World’s ‘Lost’ Boys Follow Tragic Path of Violence

December 10, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour essayist: The terrorist in Mumbai was not wearing army fatigues or any kind of mask. The young man wore khakis and a dark shirt, apparel appropriate to a college campus.

In two of the most horrific recent acts of terrorism committed by Americans against other Americans, adolescent boys walked onto their campuses, dressed as video game avatars. But the blood on the walls at Columbine High and Virginia Tech was real.

It is not soldiers marching in formation under a national flag who people the nightmare future. It is the boy with a gang of lost boys that adults have come to fear.

In 1904, James M. Barrie wrote “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” Peter is the captain of a band of lost boys on an island called Neverland, where the boys chase pirates and the pirates chase them.

Off the non-fictional coast of East Africa, teenagers chase ocean liners and seize oil tankers and their crews. And in faraway London or Zurich, lawyers in wood-paneled offices pay the ransom.

We are looking for someone, someone older, someone who might have dispatched the lost boys to Mumbai or to the coast off Somalia to capture ships, and usually there are older men writing the script for the young.

In Dickensian London, neither Bill Sikes nor Fagin wore silks or any of the frippery they taught Oliver Twist to pilfer or pick from pockets. But not even in the Victorian capital of child abuse could Fagin or Sikes have conceived the kind of violence that ensnares children today.

Present-day lost boys

Across Africa, young boys have been abducted from their families by tribal chieftains and forced to commit atrocities. These children, who have had their innocence beaten out of them, have known no pity and show no pity.

There are an estimated 120,000 boy soldiers throughout Africa. In the West Bank and in Gaza, adults wickedly encouraged boys and girls to believe that sainthood results from murder, from strapping on an explosive vest and walking toward a crowded bus stop. That, they are told, is the portal to paradise.

But some boys act alone without adults directing their violence. After the mayhem at Columbine High and Virginia Tech, the mothers and fathers of the terrorist discovered they did not know their own sons.

Listen again to the news. An 8-year-old boy is under arrest in Arizona for killing his father and a family friend.

Listen to the news. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, teenage boys on motorcycles sprayed acid in the faces of girls coming home from school.

We have probably imagined a nuclear or bacteriological attack as the work of adults. We have not probably imagined a boy pushing the button with his thumb.

In a world where children are separated from their innocence by villains and other children grow up enemies to innocence, the rest of us are left to play the innocent.

At least one witness reported a curious aspect to the visage of the young man shooting up the Mumbai cafe: The young man was smiling.

I'm Richard Rodriguez.