least 40 others.
It was a coincidence to come across the crime study -- it wasn't related to the school bombing at all -- but one is struck in both cases by the timelessness of the news. As awful as the world feels to so many today, there were senseless killings and youth crime in Great-Grandpa's day as well.
There was a chilling similarity to Littleton in the description of the horrid aftermath -- "a moan from a mother or a stifled cry from a father as a blanket was lifted testified that another search was ended" -- and the parents discovering an untouched or only slightly injured child reacted then pretty much like they did last week.
The Associated Press news story did differ from the present day in how concisely it attributed motive: "Kehoe, a mortgage on whose farm recently was foreclosed, is believed to have dynamited the school as revenge for a controversy some time ago with the School Board over taxes."
Yikes. Can you imagine how a disgruntled-school-taxpayer massacre would play today?
Incredibly, "41 Killed as Maniac Blows Up Michigan School" wasn't even the Globe's lead story of the day -- it was dwarfed by a storm in Peoria, Ill., that caused 15 to drown -- and with no television (much less 24-hour news-station marathons, the Internet and all the rest), the stunning school tragedy of 1927 doesn't seem to have grabbed the nation around the neck like it has today.
The story provoked no editorials or extensive follow-up coverage, other than a sad item a week later noting that the tiny village of Bath had been bankrupted by the disaster. The tragedy doesn't appear to have had the lingering psychological effects (at least in St. Louis) that the Littleton massacre -- which feels like a death in all of our families -- has spawned today. (It should be noted, however, that less than a week later, Charles Lindbergh made his historic trans-Atlantic voyage, provoking joy and giddy news coverage that remains unparalleled in local history.)
The situation today is different, in part because the psychopathic killers were teens, in part because the spate of horrific school killings has come to feel like a national trend. But the biggest difference is America's compulsion to hyperanalyze and wildly generalize the "meaning" of it all, neatly wrapping up each nightmare to fit into our own little box of philosophies so that we can proclaim, "This just goes to show ... "
Now that the nation has entered the exploitation phase of its latest mourning ritual -- count the times you've viewed that footage of those poor kids exiting Columbine High -- the airwaves are flooded with "solutions" that wouldn't have prevented the two suicidal killers from acting out their psychosis. Still, the ideas tie back nicely to what we thought before last week, and it makes for much more comfortable assimilation of random madness.
This, it turns out, can get awfully stupid.
On his e-mail network, "Falwell Confidential" (to which I loyally subscribe), the Rev. Jerry Falwell last week cited a number of factors explaining "why our nation's young people have arrived at this desperate level of violence." (They have?)
In the context of explaining Littleton, Falwell laid responsibility on the removal of public-school prayer in 1962, the "culture of death flourishing in the abortion-rights community," condom distribution in schools, TV, violent movies, violent video games, Marilyn Manson, Dungeons & Dragons and much else. (Say what?)
He was easier on the parents.
"The two boys who murdered schoolmates ... were apparently competent students from seemingly good homes. But they got lost in a sea of dark seduction," Falwell wrote. "Today their parents are bewildered at how their boys could reach such levels of frenzied violence."
Falwell warned parents that there are "diabolic forces yearning to seduce and destroy your children." He made no mention of guns, hatred or intolerance.
In contrast, the most sensible response I've heard came from Kirkwood High School principal Franklin McCallie, who slam-dunked my initial reaction, which was that the school killings were all about random sickness and thus impossible to defend against.
"We can do something about this," McCallie insisted to me. "We can listen to our kids at school, and get to know them and let them know that we care. We don't have to sit back and wait for something bad to happen. We can make a difference with these kids."
McCallie went on and on about his school's six walking counselors and about how he and his staff will seek out the kids having lunch by themselves and the ones having problems in or out of the classroom. And when they can't connect with a troubled kid, they'll hear about brewing problems because of their relationships with other students.
That may be a bit idealistic, especially because we don't have a Franklin McCallie in every school, but at least his approach is proactive and on point.
And it doesn't ignore grim realities of the human condition that have been with us for quite a while.