Printer Friendly
The Free Library
22,728,043 articles and books

Empty lessons: going to lunch on the ruins.

With a tone that was simultaneously hysterical and pompous, the pundits started searching for "the lessons of Littleton." Hundreds of commentaries later, only one lesson seems clear: No event is so unique or horrific that it cannot instantly be reduced to an editorialist's cliche.

The very day of the massacre - long before we even had an accurate count of the dead - Peter Jennings was treating viewers to a clip from The Basketball Diaries, a fantasy sequence in which a trench coat-clad Leonardo DiCaprio carries a gun to school and blows his classmates Classmates can refer to either:
  •, a social networking website.
  • Classmates (film), a 2006 Malayalam blockbuster directed by Lal Jose, starring Prithviraj, Jayasurya, Indragith, Sunil, Jagathy, Kavya Madhavan, Balachandra Menon, ...
 away. Littleton, Jennings announced, was sure to "reopen the debate" (had it been closed?) on the effects of media violence. He did not, however, stop showing footage of the terror, surely as intense a blast of media violence as anything in any movie.

So it began. Editorialists, activists, preachers, politicians: Everyone with a platform became an instant expert on the inner lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold Eric David Harris (April 9, 1981 – April 20, 1999) and Dylan Bennet Klebold (September 11, 1981 – April 20, 1999) were the high school seniors who committed the Columbine High School massacre. They killed 13 people and injured 24 others. , the boys who killed 12 students, one teacher, and themselves at Columbine High School Columbine High School is a secondary school in unincorporated Jefferson County, Colorado. The school is located at 6201 South Pierce Street, one mile west of the Littleton city limits and half a mile south of the Denver city/county line. . Within a day of the assault, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens was declaring that the murderers didn't "have the same moral background as the rest of us." Bill Davenport, a Baptist pastor in San Clemente, confidently asserted that the killers didn't value life "because they haven't been taught about God." On CNN CNN
 or Cable News Network

Subsidiary company of Turner Broadcasting Systems. It was created by Ted Turner in 1980 to present 24-hour live news broadcasts, using satellites to transmit reports from news bureaus around the world.
, criminologist Mike Rustigan declared, "Obviously, here, we are seeing non-parenting parents."

And where did these people acquire this insight into the shooters' moral upbringing? From thin air.

If you didn't like some part of pop culture, Littleton was a gold mine: Anything and everything could be attacked. Want to blame movies? MGM MGM
 in full Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

U.S. corporation and film studio. It was formed when the film distributor Marcus Loew, who bought Metro Pictures in 1920, merged it with the Goldwyn production company in 1924 and with Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1925.
 recalled all videos of The Basketball Diaries, letting the commentators turn their tut-tuts against Heathers and The Matrix. Want to blame video games? No report from Colorado was complete without the obligatory allusion to Doom. Want to blame music? Critics attacked Rammstein, KMFDM KMFDM Kein Mitleid für Die Mehrheit (German band, translates loosely to no pity for the majority) , and Marilyn Manson; the last bowed to political pressure and canceled the rest of his concert tour. (One wonders how many of the Marilyn-bashing moralists used to giggle to the folk ditty dit·ty  
n. pl. dit·ties
A simple song.

[Middle English dite, a literary composition, from Old French dite, from Latin dict
 that begins, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school/We have murdered every teacher, we have broken every rule...")

The president himself weighed in, taking a break from his own massacre in the Balkans to declare that he would meet with "some high-level folks from the entertainment industry" to ask them to tone down their products. The Wall Street Journal blamed the massacre on a "culture of chaos" in which one might see "surviving Columbine columbine, in botany
columbine (kŏl`əmbīn), any plant of the genus Aquilegia, temperate-zone perennials of the family Ranunculaceae (buttercup family), popular both as wildflowers and as garden flowers.
 students willing to go on national TV to talk about the massacre of 15 among them, but by golly gol·ly  
Used to express mild surprise or wonder.

[Alteration of God.]


an exclamation of mild surprise [originally a euphemism for
 they're not going to take off those backward baseball caps to do it." Jerry Falwell suggested that the killers were gay, a cry taken up in a press release from Topeka's Westhoro Baptist Church: "Two filthy fags slaughtered 13 people at Columbine High."

In the course of their crimes, Harris and Klebold broke more than a dozen gun laws already on the books. There were, nonetheless, calls for still more gun control, as though there were some magic number of regulations that would suddenly make a potential schoolhouse killer junk his plans. "By the time our children leave school at the start of the summer," announced Handgun Control, Inc. Chair Sarah Brady, "they should know that the lawmakers of this country have done something to protect them from the type of gun violence that occurred at Littleton." Further demands for gun laws issued from figures ranging from Rosie O'Donnell to...Marilyn Manson.

And, as always, there were attacks on the Internet. If anything was suspicious about shooter Eric Harris, surely it was that he had a Web page. (He kept a diary, too, but for some reason there have been no frantic denunciations of notebooks.) The BBC BBC
 in full British Broadcasting Corp.

Publicly financed broadcasting system in Britain. A private company at its founding in 1922, it was replaced by a public corporation under royal charter in 1927.
 straightfacedly described a "probe" into "whether the killers learned how to make bombs from the Internet." On MSNBC MSNBC Microsoft/National Broadcasting Company , criminologist Casey Jordan declared that the Net was "the key" to the story: "They were in chat rooms; they had Web pages. And on the Internet, the possibility for recruiting is just unknown."

