Sunday, March 12, 2006

Last week, the perpetrators of a string of church arsons across Alabama were apprehended. The crimes had perplexed investigators because they lacked the kind of pattern we’re accustomed to seeing in such cases. And when we got our first look at the criminals, what shocked was not their religious fanaticism or racism—but their utter lack of motive, aside from boredom. All three were popular college students from the prosperous suburbs of Birmingham. One, a former class president, is the son of a county constable, another’s the son of a doctor. They told police the arsons were “a prank that spun out of control”.

It’s certainly not the first time shocking acts of vandalism and violence seem to have stemmed from sheer boredom. But serious crimes without motive are on the upswing. Arson, armed robbery, and most troubling of all: more and more young people assaulting the homeless. Last summer in Florida five suburban, church-going teens confessed to the beating death of a homeless man, Michael Roberts. Motive, according to police: “they were bored and wanted to have some fun.” Earlier this year in Ft. Lauderdale, another brutal murder of a homeless man, Norris Gaynor, was caught on tape. The suburban teenage “thrill-seekers” had no motive. Last August here in Boston, Mario Acosta Chavez died after being beaten by two teens. In the North End not two weeks ago a homeless man was assaulted and set on fire while asleep in Langone Park.

Homeless assaults have surged in recent years. Some have blamed a series of fast-selling low-budget videos available on the web that glorify violence towards (and among) the homeless. But this alone can’t explain 386 reported attacks against homeless people nationwide from 1999 to 2004, resulting in a staggering 156 deaths. In the words of Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless: it’s “a national epidemic.” First let’s house the homeless. We have the resources to do it. Then we need to ask ourselves, why are children of privilege in a prosperous nation preying on the poor for sport? It’s obscene, but the problem of boredom in leisure is a serious one.

Economists like John Maynard Keynes and Roy Harrod warned of the violent consequences of prosperity. Keynes said it would lead to “a general nervous breakdown.” Harrod foresaw “a return to the war, violence and blood sports of the Middle Ages.” Tibor Scitovsky’s classic “The Joyless Economy,” listed boredom as chief among the ravages of general prosperity, with violence as its outcome. And “the remedy for violence,” he wrote, “is civilization.” Now that we’ve mastered the production process, we must master leisure. His solutions seem quaint and not a little naïve to us now. Parents: turn off the TV and Play Station. Start parenting. Schools: recognize the vital importance of arts and humanities, which are as important in forming balanced, conscientious adults as organized sports. According to Scitovsky, we’ll discover in the humanities not only non-violent relief from boredom, but, potentially, real pleasure in leisure.

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