Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Inevitable Overreaction

One of the more annoying features of American culture is our constant overreaction to everything bad that happens. Anything the media deems to be a crisis or a tragedy is immediately met with overwrought hand-wringing and pleas for the government to do something – anything – to keep us all safe from the boogie man. And so in the aftermath of the VT shootings, and particularly the reports that the killer had written violent plays and stories, you just knew that a bunch of other people were going to get caught up in the post-tragedy hysteria and deemed a danger for no other reason than that they write, or even read, stories that contain violence in them.

I present the first victim of our overreaction, Allen Lee. Oh, I guess I was wrong to say that a violent story was the only evidence against him; after all, he is Asian just like the VT killer. That’s probable cause, isn’t it? He’s been arrested for disorderly conduct for turning in a paper for a creative writing class – a paper that was supposed to “express an emotion” – that the teacher freaked out about. Disorderly conduct. For turning in his homework.

All of this is quite absurd. We live in a culture that is saturated with violent stories, on TV, in movies and even in music. Do we start 24 hour surveillance on Stephen King who, other than being a hack writer, has never actually hurt anyone? Do we lock up Clive Barker and Robert Englund and force Quentin Tarantino to start writing movies about fuzzy bunnies and Santa Claus?

Lots and lots of people write violent stories and tens of millions of people read, watch and enjoy them. Yet only the tiniest fraction, perhaps 1/100th of one percent, actually commit violence against anyone. Deciding that the lesson to be learned from the VT shootings is that everyone who writes violent stories is potentially the next killer is as absurd as deciding that the lesson is that all Koreans are the next killer, or that all men are the next killer. Classic American overreaction.

Comments

  1. #1 Robert
    April 26, 2007

    This is disgusting, if the kid was actually writing something that is a concern, the first step would be to talk with the parents, show them the essay, and maybe schedule councilling. To arrest the kid for a school assignment? That is very fucked up.

    Is there any legal recourse the kid can take against the school for this? There should be, this is a travesty of justice.

  2. #2 Reed A. Cartwright
    April 26, 2007

    Yeah, the student should easily be able to sue for violations of his rights. Having him arrested for the content of his speech is a clear violation.

  3. #3 doctorgoo
    April 26, 2007

    Thought-Crime anyone?

    It’s scary to think of that way… but basically, that’s all it is.

  4. #4 Stuart Coleman
    April 26, 2007

    Something like that happened to me a while ago, although I wasn’t arrested. I wish I’d had the balls to scream “fuck you” to everyone involved while waving the first amendment around.

  5. #5 Robert
    April 26, 2007

    Doctor-goo: Thank you, thats exactly what it is, and thats exactly why it makes me so angry. They asked him to express his emotions in a creative writing paper, and when he does (without any threats to anyone) they arrest him for disorderly conduct. Sorry kid, your emotions and how you chose to express them means we can lock you up.

    I’m not saying that you can’t be concerned, but no crime has been commited (other than them arresting him). Show the paper to his parents, get therapy if needed. But this is unacceptable.

  6. #6 Raging Bee
    April 26, 2007

    There was a similar overreaction to the Columbine shootings: people started saying that any kid who questioned authority or expressed wierd ideas had to be taken aside and evaluated for possible violent tendencies. I don’t remember the exact wording of the recommandation, but it was pretty broad (and probably unconstitutionally vague) and wasn’t confined to ideas of actual physical violence. And, of course, it was all couched in the language of “protecting the children.”

  7. #7 TomMil
    April 26, 2007

    Cary Police Chief Ron Delelio said the charge against Lee was appropriate even though the essay was not published or posted for public viewing

    This makes me think the cops filed the charge, not the school. The school could still face some liability for reporting this to the police in the first place. I’m willing to bet there is some kind of immunity in Illinois like there is here in NJ for reporting something like this if it is done “in the best interest of the child.” In NJ it’s actually an affirmative duty to report matters that effect the welfare of a child.

    also,

    Disorderly conduct, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine, is often filed for such pranks as pulling a fire alarm or dialing 911 unnecessarily, he said. But it can also apply when someone’s writings disturb an individual, Delelio said.

    I wonder if it has to be a writing, because I was disturbed by this comment and as a result, I think Chief Delelio deserves to be charged with Disorderly Conduct. Of course that’s absurd, he’s on the good guys’ team and he’s probably not even of Asian descent. How is this similar to a prank? He was assigned a task by his teacher and he followed through. I don’t know what he wrote except it did not contain a threat against any person or location. Short of something like that this is just absurd.

