On a glorious Good Friday afternoon in Cooperstown, N.Y., one 16-year-old boy shot another 16-year-old boy with a .22 caliber rifle in front of a police officer. Since then, the national press has been reporting that the shooting may have been a hate crime.
Pshaw, folks. That is mainly a case of people looking for easy answers. What we have here amounts to a tale of teenaged angst, writ large. The only interesting thing about this incident is that it took place in idyllic Cooperstown, N.Y., population 2032, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since I'm in Cooperstown every day--for me, it's the nearest copy of The New York Times--I couldn't resist poking into what, at first blush, seemed a lurid, and possibly political, event. But as usual, the truth--at least, as far as I can make it out--doesn't provide easy answers.
The shooter, Anthony Pacherille, is reportedly a quiet kid who plays organ at his church. The shot kid, Wesley Lippitt, is one of three black students at Cooperstown High School. They were members of the same crowd. The mother of one of their friends, who's had them both in her house at the same time, says no one would ever call them enemies.
That Good Friday afternoon, April 2nd, found the Cooper Grounds--part of the Hall of Fame--filled with high school kids. It was sunny, warm, and a welcome contrast to what has been a gloomy, overcast winter hereabouts.
According to reports, Anthony was driving a late-model GM Trailblazer around a central, oval driveway on the Grounds that surrounds a statue of James Fenimore Cooper. After about 5 passes, Wesley and two friends walked over and, in the heartless way 16-year-olds have, asked Anthony why he only had his learner's permit, when everybody else already had their driver's license.
Anthony reportedly grabbed a .22 rifle and jumped out of the SUV without putting it in park (this is not suburbia--rifles in SUVs are a commonplace around here). As it rolled into one of the cast iron gates at either end of the oval, the three kids beat it. Two ran one way; Wesley ran across the street and into the police station, which is in the basement of the Village Library. Anthony fired two shots at Wesley. One hit him in his arm; the other passed through an interior window.
The police officer on duty, not knowing what was going on, ordered both kids on the ground. He told Anthony to drop the rifle. Instead, Anthony put it under his chin and pulled the trigger. The round passed through his head without doing serious injury, and lodged in his forehead. Both kids were sent to the local hospital. Neither is in any medical danger.
Because it was reported that, sometime during the drama, Anthony said, "I don't like black people," the possibility that the shooting was some sort of hate crime hasn't been ruled out. And the fact that Anthony's former Facebook page included references to Benito Mussolini has provoked implications in the press that Anthony was some sort of right-wing hater. These may weigh on how the district attorney has to deal with the matter.
But from what I've been able to tell, these issues are peripheral to events.
Cooperstown is about as normal a town as you can imagine. It's tidy, quiet, and, thanks to the Hall of Fame, prosperous. Many of us hate baseball; but that's mainly because, during the tourist season, we can't find a parking space. The kids growing up here are aware of the themes of modern life, sure, but there are no gangs, no skinheads, no serious racial tensions.
In other words, Anthony is just a kid. And Wesley is just a kid. They used to hang out together. Anthony is not some vicious skinhead who was bullying Wesley the victim, and finally acted out some racist fantasy.
In fact my impression from speaking to people around town is that Wesley was the popular one, Anthony was not at the center of the group, and Wesley used to needle Anthony about one thing or another in the way teenagers do--pitilessly, casually, knowing just how to hurt, not really meaning anything by it.
But in the distorted teenaged mind--especially in high school, especially in a tiny town with no escape from what's bothering you--every event, every comment, assumes enormous meaning. And not everybody can just shrug that off. It's possible that Anthony was one of these teenagers--too sensitive for insults to roll off his back, too awkward to come up with a quick riposte.
Someone like that would turn to exaggerated ideas of power, without taking their larger meanings seriously, and this is a likely explanation for the references to Mussolini. What those references probably are not is evidence of some hate-filled, white supremacist mind; after all, even during World War II, Il Duce was mainly considered a joke.
So look at this story this way: Two kids, members of the same crowd, see each other in a place filled with their friends. One is parading in what was probably his father's vehicle, imagining everybody watching him is green with envy. The other comes over and needles him in front of other people. The driver just snaps, the way a teenaged boy can snap. Events spiral out of control, as events will. And somewhere along the line, somebody says something he probably didn't mean.
There's another possibility, too. According to some rumors, the boys were really good friends; Anthony was thinking about suicide, the way teenagers sometimes do; and Wesley, seeing the rifle in the SUV, tried to head that off, said the wrong thing, and tripped a wire.
Whatever the truth really is--we may never know--it probably isn't a tidy package filled with little boxes labeled "racism" or "bullying". Life isn't like that. And it shouldn't be reported as if it is.