Monday, April 20, 2009

Columbine: Myths, Mistakes, and the Enigma of Violence

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the brutal killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, wherein two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on one of the worst killing sprees in American history, turning their school into a slaughterhouse. The boys killed twelve of their classmates, one teacher, injured over two dozen, and then turned their guns on themselves.

I remember that day very well. I was a junior in high school, seventeen-years-old, about the same age as both the killers and their victims. I was shopping with my father at Circuit City when all the store employees turned all the television sets onto CNN. We watched in horror as the scene unfolded: bloodied, crying teenagers fleeing their school under flurries of snow; S.W.A.T. teams assembling on playing fields; distraught parents and police. We held our breath in fear as the now-infamous "boy in the window" dangled out of the second-story library and fell to safety below him - I even remember how the newscasters broke away at that point, worried that the boy wouldn't make it. (On a lighter note: I also remember that Columbine taught me to hate Larry King with a furious passion -- his blunt, careless questioning of child witnesses scorched me to the core. Jesus, Larry, they're kids. Stop barking insensitive questions at them like: "So how did it feel to watch your best friend die?" Lord.)

None of us understood it. How could two kids manage to turn an entire school into chaos? How could this happen in America? What did it mean for us as a society? Was there some way of preventing this? Could it happen again? Could it happen to us?

I think a lot of people underestimate the impact that the massacre at Columbine had on American high schoolers at that time. Yes, other disasters such as the 9/11 terror attacks or the Hurricane Katrina fiasco perhaps carried more national/global consequences, but if you went to public school during the Columbine disaster, then you were afraid. At least, I was afraid. It was all my friends and I talked about for weeks: what would we do if our school was suddenly taken over by shooters? Would we hide? Would we run? Would we try to stop them? And who among our peers could be capable of such violence? The kinda-shifty girl with the sword collection? The tubby kid we picked on who always wore camouflage and bragged about pouring deer blood on his face? The semi-goth kids who listened to the same music the Columbine shooters listened to?

And why, why, did this ever happen in the first place?

It was all anyone wondered. Media talking-heads and moral majority leaders pointed fingers at easy targets like Marilyn Manson, Natural Born Killers, and video games like Doom -- all while plastering the faces of Klebold and Harris on the front pages of national magazines and newspapers, turning killers into rock stars while never taking a look at themselves. Copycat shootings occurred, numerous bomb threats were called into schools across the nation, and yet somehow, no one in the media ever asked themselves, "In broadcasting their deeds in such explicit, obsessive detail, did we in fact reward them for their actions? Did we turn two mentally-disturbed teenagers into martyrs?"

No. Instead, rock music, video games, and movies bore the brunt of the blame - as did the general "apathy" of our generation. We were kids with nothing to live for, they said. We had no common cause to unite around, like the sixties generation with their righteous anger towards the Vietnam War, or the Greatest Generation's sacrifices during World War II. Our generation was a bunch of worthless, spoiled, malleable brats who could easily be shaped by fiction and rumors. Klebold and Harris were two "freaks" who'd been bullied by their Abercrombie & Fitch-loving peers, and their weak minds, so easily warped by violence on film and in games, crumbled and vowed revenge.

But that's not what really happened. Not by a long shot.

There's an excellent article on today: Debunking the myths of Columbine, 10 years later. The article goes into detail about some of the myths popularized after the events: that the boys were members of a "Trench-Coat Mafia," that they targeted minorities and people who had bullied them, that they killed a girl for believing in God. Many of the things we believed at the time about Columbine have proven to be untrue -- including the motives behind the attack.

The fact of the matter is this: the boys were sick. The journals they left behind are proof positive that these were not ordinary kids. They suffered from genuine mental illnesses, evidenced by the detached, circular logic of their writing. Harris was a bonafide sociopath, and Klebold suffered from major depression. They did not see their peers as "real people" -- not because they were brainwashed by video games, but because they were sick. In their minds, they were the only "real" people; everyone else was insubstantial, and therefore, killing them was nothing to feel guilty over. These boys were literally mentally ill, and there was nothing anyone could have done to rectify that. 

Could the shooting at Columbine have been prevented? Possibly. Maybe if the parents had seen more. Maybe if the teachers and guidance counselors at the school had taken a greater interest. Maybe if the media hadn't made such a fuss over previous school shooters. Maybe if guns had not been so readily available for these kids ... 

But ah, maybe. Maybe, maybe. We'll never know. Disaster is like that. We'll never know if 9/11 could have been prevented if there had been more interagency cooperation or attention from our nation's leaders. We'll never know if the Katrina disaster could have been averted if local, state, and federal officials had taken the storm more seriously prior to its landfall. We'll never know where our country might be if Al Gore had gotten his recount in 2000, or if we had never invaded Iraq, or if we'd gotten involved in World War II earlier, or if JFK or Martin Luther King hadn't been assassinated, or so on and so on into infinity.

We can't live in what-ifs and fantasy. This history is our reality, and we must come to terms with it as best we can. The massacre at Columbine happened, and will undoubtedly happen again. Just look at what happened at Virginia Tech: another clearly mentally-ill young man shoots up his school in the worst mass shooting in American history -- and has the foresight to send a tape of himself just before the shooting to NBC news.

