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America’s lost boys

A generation of disconnected young men who make an idol out of violence

A sign near the scene of the shooting in Highland Park, Ill. Associated Press/Photo by Nam Y. Huh

America’s lost boys
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Paul Crimo says he never saw it coming. The 21-year-old killer who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., was his nephew Robert Crimo III. Paul told the New York Post that he will be “heartbroken” for the rest of his life. The alleged shooter lived in the same apartment as his father, Robert Jr., and Paul. According to the uncle’s account, Robert III was a quiet kid who kept to himself and spent all his time on “the computer.” On the day of the massacre, Paul came home from work and said “Hi” to young Robert. They didn’t speak to each other again until Paul came down to see Robert leaving. “I said ‘Bye,’ he said ‘Bye,’ and that was it.”

Meanwhile, the alleged gunman’s father has insisted he doesn’t regret filling out the consent form that allowed his son to buy his own guns, including the gun that would take eight innocent lives. He dismissed a previous incident where Robert III threatened to kill his own family as a “childish outburst.” (Police officers confiscated Robert III’s knife collection at the time, but they later returned the weapons.) From his perspective, the boy was alright.

Clearly, the boys are not alright.

Highland Park. Uvalde. Stoneman Douglas. Poway. Emanuel. By now, the American mass shooting news cycle is so sickeningly familiar that we are in danger of becoming desensitized to it all. There will be the op-eds pushing aggressive gun reform. There will be the systematic scouring of the killer’s digital paper trails for signs of ideological extremism. There will be fingers pointed, blame placed, and guilt by political association, assigned with shallow abandon.

But the most painful, penetrating questions of all will continue to go deliberately unasked. Questions about broken institutions. About broken families. About a generation lost in the blue glow of a digital screen, exchanging no more than a passing “Hi” and “Bye” with the adults who paid for it.

As a teacher who has worked with young teenagers, I have seen this generational disconnect firsthand—a disconnect that persists whether the children are Christian or non-Christian. In these formative years, they are high in openness, easily distracted, and living much of their lives in a virtual world their parents don’t understand. They open TikTok accounts and share dumb shorts with their friends. They are addicted to repetitive games. They trawl meme sites for nuggets of gallows humor. Sometimes, after an especially grisly joke comes off well, I’ll be asked, “Is that too dark?”

In my observation, children with intact families, structured schedules, and caring friends tend to mature into a healthy balance. But a child without one or more of these supports is at risk of remaining in a permanent state of arrested development.

I always answer this question calmly, without making the child feel shamed or lectured. Mass shooters tend to manifest warning signs long before they commit their crimes. Young Robert Crimo III appears to have been no exception.

In my observation, children with intact families, structured schedules, and caring friends tend to mature into a healthy balance. But a child without one or more of these supports is at risk of remaining in a permanent state of arrested development. He is inclined to be bitter, aimless, and lonely. And even before he stumbles down a rabbit hole of porn or violence, his pliable brain has been desensitized, primed to seek an endlessly refreshed dopamine hit.

This has taken a devastating toll on both young men and young women. Sometimes, young women will hurt or kill themselves. Some young men will do this, too. But others will direct their pain outward. Lacking a stable father figure or a healthy channel for their natural masculine aggression, they will make an idol out of violence and worship men who deal it out.

And when this ends, as it has ended over and over, in a peaceful street or school or church littered with bodies, how easy it is to blame the gun. For a gun has no soul. It has no eyes to stare into yours, asking where you were, asking how you didn’t see.

Little wonder that on that fateful day when children are orphaned, wives are widowed, and mothers are pierced through the heart, our opinion-makers will look anywhere, everywhere but the place where they will find the truth. Little wonder that they refuse to see a truth for which they have forgotten to ask—the truth in which they might, for a moment, see themselves. Their own failures. Their own broken marriages. Their own lost boys.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a math Ph.D. and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.


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