Fear-Mongering

11.25.13

Guess What? The ‘Knockout Game’ Is America’s Latest Phony Panic

Much like ‘wilding’ before it, the furor over the ‘knockout game’ bears all the hallmarks of an overblown panic over a crime wave that doesn’t exist.

Have teenagers adopted a new game of random assaults, with the goal of a one-hit “knockout”?

If you’ve been following local news, watching national coverage, or reading your Facebook newsfeed, you might think the answer is “yes.” The Today Show, for instance, reports that “teenagers [are] knocking people out for the fun of it,” targeting “women and children,” with cases “piling up.”

Likewise, CNN writes that “A sick so-called game known as ‘knockout’…is catching the attention of law enforcement throughout the nation,” and USA Today echoes the report with a brief on beefed up police vigilance in cities such as New York, Washington, New Haven, and Philadelphia.

It’s not hard to see why media outlets have latched on to this as an ongoing story. The prospect of random assault from rowdy, aggressive teens is scary, especially if they’re uninterested in theft and just want to attack. It’s as if we’re living in A Clockwork Orange, with our cities under siege by violent young men.

But it’s this media panic—as well as the strongly anecdotal nature of the coverage—that should give us pause before we declare the “knockout game” a national problem. After all, it wouldn’t be the first media furor over teen behavior. Recall the panics over “wilding”—where teenagers were attacking innocent bystanders en masse—or “headlight flashing,” where gang members were marking their victims during nighttime drives. In both cases, you could find instances that fit either description, but in a country with tens of millions of teenagers, where you could find examples of almost any behavior, you need more than a few anecdotes to prove a trend.

With the “knockout game,” we have several cases in a handful of cities, as well as five reported deaths. Victims tell similar stories: They were walking down the street when they were suddenly punched from behind. There’s no doubt that the experience is terrifying and traumatic.

But the question isn’t whether these random assaults happen. Of course they do. The question is whether this is a new dimension of urban crime, or a new name for an old phenomenon. Most of the evidence points to the latter. For starters, it’s not hard to find reports of senseless attacks on innocent bystanders. In 2011 in Washington, D.C., for instance, there were nearly 1,700 assaults excluding guns, including a random attack by a group of teenagers in a subway station. Violent crime is a fact of life in American cities, though it’s infrequent and on the decline, and that includes muggings and attacks by strangers.

A little incredulity, in other words, would go a long way.

Indeed, when asked about the “knockout game,” law enforcement has been skeptical. According to a recent New York Times piece, “[P]olice officials in several cities where such attacks have been reported said that the ‘game’ amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred.”

The case for “myth” is bolstered further by the fact that the “knockout game” has been cited as far back as 1992, when it was compared to “wilding” as an example of dangerous teen behavior. What’s more, several widely circulated stories concerning the game have been debunked by websites such as Snopes, which note that they have no “verifying information.”

On top of all of this, it’s worth emphasizing the broad picture. Overall, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2012 crime report, there were an estimated 127,577 assaults with “hands and fists” in American cities with more than 250,000 people, a 0.7 percent increase from the previous year. The “knockout game” may or may not be a new phenomenon, but with a few instances out of tens of thousands of assaults, it’s not a trend, and media outlets shouldn’t treat it as one. A few teens may describe their behavior as a game, but to hold them up as signs of a crime wave is to cherry-pick data and mislead the audience. A little incredulity, in other words, would go a long way.

One last thing: Race is an obvious element in all of this. In almost every report, the assailants are described as young black men, and many of the victims have been white. It’s hard not to see the sensationalized coverage of “knockout”—and before that, “wilding”—as a reflection of our national fear of young black men. Indeed, in the more sinister corners of the Internet, you can find people who argue that these incidents are the opening shots in a “race war” by “feral black youth.”

It should be said the same logic drives the racial profiling behind policies such as “stop and frisk.” Never mind that the vast majority of young black men don’t commit crimes; the behavior of a few turns everyone into a suspect.

Which means that, if the past is any indication, today’s panic over “knockout” is almost certain to become tomorrow’s excuse for justifying our skepticism and fear of black teenagers.