Another child falls by the wayside

Posted: Feb 05, 2003 12:00 AM
John Malvo, a 17-year-old boy, has admitted to being the occasional triggerman on a shooting spree that killed 14 and wounded seven in six states, including the District of Columbia. 41-year-old John Muhammad who, by all accounts, emerged as his father figure joined the child. One wonders how this child could come to identify with Muhammad or coldly execute strangers. According to a recent Newsweek story, Malvo simply had the empathy crushed out of him at an early age. The story recounts how Malvo's father abandoned the family and how his mother left their native Antigua to scout for opportunities in the United States. His mother neglected to find surrogate parents for her son for fear that he would disappear from her life altogether. And so she simply left the child in Antigua, where he lived alternatively in boarding schools and cringing shacks along with relatives. Malvo was a young man when Muhammad entered his life. Muhammad showered him with attention. He shared his war stories. Malvo started calling him "Dad." For the first time in his life, Malvo had the warm certainty of a father figure. And when Muhammad later showed Malvo how to fire guns, the youngster eagerly followed along. Malvo's story is sadly familiar. Children who are abandoned or abused by their parents often lack the capacity to feel love or empathy. Their accumulated hurt and confusion become so thick that they can navigate life only by shutting off emotionally and removing themselves from society. The emotional vacuum created in such an environment can ignite a lifetime of uncertainty. Often, the children act out their confusion with destructive behavior or violent outbursts. In reality, they are begging for their parents and society to discipline them, to demonstrate with certainty that they care. 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 may bring us comfort to imagine John Malvo as a one-dimensional villain. Thinking of him in inhuman terms helps persuade us that he was an anomaly. In fact, we would do well to remember that he was a bright child who showed early promise. In all likelihood, a young Malvo was not that different from you or I. Sadly, his young hurts formed a dark undercurrent that Muhammad would later tap into. I suspect that Malvo joined Muhammad on his killing spree not out of some coherent vision of hatred, but because he wished very much to believe in love. It is no surprise that Malvo's hurt became so profound that, for basic reasons of self-protection, he needed to shut off his emotions. It is no surprise that he willingly removed himself from a society he never felt a part of. Nor is it a surprise that he became the willing patsy of the first person to show him some affection. Everything in his life followed a predictably horrendous arc, right up to the moment when he began discharging his rifle into people he had never met. This is the common brutality of the disintegrating family unit.