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The ease with which Nathan Brazill, the 13-year-old from Lake Worth, Florida, who allegedly shot his English teacher dead, has been charged as an adult is almost as depressing as the murder he’s charged with. At least we can hope that his motives, however twisted, will grow clear with time. No such clarity is likely when it comes to explaining the actions of the Palm Beach County state attorney and the grand jury that rubber-stamped his recommendation — that Nathan face the possibility of life behind bars — after 15 minutes of reflection. “An adult crime deserves adult time,” Florida state attorney Barry Krischer was quoted as saying. Concealed within that sound-bite is a mighty important proposition. It means that the nature of the deed, not the characteristics of the doer, should determine the community’s response. Gone is the notion that beneath a certain age, people are deemed incapable of forming criminal intent. Gone is the idea that a real understanding of the consequences of an act requires a measure of intellectual and moral maturity, which a child doesn’t have. Under this reformulation, a child becomes an adult in the eyes of the community when he does something horrific; gone is the idea that a terrible action may confirm the child’s foolishness and immaturity. Instead, committing homicide signals his emergence as a fully grown-up member of society. I’m surprised Krischer isn’t suggesting Nathan Brazill be allowed to vote. In a bizarre paradox, that hard-nosed formula ratifies the dumbest explanation a young delinquent might give for his own atrocious misconduct: That now I’ll be taken seriously, now I’ll be regarded as a grownup. The community’s law enforcement bureaucracy, ever vigilant to the currents of popular — and electoral — sentiment, strenuously agrees. In Nathan’s case, what do we know and what can we surmise? By all accounts, he was a good kid from a busted home, well-liked by his peers and well-regarded by his teachers (including Barry Grunow, whom he killed). He had a bedroom full of state-of-the-art toys, including a $1,700 Gateway computer from a doting mom, went to school that last day of the term with flowers for his girlfriend — which she accepted — and was playing with balloons two hours before he became a cold-blooded murderer. We surmise what? That like every other adolescent male in early 21st century America, he spent his formative years watching revenge fantasies enacted hundreds of times in the movies and on TV. He has seen, time and again, scores settled with bullets, understands that the most admired figures in his imaginary universe routinely validate themselves and prove their worth by outfighting and outgunning their tormentors. We talk about education as if it takes place primarily in school. But the most powerful and most persuasive educational technology ever created is deployed via TV and in movie theaters, and the message embedded in its most popular story lines isn’t one of love, conciliation and forgiveness. Its lesson is much simpler and direct, perfect for teen-age boys: Get your payback. Yet we profess to have no idea why it happens that, once in a while, some kid like Nathan blows a fuse and, sent home for horseplay, gets a gun to avenge himself on the administrator who dissed him. The astonishing thing is that it doesn’t happen all the time. This is all they’re taught. Nowhere in our vast educational system are these kids offered a philosophical and spiritual counterweight. Nowhere are they taught other ways to resolve conflict, to make sense of the swirling and often violent passions of their own adolescence, to seek and offer acceptance, to know the comfort that comes from understanding that others are suffering through the same physical and emotional rites of passage. For Nathan Brazill, the only lessons he’ll now get will be from the inmates of the jails and prisons where he’ll grow to adulthood and, from there, move into a bitter middle age. His monstrous little temper tantrum cost a young teacher his life, and for that, this community says, Nathan has forfeited any claim to the patience, compassion and nurture we tell ourselves we offer the young. Maybe what we should be saying is that one innocent life has already been lost, and perhaps a second can yet be saved.

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