Saturday, September 14, 2002

Michael Carneal

Torment of a teen killer

        The terrible irony is this: More than anything, Michael Carneal wanted to be liked.

        He slaughtered three classmates because his peers were expecting ”something big.” They'll hate me even more, he thought, if I don't produce.

        Five years have passed since the 14-year-old fired eight bullets into a prayer circle at Heath High School in Paducah. From prison last week, he requested an interview with The Courier-Journal, saying he wanted to make known his remorse.

        He has no easy explanation. Back then, he said, kids teased him and he thought his family didn't love him, but he knows better now.

Didn't expect to kill

        As a 19-year-old on psychiatric medication, Mr. Carneal today isn't as revealing as the extraordinary court record of his crime. I have reviewed these documents, compiled in response to lawsuits.

        ”I don't know why I wasn't bluffing this time,” Michael tearfully told psychiatrists in 1998. “I guess it was because they ignored me. I had guns, I brought them to school, I showed them to (students), and they were still ignoring me. I didn't expect to kill anyone. I was just going to shoot. I thought maybe they would be scared and then no one would mess with Michael.”

        Later, classmates would recall his “jokes” about taking over the school and his warnings to avoid the prayer circle that day.

        One teacher dug up a violent story he had written. Another remembered his eerie enthusiasm for cutting up a potato during a science experiment.

        But as the facts emerged, it became clear that much of the speculation — about violent movies, bad parents, devil-worshiping friends — did not apply.

        Unbeknownst to his family, Michael had spent the year before the shootings battling obsessive fears.

        He kept kitchen knives and a sickle under his bed to protect himself from imaginary intruders. He sometimes walked on furniture to avoid the floor, where he thought people with chainsaws were waiting to cut off his feet.

        Given his peculiar torment, any teasing by classmates was going to be too much. In his eighth-grade year, the school newspaper printed gossip that Michael and another boy ”had feelings for each other.”

        One student began calling him “faggot” or “gay” at least four times a day, Michael told doctors.

        Up until seconds before he pulled the trigger, he wasn't sure he would do it, he said. Then he dropped one of the earplugs he had brought for the occasion and imagined students mocking him. “Stupid kid,” they said in his mind. “Can't even get earplugs right.”

        He started shooting.

Understanding a must

        None of this absolves Mr. Carneal, of course. He cared only about himself. He took three lives and ruined countless others. Contrary to his assertions last week, he is a monster. But if impulsive, irrational, cold-hearted 14-year-olds are sometimes our enemy, it is worth trying to understand them. If they cannot stop themselves, somebody must.

        E-mail or call 859-578-5584.



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