But it's not the media that causes these tragedies. It's not rock music, or movies, or video games. It's sickness, the kind of sickness that has been a part of humanity for as long as we have existed on this earth, and I think that's what's so hard for so many people to grasp in these tragedies: that there are no simple answers, no smoking guns, no easy prevention.

The truth is this: we will never fully understand what happened in Colorado on April 20, 1999. The hard answers died with the perpetrators and their victims. We will never make sense it all, just as we will never understand how 19 men could hijack airplanes and topple towers, or why an entire nation has been essentially brainwashed by a dictator, or how millions of people could die in systematic genocides throughout history. Sometimes, terrible things just happen, and all we can do is pick up the pieces and continue on with our lives as best we can.

But we should never forget. We cannot forget. And on days like today, when the world stops to remember the victims, we should also remember the perpetrators: not as martyrs, not as heroes, not even as misguided, sick individuals, but as two young boys who will always remain a puzzle to us. Maybe if we remember that nothing comes with an easy explanation, we will be less likely to point fingers or grasp at straw-truths.

I don't know. When I set out to write this post, there was a lot I wanted to say, and I think I've said it -- but what sense have I been able to make of all this? Not very much, I don't think. And maybe that's the point of it all: that it's been ten years, and I still can't come to grips with what happened on a cold day in April.


septembermom said...

A very thoughtful post about a senseless tragedy that won't be forgotten in our history. So many unanswered questions. You are right to point out that everyone involved was so young and lost in a number of ways. Let's pray that we all learn from this horrible happening. I hope teens who need guidance or help feel like they have a place to go as a sanctuary. Bottling up those negative emotions can only bring about possibly dangerous situations.

PersicaPit said...

septembermom - Thanks for taking the time to read my rather, er, lengthy diatribe about the tragedy. Columbine really had an impact on anyone who was in high school at the time. I think a lot of us are still struggling to come to terms with what happened. We want answers, but in tragedies like this, there are never many answers left behind.

I agree with you in that more resources need to be made available to troubled kids -- but I worry that that's one of the lessons of Columbine that has been largely forgotten in its aftermath. I worry that there are kids out there who need help, but don't know how to get it. I worry that a lot of our schools simply don't have the staff or resources needed to identify troubled students and provide them the help they so desperately need -- and so I worry that another tragedy like Columbine is inevitable.

belleshpgrl said...

I was a senior when it happened. I was terrified then and I'm terrified now. Many friends and my fiance are teachers and whenever I hear of a copycat I get nervous. I know that the odds are in my favor but isn't that what the victims of all the other shootings thought?

The what ifs are suffocating. All we can do is remember those we've lost and look to the future with sensitive diligence.

PersicaPit said...

bellehpsgrl - I completely feel where you're coming from. I was a junior when it happened, and it scared the hell out of me. School is supposed to be a safe place, an institute of learning, and the sudden realization that we weren't safe was horrible.

And it's still horrible, because you're also right about the threat of copycats. To be honest, I've been kind of half-holding my breath today, worrying that some troubled kid will take the anniversary as an opportunity to make a "name" for himself by doing something terrible.

But you're right - we can't live on what-ifs. We can only take each day as it comes, and do our best to learn the lessons of the past.

Kim said...

I like the compassion and thoughtfulness you put into your post. I think it all begins right there. How can we change the world if we just point the finger here and there and there and here. You are so right to consider the boys even though they did this. I agree also that the media, music and artists themselves were used as a scapegoat.

PersicaPit said...

Kim - Thank you so much for your comment. It makes me feel like I got across what I wanted to say - never an easy thing when dealing with such a complex tragedy, and that's exactly what Columbine was: complicated. There are no easy answers to be found, no matter how hard we try to rationalize what happened that day.

I think a lot of people have a tough time wrapping their heads around the idea that, in many ways, the shooters were a tragedy in and of themselves. They were lost, and they were young, and they were very troubled. They didn't do this out of revenge, or envy, or prejudice. They did it because they were sick. It doesn't excuse their actions, nor does it fully explain them - but it does provide some insight.

As far as people blaming societal influences, I'll just paraphrase the great David Cross: what was the violent video game Hitler played? What metal album did Jack the Ripper listen to? Violence has existed since the dawn of mankind, and blaming entertainment or art for tragedies like Columbine is simply preposterous.

Marc said...

I was in second year university when this nightmare unfolded. A lot of minds in Canada turned to the Montreal Massacre that occurred in December of 1989 and were unable to feel safe on our side of the border.

You make very good points about the media coverage - or perhaps media frenzy is the better term. What I'd love to see happen next time... okay, I'd love to never see this kind of thing happen again. But I'm trying to be realistic.

Anyway, what I'd love to see happen is all media outlets, big and small, decide that who did it is completely unimportant. No name(s) is(are) ever made public, no photo on any front page. The person pulling the trigger doesn't deserve to be made famous.

Instead, they would focus on the why and how. Why did this happen. How was this allowed to happen. How can we stop it from ever happening again.

I know that's wishful thinking, but I guess I'm in a wishful kind of mood.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this sad anniversary.

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