Drugs, too, took a drubbing. Reps. John Peterson (R-Pa.) and James Rogan (R-Calif.) announced that they would propose legislation allowing schools to give students random drug tests, declaring that this would make future massacres less likely. When told that no traces of any drugs had been found in the shooters' bodies, Peterson was unswayed Adj. 1. unswayed - not influenced or affected; "stewed in its petty provincialism untouched by the brisk debates that stirred the old world"- V.L.Parrington; "unswayed by personal considerations"
uninfluenced, untouched
, arguing that narcotics had been a factor in "other" incidents. The Family Research Council sent out a fax claiming that April 20, the date of the shootings, was "the national marijuana smoke-off day" and that "420" was "the police code for marijuana." (420...4/20...get it?)

More often, analysts stressed that April 20 was Hitler's birthday - a sign, we were told, that the killers were neo-Nazis. (It was Marcus Aurelius' birthday too, but no one as yet has claimed the murderers were neo-Stoics.) Media reports described Harris and Klebold as inveterate inveterate /in·vet·er·ate/ (-vet´er-at) confirmed and chronic; long-established and difficult to cure.

1. Firmly and long established; deep-rooted.

 racists, a charge the shooters' friends denied. No matter. Marc Fisher, in The Washington Post, seemed almost scrambling to find a racial angle the day after the massacre, in what might be the greatest self-undermining pair of sentences in the history of journalism The history of journalism, or the gathering and transmitting of news, spans the growth of technology and trade, marked by the advent of specialized techniques for gathering and disseminating information on a regular basis that has caused, as one history of journalism surmises, the : "Some witnesses said the shooters, who were white, appeared to be targeting black and Hispanic students, as well as student athletes of all races. Many whites were also among the victims."

Some pundits attacked goths Goths: see Ostrogoths; Visigoths. ; others took on trench coats; still others, the abolition of school prayer. Tipper Gore called for more therapy. George Will called for school uniforms. Camille Paglia blamed the nuclear family and the industrial revolution. Screenwriter Stephen Schiff blamed shopping malls.

In fact, anyone with an agenda found that, with enough effort, he could find a way to tie his wagon to the Littleton massacre. The Libertarian Party The Libertarian party was founded in Colorado in 1971 and held its first convention in Denver in 1972. In 1972 it fielded John Hospers for president and Theodora Nathan for vice president in the U.S. general election.  sent out a press release: "Public schools may be a contributing factor in the recent spate of school shootings..." From the privatizers to the proletarians: The People's Tribune, newspaper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America The League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA) is a communist party in the United States founded by a group in California around Nelson Peery who split from the Communist Party USA in 1958. , blamed the shootings on capitalism. "Our youth see what the future holds for them," wrote the revolutionaries. "They know that a society based on a market economy holds them valueless."

The hubbub reached its low point on April 28, when The Washington Post's film critic, Stephen Hunter, decided the dreadful force responsible for the deaths was...irony. After a labored analysis of The Basketball Diaries, Hunter made his point: "Jim Carroll writes a book that becomes a movie; he and everyone between him and the end user gets that it's ironic. The end user doesn't. His name is Eric Harris. The results are tragic....[U]ntil the irony-addicted and the irony-impaired begin to speak the same language and make an attempt to understand each other, it seems unlikely that there will be any healing - and there may even be a lot more killing."

The Littleton murders weren't just terrible. They were mysterious. My pacifist friends have wondered why there have been so few comparisons between the violence in the Balkans and the violence in Colorado. Surely, they say, both are mass slaughter. They have a point, but they're also missing something important. When Serbs slaughter Kosovars or NATO NATO: see North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
 in full North Atlantic Treaty Organization

International military alliance created to defend western Europe against a possible Soviet invasion.
 slaughters Serbs, one can at least discern reasons for the butchery, even if those rationales are amoral a·mor·al  
1. Not admitting of moral distinctions or judgments; neither moral nor immoral.

2. Lacking moral sensibility; not caring about right and wrong.
 and offensive. The massacre at Columbine does not yield to such explanations. It hangs in the air, a mystery that can never be completely solved.

And never should be solved. Human beings are ciphers, capable of terrible acts. When someone does something this awful, and this unusual, it does no good to pretend we can reduce it to any simple lesson.

In the weeks since the Littleton slaughter, we've learned that most of what the media initially told us about the Columbine killers wasn't true. They weren't Nazis. They weren't especially racist. They weren't necessarily Goths. They might not even have been members of the clique of outcasts called the Trench Coat Mafia, which, by the way, wasn't originally called the Trench Coat Mafia.

We do know that bullies routinely picked on Harris, Klebold, and others like them. We do know that such behavior goes on in most of the country's schools. But most outcasts do not take weapons to school and kill the people who tormented them. We don't know Don't know (DK, DKed)

"Don't know the trade." A Street expression used whenever one party lacks knowledge of a trade or receives conflicting instructions from the other party.
 what it was inside Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that made them into the exceptions. And we never will.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Reason Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:the Columbine High School shootings
Author:Walker, Jesse
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Previous Article:Schools of alienation.
Next Article:Is God in the details?

Related Articles
Sound the P.R. Retreat.
Schools of alienation.
"It Still Hurts".
See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil.
Lessons Unlearned.
Monster hype: how a few isolated tragedies-and their supposed causes-were turned into a national "epidemic". (Feature).
What went right at New Bedford High. (News connection: up-to-date and usable education information from schools, government, business, research and...
Columbine sees high turnover. (Notebook: education information from schools, business, research and professional organizations).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters