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A Lingering Anguish

by ron powers

collageIllustration by Terry Miura

The infamous Zantop murder case of January 2001 alarmed a nation already dismayed by the lengthening list of lethal violence by adolescents. The Zantops, a popular Dartmouth College academic couple, were slashed to death in their home near Hanover, New Hampshire, by assailants who turned out to be a pair of "ordinary" teenage boys from a small Vermont town.

A lingering anguish preyed upon the thoughts of one New Hampshire resident in particular. Long after the young killers had confessed and received their prison sentences, Philip T. McLaughlin '74 remained beset by thoughts of social breakdown; a culture somehow gone rotten; a falling away of "context" for certain violent eruptions by teenaged Americans with no prior history of antisocial behavior. As he continued to push his personal search for an explanation, the concept of "degradation" took hold in his thoughts: a degradation of our culture via certain failings in American public and civic life.

That was not so unusual. Many people, trekking the uncharted territory of inexplicable brutality among the young, have arrived at similar dark notions. What makes McLaughlin's journey distinctive is that he is no ordinary onlooker; certainly no hand-wringing alarmist or humid doomsayer. He is a former Navy man (an anti-submarine warfare officer aboard a destroyer escort) with two active Marines among his five children. He is a case-hardened former county prosecutor. And until he resigned last December after the electoral defeat of his sponsor, Democratic Governor Jean Shaheen, Phil McLaughlin had served for five years as New Hampshire's Attorney General. Among the cases he prosecuted was the one involving Robert Tulloch and Jimmy Parker, the teenaged murderers of Dartmouth professors Half and Suzanne Zantop. For months after his duties in the case were over, the dark deeds wrought by these materially well-off but emotionally broken boys left a deep imprint on him. They spurred him to reveries of his own boyhood in a densely interconnected, richly humanizing community hive in working-class Nashua. When McLaughlin speaks of "context," this hive is what he has in mind. And Parker and Tulloch symbolize its decline and fall.

"When I think of my childhood," McLaughlin said, "I don't do it to bring people back to the 'Extraordinary Days of Yesteryear'; I do it because to me it operates as a social control. "My upbringing was so ordinary. My father was a cop. We lived in a small upstairs apartment in Nashua on the corner of Foundry Street. It was the Irish Acre, which from the 1800's, right up through the 1950's was populated by people who went to St. Patrick's Parish. My family was around me. My entertainment was an AM radio. My dad would let me listen to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, programs like that. When I walked outside my back door and looked right, I was looking at the church, two blocks over, a ninety-second walk. The church was my universe-Sacred Heart school, St. Patrick's Parish."

These memories made it all the more baffling for McLaughlin as he tried to analyze the motives of these two latter-day products of a peaceful small town and loving families. It was Parker, the follower, more than Tulloch, the apparent mastermind, whom McLaughlin found most enigmatic, and distressing.

"The impression that Tulloch conveyed was one of detached contempt," the attorney general recalled, still clearly puzzled by it. "You could see it in the way he would look at people. He was smirking. He gave a sense of derision, to the point where it would make one think that apart from his clear legal responsibility, this human being has not connected with what he has done yet, because no human being who is connected would persist that way.

"That contrasted rather dramatically with Jimmy Parker. Parker gave every impression of being completely earnest in that courtroom. He was struggling virtually all the time to maintain his composure. He addressed the Zantops' daughters. He looked them in the eye and he uttered the words, 'I'm sorry.' And I think there was no one there who didn't believe it. And there was no one there who didn't appreciate the inadequacy of the statement; but that it was the only thing that one could say."

Philip T. McLaughlin

McLaughlin's mouth tightened a bit as he recalled the ensuing moments.

"When he did that, he looked over his left shoulder, to his mother, who was in the courtroom. And the vision of this boy, looking at his mother. . .it's as though his mother was watching him being sucked into a whirlpool at sea and couldn't do anything, that he was dying in front of her. She was dying, his father was dying, and he was dying. And you distinctly had the sense that whatever may have occurred at the Zantops,' that this youngster was going to have the horrible experience of reliving it in his conscience: that whatever may have happened, his punishment would be that he had a conscience.

"In a sense, that was kind of a moral redemption for him, as I perceived it. I was glad for him. I was glad for him that he could have those feelings. Because at least I had some faith that there was a humanity there I could connect with."

McLaughlin turned briefly back to Parker's companion in the crime.

"I think it's easy," he acknowledged, "to do a disservice to Robert Tulloch; to suppose one knows what's in his mind. I don't. So I concentrate not on my skeptical feelings about Tulloch, but on my observation of Parker. And I say to myself, now wait a minute: I've never seen a situation like his before. There's nothing that I am aware of, nothing shown to me by our investigators or the probation report, that suggested the factors that would be associated historically with a youngster who would commit murder. There was nothing in his school record. No indication of any abuse of alcohol or drugs. No history of any problems with his family or his school. He didn't appear to have any intellectual deficits. No indication that before this sequence of events he had acted harshly toward other people."

McLaughlin shook his head. "I found the whole thing exceedingly, exceedingly unnerving," he summed up. "Because I couldn't find context or reason for why this might happen within the ordinary zone."

In ruminating even to this extent about a closed case, Philip McLaughlin has separated himself from many politicians and criminal-justice officials. Few of them are eager to probe the philosophical questions that underlie violent juvenile crime. Most prefer to remain in the comfort zone of certain iron-fisted prescriptions: harsher sentences, for example, or lowering the minimum age for capital punishment, or otherwise "sending a message" to alienated kids.

