Monday, April 20, 2009


The Columbine High School massacre happened 10 years ago today. What have we learned? Nuthin’, at least nothing we care to know.

You know it’s a white man’s world when Columbine High is described as a “normal” American high school. Urban high schools are full of low-level violence all the time, including the surrounding neighborhoods, with assaults, muggings, gang activity, drugs, and intimidation part of daily life for students and faculty for decades.

I used to have relatives in Littleton, Colorado, and even 40 years ago, it was a fairly prosperous and insulated place. Littleton, and places like it, are embodiments of that dream of a safe comfortable place to raise children, a place where the predations of a predatory modern world are shut out and kept away from children. The Columbine Massacre was a brutal frontal assault on that very middle class dream shared by those outside the middle class.

I was struck by how people revisited their high school experiences in the wake of the massacre, and realized how un-rosy they were. For a lot of us, high school was hell. The struggles of education were compounded by the stresses of adolescent tribal politics. And yet, most of us survived and went on to bigger and better things in adulthood.

I’ve always found it striking how high school is the locus of so much, largely nostalgic, popular drama. It is the setting for so many Coming Of Age stories that are Hollywood staples. So much yearning for wish fulfillment focuses on those 3 to 4 years we all spend in high school. It was such a rude shock to be reminded of the brutality of the real experience.

I don’t share a lot of the sympathy that was expressed for the 2 perpetrators. I save my sympathies for the victims and their families, and for the families of the 2 teenage murderers. They will be living with this crime for generations to come. Those were 2 boys who had everything (a lot more than I had at that age, and a lot more than most people at that age), and threw it all away in one big bloody potlatch of gratuitous violence. Yes, they were picked on and tormented, but so was I. Every kid who was growing up gay went through far more fearful experiences than those 2 did. I did, Michael did, and some of you reading this (gay and straight) probably lived through much worse. None of us entertained bloody revenge fantasies. We just wanted to get the hell out of there and skip town and begin a new life ASAP. And we all did.

Most of the kids responsible for these school shootings were white, prosperous, and straight boys. The only exception I can think of is the Virginia Tech killer who was Korean, but still falls into the rest of the profile. Curious how these kinds of murderous revenge fantasies never occur to (or at least are acted out by) girls, gay kids, kids of color, or inner city kids from much less “safe” environments.

And what were 2 teenage boys doing with military assault weapons anyway? Why should those things even be on the civilian market? Does anyone really need a semi-automatic to bring down a deer or a duck? And what does it say about your life and your neighborhood if you feel you need one of those weapons to be safe?

I distrust big sweeping generalizations based on very specific events like this one.  So many of the ones that were made in the immediate aftermath of the massacre turned out to be red herrings, such as the panic about black trenchcoat wearing Goth culture.  It turns out that neither of these kids were part of that subculture at all.  We've had alienated youth subcultures in a society whose enterprises are driven by greed fear and boredom for more than a century now.  What more new could be said about that?  Panic over threatened masculinity and cults of redemptive violence are nothing new either.  Just go back and look at so much of the literature published in the years just before World War I.  Authors ranging from DH Lawrence to Theodore Roosevelt were fixated on the idea of manhood redeemed in a baptism of blood.  I'm not sure it's anything quite so peculiar to the USA.  There have been similar crimes committed in Europe.  The only difference is the easy availability of heavy weapons here.  I'm reluctant to blame parents and parenting.  All the evidence indicates that both of these killers (and others like them) had loving families with parents deeply concerned about their sons and their welfare.
What I do see in our culture is an absence of adults in the lives of kids who are something other than authority figures.  That was true when I was that age.  All the adults were teachers, administrators, parents, and employers.  That created an antagonistic situation which drove us kids into our own little tribes, pooling our very limited wisdom to find our way.  I doubt that has changed much since I was young. 

According to this essay that appeared on the CNN website, just about everything that was reported about the massacre and about Harris and Kleibold turns out to be wrong.  It turns out that they weren't particularly bullied (I'm not surprised), and that they didn't target anyone in particular.  They only wanted maximum body count.  They apparently were lonely twisted fame seekers who dreamed of posthumous infamy in a blaze of bloody glory like Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City.  As I said, it was a big bloody potlatch of gratuitous violence.  Apparently, they got what they wanted.

Thanks Doxy for bringing this to my attention.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

There is an interesting post on today that debunks the myth that Harris and Klebold were bullied victims seeking revenge. Apparently, they just wanted to be infamous...


it's margaret said...

So, Lord of the Flies, revisited....

Davis said...

Well, yes, Margaret, but the American obsession with guns - big ones, automatic ones, assault ones - is at the heart of the problem.

Doug's right some of us went through some terrifying experiences, bullying etc, but most of us don't feel the need to prove our "manhood" by destroying lives.

God have mercy on the souls of those lost that day.