  8. #8 Emory K.
    April 26, 2007

    Will “Driving While Black” now be replaced by “Writing While Asian”?

  9. #9 Dexceus
    April 26, 2007

    I knew something like this would happen. The truly sad thing is that if this kid really does have a problem, being treated like a criminal will do nothing more then marginalize him more then he already is.

    If something gets turned in that MIGHT indicate a problem, then a TRAINED professional should evalute it and the kid. Period. The teacher should turn it over to the trained professional with a report of why they have concerns. Then the professional should evalute whether he/she should take to the child AND parents for evaluation. Any other actions can be determined.

    At no point should the child be treated like a criminal or that he has misbehaved. Doing that will just alienate the child.

    And I think there is a good constitutional argument to be made here as well. He is being punished for the content of his speech, it does not interfere with the school (it is the reaction of the teacher that is causing the disruption) and school kids still do have first admendment rights.

  10. #10 decrepitoldfool
    April 26, 2007

    When Columbine happened my youngest son said something like; “Oh crap, this is really going to bring out the ‘stupid’ in people.”

  11. #11 Sastra
    April 26, 2007

    I don’t know what stuns and concerns me more: this story, or the thought of a movie about fuzzy bunnies and Santa Claus as written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

  12. #12 Ed D.
    April 26, 2007

    I had the supreme mis-fortune of growing up in Cary, and let me tell you, this is not at all unusual for that high school, or that town. Heck, in Cary/Fox River Grove, it’s not “Driving While Black”, it’s “Existing While Not Being a Redneck.”

  13. #13 Left_Wing_Fox
    April 26, 2007
  14. #14 Thony C.
    April 26, 2007

    What exactly is Santa going to be doing to the fuzzy bunnies in Tarantino’s movie?

  15. #15 Jason F
    April 26, 2007

    Ed,

    Your summary of this case would appear to be a bit more objective if you gave some more details (and a link to a news source that doesn’t require registration).

    http://www.wbbm780.com/pages/392211.php?contentType=4&contentId=444709

    After reading your commentary and comparing it to the news story, I think it’s pertinent to mention that the “violent” writings in question included a reference to school shooting.

    The paper allegedly made a vague reference to a fictional school shooting in McHenry County but didn’t specify a school or district, a law enforcement source said.

    Of course, exactly what this “vague reference” is, we can’t say for sure. Lee stated…

    “At the very last sentence, I said that this teacher’s method of teaching could lead to a school shooting,” Lee said Wednesday.

    Now, just to be clear here, I still think charging the kid with disorderly conduct is ridiculous. But, given everything else that’s been going on and all the calls of “Why didn’t anyone do anything” regarding the VT shooter’s writings and other obvious signs, I can understand the teacher not just glossing this over.

    If this is a case where a student (Asian or not) turns in an essay that mentions a school shooting, the teacher takes notice and brings it to the attention of school administrators, who then contact law officials, who then file charges of disorderly conduct, then the problem here lies with the law enforcement officials, not with the teacher.

    But I would hope these officials would at least check into the matter and talk to the kid first. It looks like in this case, all that was needed was to make sure Lee understood that right now, school shootings are not “a joke”.

    We can’t have it both ways, i.e. saying teachers should be more vigilant in looking for warning signs in their students, but then chastising them when they bring things like this to light.

  16. #16 Robert
    April 26, 2007

    Jason: Bullshit. WIthout a specific incitement to violence, law enforcement should have been the last option. First they should have spoken with the parent or child. Then perhaps with professional councillors, and finally should they still feel threatened with law enforcement.

    But they overreacted, and a kid has now been arrested for a creative story as part of an assignment. That is completely unacceptable in this country. Mentioning school shootings isn’t a crime or a forbidden topic. It may not be tasteful, but without specific threats it is in no way a crime. In this instance it sounds more like the kid just chose his words poorly.

    As doctorgoo said it is a thought crime. Even if this kid was unstable (which I highly doubt, most troubled kids aren’t bothered to be high performing students) how is arresting him for his homework going to make anything better?

    At the end of the day, this whole incident is completly unacceptable.

