Tuesday, April 20, 2004


Today marks the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, an event of near-equal proportion to Oklahoma City and 9-11. It marked a wake-up call and a sobering moment for America.

The CNN story is nothing new: hidden information will be rediscovered for decades to come. It's the old story of government power being used to cover asses and sweep problems away. Unanswered questions still remain: The famous UN truck. The teacher who reported a "man" (not kid) coming into the school to kill. The chorus of warnings right after Columbine that more kids had been involved and wanted to "finish the job." We likely will never know.

Slate has an excellent re-examination of Columbine, one that dispels much of the common wisdom and presents a scarier picture still. FBI and other specialists now believe that Eric Harris was a psychopath kept in check long enough, and simultaneously supported by, Dylan Klebold so that they could plan and execute a monstrous scheme:
They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
In other words, they weren't revengers, but terrorists.

I had always accepted the not-much-talked about belief that Harris and Klebold were two screwed-up kids who were pressured by jocks and preps until they broke. Rather than kill themselves as past generations often did, they used a new plan -- one from movies and video games, made possible by passive parenting -- to get revenge. Certainly, I would often plot of my beating the thugs who ruled my school.

I was far from alone. Right after Columbine, Jon Katz started a message thread on Slashdot that exploded within days into what he called "Voices From the Hellmouth."
In the days after the Littleton, Colorado massacre, the country went on a panicked hunt the oddballs in High School, a profoundly ignorant and unthinking response to a tragedy that left geeks, nerds, non-conformists and the alienated in an even worse situation than before. Stories all over the country embarked on witchunts that amounted to little more than Geek Profiling. All weekend, after Friday's column here, these voiceless kids -- invisible in media and on TV talk shows and powerless in their own schools -- have been e-mailing me with stories of what has happened to them in the past few days. Here are some of those stories in their own words, with gratitude and admiration for their courage in sending them. The big story out of Littleton isn't about violence on the Internet, or whether or not video games are turning out kids into killers. It's about the fact that for some of the best, brightest and most interesting kids, high school is a nightmare of exclusion, cruelty, warped values and anger.

The big story never seemed to quite make it to the front pages or the TV talk shows. It wasn't whether the Net is a place for hate-mongers and bomb-makers, or whether video games are turning your kids into killers. It was the spotlight the Littleton, Colorado killings has put on the fact that for so many individualistic, intelligent, and vulnerable kids, high school is a Hellmouth of exclusion, cruelty, loneliness, inverted values and rage....

People who are different are reviled as geeks, nerds, dorks. The lucky ones are excluded, the unfortunates are harassed, humiliated, sometimes assaulted literally as well as socially. Odd values - unthinking school spirit, proms, jocks - are exalted, while the best values - free thinking, non-conformity, curiousity - are ridiculed. Maybe the one positive legacy the Trenchcoat Mafia left was to ensure that this message got heard, by a society that seems desperate not to hear it.
Columbine seems to have been the exception to that. And why someone like Harris got away with it so long seems obvious, but may never get publicly admitted.

But I think we shouldn't let this view of Columbine color the other school shootings of the era. Paducah, Pearl, Oregon and others were loners under severe stress from bullies. In the Paducah case, the shooter targetted the popular, Christian kids who tormented him. This group met every morning at the school flag pole for morning prayer. The shooter struck them there. In fact, his worst tormentor was later hailed a hero for stopping him. (Please note I'm not glorifying the shooter or reversing the situation.)

Video games did have a role in that shooting. A man (Goldman?) who designed simulations for the military to get troops prepared for shooting to kill studied this boy and noted that although he had never fired a gun before, he was able to get a majority of head and torso shots, something incredibly unlikely in a first-time shooter. Goldman found that the kid had had hundreds of hours in training, playing video games.

I'm not demonising video games, but they do cast a shadow. Playing cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, as a kid meant a brief time in the afternoon, with fingers or plastic guns you had to provide your own sound effects for. Sitting for hours and hours, day after day, playing realistic blood-spatter games is a whole 'nother matter. The whole culture casts shadows in many ways over kids. Add up enough and cast them over one troubled, angry kid and you get explosion.

Or so I've always thought. Now, I'm not so sure. Read the Slate article and the sidebar especially. Something else to note is that while shootings at school happened before the early Nineties and still happen today, it was during the Clinton era when it was most in the news and on our minds. I am not blaming Clinton, but what in that era was different enough to have contributed? Did something in the way school adminsitrators handled kids reach a head then, only to subside with new approaches? I don't know, but it seems worth asking.

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