Return of the Super-Predators

Aug. 30, 2006

It begins with such promise.

"Criticism (of youth) without acts of love creates arrogance, not hope," Joe Maxwell says in his piece "Super-Predators, Frank Melton and Me" in the August issue of Metro Christian Living. Maxwell, journalist-in-residence at Belhaven College, expresses sympathy for children who were raised without a "moral compass, as if my own children or I might have turned out different than they under those conditions."

So far, so good, but Maxwell quickly veers off course. The environment for "teens," it seems, is like Chernobyl. It has produced mutants. "The Super-Predators have arrived," Maxwell declares. "Yet are we surprised?"

Frankly, I am surprised, because Maxwell is promoting a theory that has already been debunked.

Maxwell is referring to the so-called "Super-Predator Theory" of John J. DiIulio Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In an infamous 1995 essay in the Weekly Standard, DiIulio argued that we were witnessing the rise of a new class of sociopathic inner-city males. "They quite literally have no concept of the future. … They place zero value on the lives of their victims. ... They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reason," DiIulio wrote. Political conservatives then seized upon his words, using them to justify efforts to lock away younger and younger youth who, they said, could not be rehabilitated.

DiIulio, with gambling addict William Bennett and drug-war czar John Walters, went on to write "Body Count," a book on the subject focusing on young black crime. He became President Bush's first director of faith-based initiatives before quitting in 2001 after sparring with the president's staff, particularly Karl Rove. In the late 1990s, as suburban school shootings became more prevalent, the super-predator myth was widened to include white kids.

The problem is that DiIulio and friends were wrong on every super-predator count. The youth-crime surge never happened as predicted. Journalists like Maxwell seem oblivious to the fact that juveniles are far likelier to be the victims of violent crime rather than perpetrators.

The trio advanced "moral poverty" as the cause of youth crime, but research shows unequivocally that economic poverty is the best predictor for violent crime, among youth or anyone else. Even DiIulio has since repudiated his tough-love theory in favor of more socially progressive preventive and rehabilitative approaches—even toward the most violent juvenile offenders—and says publicly that he wishes he never had used the term. Indeed, the Department of Justice's juvenile division complained that the super-predator myth "caused a panic that changed the juvenile justice system and its response to the nation's youth"—even as youth crime was steadily dropping in America.

Journalist Maxwell seems to know none of this. "DiIulio says this phenomenon (which is now thoroughly manifest in Jackson!) is not merely seen in inner-city areas, but shows up more and more in suburban areas where many children also lack any effective moral guidance, and therefore live simply to satisfy their own urges," he writes. "This is not black or white—this is transparently universal."

This is transparently asinine. Adults commit the majority of violent crime in Jackson, and despite Maxwell's attempt to strip the theory of race, the super-predator myth has always focused on "young urban minority males." (Proof is in the debunked "Body Count.") Poverty and easy access to weapons drive violent crime. Speaking of "moral poverty" is a means of evading that well-established fact, as is justifying harsh punishments of youth offenders—that research shows actually makes them worse criminals and increases recidivism.

Maxwell does argue that Christians must do more to reach out to troubled youth, not just with money but with their time. But more than anything, his editorial is a love letter to the mayor.

"When we see Mayor Frank Melton out at night trying to show personal attention to a young criminal as well as working to arrest him, should we belittle Frank's own personal efforts as being merely sentimental or off-mental base?" Maxwell asks.

"Frank must have thought he would set an example … Now he must wonder as we pick at him for taking real time to show real love to local children. Who wouldn't want a mayor like that?"

When a child is thrown into a police cruiser and taken to the Henley-Young Detention Center, or held face down on a car hood with TV cameras in his face, the one thing he does not feel is love. He does not feel grateful for the "personal attention" of the mayor, which could hardly be described as "sentimental."

Is it love to stop any minor out after 9 p.m., among a cadre of heavily armed police officers, threatening them with a trip downtown?

Maxwell then praises Melton for hugging children, and launches the vision of 2,000 hugs, arguing that mass hugging might solve our crime problems. Maxwell becomes positively ebullient: "It may just heal the Super-Predator in all of us—that demon that wants to complain, gossip and remain embittered."

So the super-predator within is a relentless gripe? Terrifying.

I will spare you the final sentence of Maxwell's piece, as it's an undecipherable mixed metaphor, like badly translated Japanese poetry.

Just kidding—I won't spare you:

"His crazy crime-prevention efforts—getting involved in people's real lives—will keep providing self-righteous critique from a peanut gallery that kills time watching the Jackson crime game unfold, but doesn't want the ball."

Previous Comments


A whole lot of children have gotten into a whole lot of trouble with these indiscriminate HUGS from strangers. This is the crafty work of pedophiles. There are good hugs and bad hugs and parents should learn this lesson quick, fast and in a hurry and pass it on to your children. Everyone who reaches out to your child with such passon is not always above board. There is an old song that goes: "Who's making love to your old lady - while you are out making love." I must wonder who hugged your children while the need was so great for you to go out and find someone else's kids to hug. Just wondering. Just asking.


There's nothing wrong with hugs (within certain parameters), but pulling over a school bus on I-220 seems more than a little extreme. What kids really need are mentors and friends, not forced snuggles. And the "superpredators" business is just stupid. Cheers, TH

Tom Head

"Super Predators" sounds more like a sci-fi movie title than a label for juvenile offenders. Looks like another one of those labels like "urban terrorists" that the media uses to draw attention to crime stories.

jeff lucas

From the time I first heard of the term "Super Predator" I said that term more aptly described one of our two main political parties, and many corporations, businesses, and wealthy persons of today. A super predator is a person/entity that is superior at preying, plundering, and devouring. Can a juvenile really do this in any large scale way? I don't see how any single juvenile or several of them can ever be a super predator. Janet Reno said recently at a luncheon that we have to save our children through love, education, provision, training, and example/role modeling. I agree with her on this. Love includes discipline and appropriate punishment as far as I'm concerned. Televison, newspapers, magazines, and the likes, have done great and nearly irreparable harm at mislabeling youthful offenders and spreading unscientific lies about the same often with no regard to the horrible circumstances causing or contributing to the situations. Fortunately, many (hopefully most) of us can't be fooled in such a callous way. To make sure the term never gain any real standing, acceptance, or legs in my space or surroundings I will simply always point out the real super predators of our society and world.

Ray Carter

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