In my youth, I had all the makings of a future Donald Trump supporter. I grew up in Texas, attended segregated public schools and went to a conservative Presbyterian church every Sunday.
I cheered Richard Nixon at a 1968 campaign rally. When I moved in to my freshman college dorm, I hung a Confederate flag on the wall. I subscribed to Human Events, a hard-right weekly that was the closest thing we had to Fox News.
In short, I looked much like the prevailing liberal image of the boys from Covington Catholic, if not worse. If modern social media and current standards had been around then, I would have been deemed vile and irredeemable at a young age.
I don't claim to be in perfect concord with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but suffice to say, my views have changed a great deal in the intervening decades — a source of amusement to my wife, who knew me as a hardcore right-winger in high school.
If you had described Barack Obama to me back then and asked whether I could imagine voting for him in the distant future, I would have scoffed. If you had told me I would someday take a favorable view of feminism, Black Lives Matter and gay rights, I would have questioned your sanity. But all those came to pass.
When videos emerged of the encounter at the Lincoln Memorial involving the Kentucky teenagers, a group of black radicals and a Native American activist, social media boiled over with fury at the students. The kids, we were told, are privileged racists hostile to women and minorities and deserved to be named, shamed, harassed, ostracized and even physically attacked.
I am not here to re-litigate each frame of the footage. I do not rise in defense of "Make America Great Again" hats, anti-abortion marches, the tomahawk chop or any identification with Trump.
My point is that even those who strongly disapprove of these kids and their action should not write them off. They are high school students, which almost by definition means they are deficient in knowledge, judgment and experience. Giving those shortcomings, they are prone to mistaken opinions and unwise choices, just as every previous generation of teenagers was.
Liberals should not feel too superior in this respect. As a high school student, I saw anti-war protesters waving the flag of the Viet Cong, which at the time was killing Americans. I remember college kids wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. Some on the left defended the bombings carried out by the Weather Underground.
When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, The Harvard Crimson published an editorial declaring, "The victory of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front is a victory, first of all, for the people of Vietnam. Americans, who played a crucial role in forcing their government to withdraw from Indochina, should rejoice in the Vietnamese triumph."
As a dissenting member of the Crimson editorial board, I knew many of those who approved that piece, which included some who professed to be Marxists or Maoists. I am happy to report that none, to my knowledge, became card-carrying Communists or violent extremists. In fact, all the ones I know of went on to lead responsible, productive lives.
Back then, plenty of people on the left said and did things that might be construed as repellent and unforgivable. But they were granted the opportunity to outgrow their youthful folly rather than be treated as incurably wicked.
The Covington kids should have the same opportunity to mature and learn as they grow into adulthood. They don't deserve to be pilloried, much less punched, for views that they may someday revise or reject.
Not that we actually know those views. A white high school boy might wear a MAGA hat without being fully enamored of Trump and without fully appreciating how other people may perceive it.
Humans are complicated creatures, and adolescents are still unformed. It's ignorant and irresponsible to assume that these boys, or anyone else, can be definitively categorized based on the surface traits we see.
One advocate in my youth knew as much. He urged each person "to discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points, which will overbalance the bad points."
Americans commemorated the birthday of that man, Martin Luther King Jr., on Monday, but not many were heeding his advice.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.