  17. #17 David C. Brayton
    April 26, 2007

    Well, I’m off to see Disturbia and then on the way home I think I’ll rent Saw, The House of Wax and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Director’s Cut. And tomorrow I’m gonna join my friends at the shooting range and then lunch at The Hungry Hogg BBQ (lots of beer will be flowing).

  18. #18 Keanus
    April 26, 2007

    As for Stephen King, he’s commented in the past that if anyone had ever read his stories before he became a published author, he’d have been committed for life, or words to that effect.

    As for what one writes on paper, nothing merits arrest, unless accompanied by an action, like sending a threatening letter (writing) to a target person. That merits an arrest, but the vilest story in the world is nothing more than thoughts expressed on paper (or one’s hard drive). In this country we don’t punish people for thoughts, although the Bush administration would sorely like to.

  19. #19 Nomen Nescio
    April 26, 2007

    Will “Driving While Black” now be replaced by “Writing While Asian”?

    not “replaced by”, “supplemented with”.

  20. #20 Thai Long
    April 26, 2007

    predictable..but also, after all this, He probably deserves an A+ on that story.

  21. #21 Max Udargo
    April 26, 2007

    Do we start 24 hour surveillance on Stephen King who, other than being a hack writer, has never actually hurt anyone? Do we lock up Clive Barker and Robert Englund and force Quentin Tarantino to start writing movies about fuzzy bunnies and Santa Claus?

    I’m sorry, were you trying to make a point about overreacting? As if anybody will ever do anything to curb the crass exploitation of violence in our popular culture. As if violent expression is now somehow in danger and in need of defense.

    Violence sells almost as well as sex, and to rush to its defense as if our society is about to turn against violent entertainment and lock up Stephen King is about as hysterical as you can get. No, I think the pendulum would have to swing back across a very wide arc before a dearth of violent expression became a problem for our society.

  22. #22 Robert
    April 26, 2007

    I don’t think Ed was making the argument that we are going to go after violent media, he was using violent media which we accept and have no problem with to contrast arresting this kid for writing violent stories. If one violent story (Lee’s) gets you locked up, why does another one (King’s) get a pass?

    There is some logical inconsistency there, and Ed was pointing it out.

  23. #23 Kristine
    April 26, 2007

    Americans have always had a puritanical and anti-intellectual attitude toward art. It’s supposed to be “good for us” in some way, otherwise we don’t know what it’s for. (What “it’s for” is making you feel alive.) Wow, anybody in this school district read Titus Andronicus? My guess is that few students essays can hold a candle to that play for all-out, gruesome, make-the-groundlings-vomit violence.

    One of my favorite books of all time is Lolita. That must mean I as a woman “hate myself,” right? I like good war movies, and good non-touchy-feely books such as Lord Jim and Despair. I like horror films, especially crappy 1960s Corman-Russell stuff and the slop that’s too bad to be parodied on MST3000. Man, get me into counseling! I’m a danger to society!

  24. #24 TJ Abell
    April 26, 2007

    I live in Cary, IL and personally know Cary Police Chief Ron Delelio. I don’t believe that this arrest is in keeping with Chief Delelio’s personality and his outlook on things based on my several conversations with him. Something stinks here. Either he is covering for a subordinate officer who made an arrest of this nature without running it by the Chief – perhaps unaware how controversial it would be – or there was pressure applied to the Cary PD by another source. My opinion is that the source was likely the school district or the Village Government. I certainly invite everyone to contact the Village of Cary at 847 639 0003 or Cary-Grove High School at 847 639 3825 to express concern about these actions – because I certainly am sickened that my hometown would allow this kind of blatant violation of the First Amendment.

  25. #25 Tyler DiPietro
    April 26, 2007

    What I find funny is that any earnest effort to purge English or creative writing classes of violent writing would necessarily entail eliminating half the reading from the standard curriculum. Hell, why do the violent and anti-social subtexts of works like Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales and Hamlet get a pass, just because they’re older?

  26. #26 beepbeepitsme
    April 26, 2007

    I’m beginning to wonder if people overreact not in a desire to find a solution, but to apportion blame.

  27. #27 Inoculated Mind
    April 27, 2007

    You’re right! We couldn’t say that Virginians are the next killer, or people East of the Mississippi, or people with black hair. It would be prejudiced of us to even go so far as to conclude that killers are the next killers!

    /humor

  28. #28 paulh
    April 27, 2007

    Ah yes – the horse is in the next county – quick, brick up the stable door!!!

