Domestic terrorism and middle-class ordinariness

Posted: May 22, 2002 12:00 AM
A 70-year-old woman's face was seared when a pipe bomb placed in the mailbox on her farm detonated. A separate explosion sliced a postal carrier's hand. Another destroyed a postal worker's eardrum. In all, six people were injured and countless others set on edge during a brutal and arbitrary terror spree in which 21-year-old Luke Helder has admitted to placing pipe bombs in 18 mailboxes across five Midwestern states, apparently in the pattern of a smiley face. Helder was taken into custody last week after a tip from his parents led to his arrest. As authorities led Helder away in restraints, the Minnesota college student with the neatly cropped blond hair smiled coyly for the camera. He seemed pleased to be so close to center stage. Everything from Helder's youth to his education to his half formed rhetoric baffled investigators, who had been searching for an older, more vitriolic mail bomber of the Timothy McVeigh variety. By comparison, Helder was, as they say, relentlessly ordinary. "I hate to use the word average to describe a student, but that's what he was, average," said Helder's 10th grade history teacher to reporters. Many of Helder's other high school teachers couldn't even remember him. He was rather indistinguishable - just another ordinary Midwest kid programmed to causally destroy. A release issued by Helder's father, Cameron, provides some insight: "I really want you to know that Luke is not a dangerous person. I think he's just trying to make a statement about the way our government is run. I think Luke wants people to listen to his ideas, and not enough people are hearing him and he thinks this may help." The crucial fact is the father's insistence that a boy who sticks bombs in 18 mailboxes isn't dangerous. He is treating his son's arbitrary terrorism on purely symbolic terms. This suggests both an emotional vacuum between father and son as well as a hesitance to project a strict sense of accountability - that is, a hesitancy to instill a firm moral foundation with which to judge right or wrong. This is typical of many middle-class parents today who wish to be their child's friend. They hesitate to instill discipline or to inhibit their child with oppressive expectations. Just one thing: Emotionally alienated teen-agers need parents - not friends - to discipline them and to demonstrate that they care. When children act out they are begging for their parents and society to notice. Should parents fail to notice, children will escalate their destructive behavior until their hurt and pain become deeply ingrained and their only currency of expression. It is further telling that the notes Helder attached to his pipe bombs employed only vague, rambling anti-government ideology. "Do you wonder why people blow themselves up to hurt others?" read one note. "Do you wonder why you are here? Do you wonder what is out there ... way out there? I remember those days of uncertainty, and I can't tell you how great it is to know, to know eternally, and to be." The note does not suggest a well-formed ideology of any sort. Nor does it suggest a cogent plan for changing the government. It is merely the ramblings of just another emotionally alienated youth that has lost his ability to empathize with society. This lack of empathy is key. Likely, Helder regarded his own activity in purely symbolic terms. That explains why the boy smiled for the cameras when authorities led him away. It also explains why the arresting sheriff referred to his demeanor as "very jovial . he didn't seem to be taking anything seriously." That is not precisely correct. Helder seemed to take very seriously the fact that he was on TV. Mugging for the camera, he finally received the attention, the sense of repercussion, that was lacking in his upbringing. Finally, people responded to his destructive behavior. He mattered. He existed. He is not alone. Already copycat bombings have been reported in Indiana, Virginia and Washington state. They are not occurring in inner cities where poverty and genuine struggle shock children into reality from an early age. In the ghetto, pain and struggle are not merely symbolic terms. Nor is this violent level of acting out being reported in private or parochial school settings where children are anchored with discipline and a strong value system that helps to arbitrate their sense of right and wrong. It is a strain of emotional alienation - of middle-class ordinariness - not poverty or a lack of education, that is the common denominator in these increasingly violent eruptions.