(I Learned By Watching You)


Last week, I submitted a news story to the BYP concerning yet another case of bullying. Joel Morales, a 12-year-old from East Harlem, hanged himself because he had grown tired of relentless harassment from other students. I forwarded the story just a few weeks after having sent an update regarding the FAMU Marching 100’s latest hazing case. 14 FAMU students have been indicted on charges in the wake of the hazing death of former drum major, Robert Champion, who died one hour after being physically assaulted by band members. Unfortunately, neither Morales nor Champion are alone. As the (ever-problematic) “It Gets Better” project and other organizations and movements started in recent memory indicate, bullying has become an epidemic, a pitiful phenomenon that has affected every portion of this country from sea to shining sea.


As Joel Morales’ mother and the rest of his family mourn his death uptown, others pour over the latest eyebrow-raising news out of midtown. That is, President Obama has a kill list that he oversees with incredible attention:

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.


[Mr. Obama’s advisors] describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands. When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”

It should be noted that before he issued his personal support of same-sex marriage, President Obama made an “It Gets Better” video.


Though the thickness of my glasses, my apparently boyish gate, very obvious (to others) queerness, and overall awkwardness were more than suitable fodder, I would not say that I was ever bullied in school. Picked on? Yes. Talked about? Absolutely. Laughed at? HYFR. But bullied? Not really. As anxiety-producing as school was, I found solace in a space designed for learning (and yes, school is an institution that forwards other problematic forms of socialization), cruel as some of my classmates may have been. I don’t think I would have been comfortable enough to absorb school lessons if I had been bullied. I also don’t really recall fellow classmates being brutalized to the point that they actually wanted to take their lives. Several kids died while I was in school, but each death was the result of a horrible car accident.

Although I am the Sophia Petrillo of this blog, despite that last reference, I’m not that old. And it occurs to me that this latest manifestation of bullying seems much more severe than previous incarnations, even what I witnessed as a school kid. In fact, I have had several conversations with co-workers about the nature of modern school bullying. We have compared the stories we read about bullying to what we experienced in school and wonder aloud about the moment when things got so bad. In these talks, I have offered my own, uninformed theory foreshadowed above. I will offer it more explicitly in a moment.


We will continue to hear all the logic and theory behind why children are being bullied so severely. Some expert appearing on Dr. Phil or some other hour of daytime not called The Oprah Winfrey Show, will tell the studio and television audience why cyber bullying is particularly insidious and damaging, and promote his latest book on the issue, while some tear-filled mother mourns the death of her 6th grader on stage. Dr. Phil, or Anderson Cooper, or some joker not named Oprah Winfrey will read a statement from the principal and/or superintendent, who chose not to be interviewed, in a tone that does its best to confirm the audience’s impression that it’s the schools fault the crying mother’s child is dead. Not named Oprah Winfrey talk show host holds the crying mother’s hand until they break for commercial Rinse. Repeat. Real life pet heroes on Thursday.


Interesting: According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, the term bullycide, suicide due to bullying or the killing of a bully, made its way into the lexicon in 2001, just months before the events of 9/11. The tipping point seems to be the year 2010, when several bullycides were highlighted in the news. I’m not a psychologist with a book to peddle, so I may get shot down like I do in the office. Still, I must share: I see a direct correlation between the heightened level of bullying in schools and the escalation of the war on terrorism–even though we no longer call it that. Children are increasingly violent because their culture is increasingly violent. With the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, they have unprecedented access to that violence.

This country has a proclivity to violently dealing with those it deems other. With new media allowing civilian Americans to witness that behavior on their phones, do we really need a psychologist to explain why bullying has worsened? Perhaps this analogy is as imperfect as the Union, but the President has a kill list. This list is comprised of those the United States believes is a threat to national security. But this cannot be understood in linear terms. There’s a cycle here. We cannot be so foolish that we think our “way of life” or “freedom” is threatening. Rather, it is imperative to understand that those we now regard as enemies were cultivated in a soil of imperialist US foreign policy that disenfranchised and oppressed people most Americans will never see. Insurgents do not appear out of nowhere. The United States is a bully.

What lessons does this way of dealing with conflict teach the cool kids on the block? It shows them that in order to maintain the modicum of agency they believe they have, they must bully the other, the less powerful. And it teaches the bullied that their only resort is self-harm. The term suicide connects these children and those anonymous, alleged enemy combatants who die when American drones fly above them. You know, to keep us safe.

See? There’s no need to blame rap music.


Although they may provide surface level help, I seriously doubt a(nother) non-profit or Youtube montage of rich gay people telling an East Harlem tween that things will get better will actually put an end to the devastatingly violent era of bullying we seem to be mired in. Rather, I think better behaved adults would provide a much more lasting impact. And that includes better foreign policy. Obama’s kill list, and every list of its kind that came before it, seems to be the foreign policy equivalent to putting a casino in a city that has lost its factory: morally dubious and like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. It only gets better if we do better. Otherwise, first class or steerage, we’re all going down on this ship.