  29. #29 Jason F
    April 27, 2007

    Robert,

    Obviously, you didn’t read what I wrote very closely.

    If this is a case where a student (Asian or not) turns in an essay that mentions a school shooting, the teacher takes notice and brings it to the attention of school administrators, who then contact law officials, who then file charges of disorderly conduct, then the problem here lies with the law enforcement officials, not with the teacher.

  30. #30 Max Udargo
    April 27, 2007

    There is some logical inconsistency there, and Ed was pointing it out. – Robert

    Reading the post again, I think you’re right. I misunderstood the point he was making.

  31. #31 Robert
    April 27, 2007

    Jason: While I certainly agree that the Police are way out of line on this (they just filed a second charge) I still think that the School was wrong as well. For the first reaction to a straight A student writing some violent junk for a “stream of consiousness” excercise where they are told to not censor anything (This is how MSN is reporting the assignment) to be contacting the police instead of the parents or just talking with the student is unacceptable.

    In summation: the police are wrong and host the majority of the blame, however the school is out of line as well.

  32. #32 Andrea
    April 27, 2007

    Today, Cary-Grove students rallied behind the arrested teen by organizing a petition drive to let him back in their school. They posted on walls quotes from the English teacher in which she had encouraged students to express their emotions through writing.

    Well clearly the teacher needs to be arrested as well for inciting this disorderly conduct. From now on, I hope no teachers encourage expression. In fact, I think I’m going to write a letter to my district superintendent DEMANDING that teachers no longer ask students to express their emotions at all. Well, maybe a little … OK, I’ll demand that teachers ONLY ask students to express positive, uplifting emotions at all times. Anything less should warrant immediate … um … transport to another school where parents haven’t been as proactive as myself. Cuz I love my kids more than other people do.

    Cary Police Chief Ron Delelio said the charge was appropriate even though the essay was not published or posted for public viewing.

    He contiinued to add that his job would be even easier if only they could arrest people for thinking violent thoughts that were never verbally expressed or otherwise shared with anyone. Pre-cogs rule!

    And by the way – even if this kid isn’t dangerous in the least, there are kids all over the country who will see this story and applaud his actions and add this little incident to their mental file of how society is trying to slowly kill them.

  33. #33 Jason F
    April 27, 2007

    Robert,

    I agree that whoever at the school contacted the police also share the bulk of the blame.

    My point is that in the aftermath of mass shootings like what happened at VT, it inevitably turns out that there were some warning signs that the perpetrator(s) had some problems. And every time, people cry out, “Why didn’t anyone notice this? Why didn’t anyone bring this information to light?”

    But now it seems like when a teacher does exactly that when a student submits an essay that mentions a school shooting, she gets accused of “overreacting”. It’s a no-win situation for the teacher; do nothing, and you might be blamed later for not seeing the signs, do something and you’re overreacting.

    With that said, I want to emphasize that contacting the police and charging the kid with disorderly conduct was ridiculous and completely out of line.

    But I think the teacher did the right thing by bringing the writing to light, especially given the context of the very recent VT shootings.

  34. #34 Robert
    April 27, 2007

    Ok Jason, I think we may be arguing the same position, yes I think from the little examples of the writing that talking with the kids parents and maybe the councilor wouldn’t have been an overreaction.

    But criminal charges for homework? I get so angry I see red thinking about that. Up to 30 days in jail for something he wrote. Its so against everything that America is supposed to stand for… ug.

  35. #35 Chris Krolczyk
    April 27, 2007

    As a native Chicagoan, let me point out my opinion on Lee being charged for writing an assigned essay in creative writing that ultimately didn’t have to be shared with anyone else in the first place:

    This is really, really quite beyond stupid.

    If there’s a mental condition lower than “severely retarded”, please feel free to apply that term to the Cary police department for bringing the charges. Thank you.

  36. #36 Martin R
    April 29, 2007

    The VT killer had been diagnosed with autism and depression, and he had displayed a clear delusional mindset with a strong focus on violence for years before he snapped. To my mind, before anyone starts pondering the effects of violent fiction, they should ask why this guy a) wasn’t in mental care, b) was able to buy a gun. And I’m afraid that the answer to both of these question boils down to U.S. ideas about personal freedom.

  37. #37 Stephen Elliott
    April 30, 2007

    What did Allen Lee actually write? I am unable to find a link to what he wrote.

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