But McLaughlin is not satisfied with such formulas. In his terse, matter-of-fact way, he has embraced a vision of "citizenship" far more expansive than the prevailing modes of consumership and narrow self-interest. ("My sons and I see our military obligations not with any kind of right-wing superpatriotism," he says, "but as a community service.") An enlightened concern for the young is central to his vision. During his tenure as New Hampshire's AG, this former school board member carved out a special commitment to juvenile justice and early intervention with children at risk. Much of his effort, he said, took its inspiration from Governor Shaheen.

"While she was in office, she did many things that the media gave scant attention to," he said. "She focused tremendous energy and political capital on developing programs in service of kids. She generally kept trying to focus public policy on issues of early childhood development, especially the capacity for the community to intervene early. That doesn't mean a whole lot in well-integrated families, but it can make a huge difference in families with some liabilities. We're talking here, to a very large extent, about single parent households with moms."


Robert Tulloch

McLaughlin's own efforts centered on "mentoring," or the idea of adult-child learning partnerships that is gaining popularity among people with an eye to the crisis of marginalized youth. "I consulted with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the grants unit here, to put together a state-wide mentoring initiative. It's good. We actually formulated a printed business plan. I'm talking about effective relationships between adults and kids who lack those relationships. We're trying to foster that."

It is the gulf that separates these and other good intentions from a unified national initiative on behalf of alienated kids that most concerns Phil McLaughlin. This gulf moves him to thoughts of social breakdown and a culture fallen prey to degradation. He is clear-eyed that this breakdown is largely ascribable to poverty, single-parent families, drugs, and other deep-rooted social ills. But McLaughlin insists that Americans must face up to another source of disintegration: a source perhaps too routinely pigeonholed (and dismissed, after decades of debate) as "the media."

McLaughlin prefers to address it through a slightly different, fresher prism: that of "discourse." In his view, while TV and the press ignore the kind of "unsexy" initiatives that he and Governor Shaheen labored to enact; they generate a constant barrage of images and rhetoric that actively inflame the dark passions of those most at risk. Thus, while others dream of intimidating young people away from crime by "sending them a message," McLaughlin's view is that America has sent its young (and everyone else) far too many "messages" already: "messages" driven by hard ideology and profit-making, not nurturing motives; messages that are logically reductive and morally sterile; messages that reinforce an adolescent's natural receptivity to the simplistic, the sensual, and the emotionally charged. This "degradation of the human condition through media," as McLaughlin terms it, defeats the subtle but vital interests of community and civic vision.

"I'm concerned," he said, "with the question of whether people are [any longer] capable of engaging in discourse that is calculated to examine proposed solutions to and resolve some of our most pressing problems. Some of these problems are extraordinarily complicated and require great thought, but can be destroyed by media and generalization."


James Parker

As an example, McLaughlin cites the great debate over healthcare at the beginning of President Clinton's first term.

"There were hundreds of thousands of thoughtful discussions and considerations of public policy," he recalled, "with the view toward taking the nation toward some concept of nationalized healthcare. One could agree or disagree with the concept, but you would have to respect the fact that it was based upon a considerable amount of thoughtful discussion.

"And then in the heat of the debate, the [advertising] industry produced this very small commercial that had two middle-aged people talking about the potential healthcare reforms, and just dismissing them as an intrusion. It had an enormous effect.

"So here is the media, which is omnipresent, infecting this great question with the most simple of generalizations. It uprooted and destroyed thoughtful discourse. That was the message I got out of that. It made me very, very skeptical about the question, how do we deal with complex issues?

"Now, I'm a person who is looking for thoughtful discourse. And the political leadership of the country will not engage in that because it's too risky. They revert to slogans. Nothing else. And the adult community of this country permits that. Facing such complexity all around us, it seems to me that the level of intellectual discourse shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. And I think that is a significant long-term problem."

With specific respect to the crisis of alienated youth, McLaughlin believes that this "degradation of discourse" is potentially cataclysmic. Youth-oriented media habitually abolish context and social ideas, blur nuance, and replace these lost values with the very modes of smirking contempt, ironic detachment and bullying, unprovoked aggression that now and then get replicated in the impulses of children for whom nothing much else is going right. His own cherished icons of AM radio-Sergeant Preston, the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger-have long since been replaced by the snarling, chortling, trash-talking shock-jocks for whom no cruelty, no profaning of human dignity, is too extreme. (The Phoenix disc jockey who last October phoned up the recently widowed wife of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile in her hotel room and asked her, live on the air, for a date, will serve as one sordid example among tens of thousands.)

Like most people-including most experts-Phil McLaughlin finds it far easier to state the problem than to propose answers, and he is humbly aware of this. "I'm not suggesting any kind of reform program," he says. "I'm saying that the degradation of the culture seems to me so manifest that while I don't know of any particular outcome, I know enough to ask the question, 'How could there not be some outcome?' Are our children just going to have to remain at risk until the society changes? That's absurd. Society in that sense isn't going to change. So it is up to individuals: what is the adult responsibility for the moral, cultural, and emotional formation of our children? Because for a prolonged period of time, when they're young, we have the capacity to keep them in a reasonably emotionally sheltered environment, and give them some baselines of human empathy."

As Citizen Philip McLaughlin returns to private practice in Laconia, he may not develop the far-reaching "answers" to teenaged alienation of the sort that anxious parents and others hunger for. Nor would that be really necessary. The hard work he has done on behalf of children, and the work he seems likely to continue, is "answer" enough-but only if those selfsame "anxious parents and others"; that is, the rest of us-were to join him in it.


Ron Powers, a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, is the author/co-author of twelve books, including Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America, which examined two killings by teenaged boys in the hometown that he shares with Mark Twain. He wrote about the Zantop killings in the March 2002 issue of The Atlantic. He lives in Middlebury, Vermont.

Illustration by Terry Miura