For the second time in one year, Florida is trying a child as an adult. In the first case, 12-year-old Lionel Tate was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for beating a little girl to death. The victim had been a playmate. Tate said he was only imitating moves he'd seen on professional wrestling.
On May 26, 2000, Nathaniel Brazill, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, brought a gun to school, aimed at his favorite teacher and shot him dead. This is undisputed. A school video camera caught the shooting on tape, and Brazill admits pulling the trigger. The only question for the jury is whether Brazill intended to kill 35-year-old Barry Grunow.
The Fox News Channel is broadcasting some of the trial, making it possible for millions to see that Nathaniel Brazill is an eminently sane, reasonably intelligent 13-year-old boy. As his (absent) father told the Orlando Sentinel: "He took a man's life. We're not trying to get him out of doing any time or anything like that, but let's be realistic here. The child has never been in any trouble in his life. And the shooting was an accident."
An accident. The boy acquired the gun, showed it off to his classmates, proved to a doubting female friend that it was real by showing her the bullets, and boasted that he was going to "f--- up this school" and that his face would be all over the television.
May 26 was the last day of classes. Brazill was throwing water balloons. He was told by Grunow not to throw them, but he did so anyway. Grunow suspended the boy. Brazill went home, got the gun and returned to school two hours later. He went to Grunow's classroom and demanded to speak to two girls, friends of his, who were talking with the teacher. Grunow declined. Brazill then pulled the gun from his pocket, spread his legs apart as he had doubtless seen on a thousand television programs and pointed the gun straight at Grunow's face, holding it with two hands.
"Get that out of my face," Grunow shouted. They were his last words. Brazill pulled the trigger and hit Grunow between the eyes, killing him.
There can be no justice for Nathaniel Brazill. If the jury returns a guilty verdict and he spends the rest of his natural life in prison, that's not justice. And if they do the opposite, that won't be justice either. Children of 12 ought not to be held to adult standards of accountability. But what else can you do when society has drifted so far into the state of nature that children are committing the most heinous crimes with scarcely a second thought?
The reason to dwell on the normal looking Nathaniel Brazill is that he is representative of thousands or perhaps millions of American kids. Outwardly, like characters from some science-fiction thriller, they seem completely human. And to listen to them speak of ordinary things -- as Nathaniel spoke of his interest in the movie "Air Force One" or of doing his English homework -- is disorienting. He seems just like a regular kid, but there is a missing part. He has no conscience.
Nathaniel grew up without his father -- a bad sign -- but not the whole story. In past decades and centuries, many children were fatherless, usually because war or disease had carried them off. But the society as a whole taught the basics of right and wrong in the father's place. Everywhere a child turned, whether the school, the church or the community, he was trained to know and to do what was right.
Sometimes the dead father was invoked as an ideal to which the child should aspire. Poor character was denounced and shunned. If a child experimented with stealing, he was labeled a thief, not counseled or coddled in a misplaced attempt to preserve his self-esteem. Did this eliminate sin? Hardly. But did ordinary children go around murdering their playmates and teachers? No.
We have other problems -- solving the energy supply issue, reforming education, attending to the actuarial inevitabilities of the Social Security system -- but our most urgent national problem is the Nathaniel Brazills walking among us, hollow souls who look perfectly normal.