Lessons from the Columbine High Massacre (April 20, 1999)

by Jack McLean

Edited version of an essay originally published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1999)

(12 students, 1 teacher murdered; 2 suicides; 21 other students injured)

Viewed on the scale of the massively bloody theatre of human history, with its wars galore, Columbine ranks as a minor tragedy. However, for all those who experienced it “up close and personal”, Columbine was major.

All great tragedies contain lessons. Lesson-finding may come at any stage after the horrific events witnessed in Littleton, Colorado this April 20th past. But come it must, if we are to begin to make sense out of this senseless tragedy.

Tragedies such as the one so violently played out in the leafy, upper-middle class suburb near Denver, so falsely secure in its prosperity, are a sure sign that something is pathologically defective with the whole moral, spiritual, psychological and social order in North America. The tragedy at Columbine High School indicates that within the already turbulent waters of mainstream American society, oceanic volcanoes are erupting and causing monstrous tidal waves. The psyches of too many of the nation’s young adults are in a rage to kill, simply because somebody hurt their feelings, treated them “mean last year”, laughed at them, called them “weird” or “loser” or simply shunned them. Raw volatile emotions are spilling out.

While none of us can lay the blame for this tragedy at the feet of the parents of the young men who committed this horrendous crime, for in the last analysis we alone are responsible for our own acts, still some gnawing questions stare us straight in the face. Didn’t these parents or guardians know that their sons were Nazi sympathisers, that they had a penchant for violent lyrics spun out by German teknomusik groups, that they were anti-God and pro-satanic, that Eric Harris was stockpiling explosives in the family home and posting recipes for pipe-bombs at his web site, that they hated Blacks, Hispanics, “jocks” and just about anybody who wore a hat, that they loved a violent interactive video game called Doom, that they had already made numerous violent threats and had already blown up pipe bombs in town last year? Didn’t the police know? Their teachers? The signs were legion.

Such a massacre is indeed revolting. It beggars belief and makes us want to turn our backs in fear, to simply ignore it or just walk away. And that is precisely what too many folks do, instead of reading any one of these sickly signs as a desperate cry for help and intervention. These ARE, remember, the very reasons that led to the bloody massacre of 12 young people… the beautiful flowers of youth tragically cut down before they could grow old.

You see, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, in starkly real terms, were living out, in graphically real colour, a very bad myth. And they and 13 others died a murderous death for the sake of the hack writer’s demonic, pulp-fiction script. Only this time, we discovered, not that truth is stranger than fiction, but that real life is crueller than fiction and that death can be obscene. In their vivid imaginations, the locus of all things real and unreal in our world, these young men lived and moved in a Gothic, subterranean cavern of anti-heroes and vile, destructive creatures whom they idolised and vainly tried to imitate.

Why? …One of the several complex reasons of this tragedy is that the vile myth, the bad dream, gave this poor, disenfranchised duo a ready-made on-screen identity. Their chosen image was to become “trench coat mafia” men. But this desperately dangerous pair committed such a bloody crime mainly for one big reason: it filled them with a raging sense of power. For before Littleton splashed onto all our media screens, we had not yet fully understood that the lonely man is the powerless man; and the powerless man can be a dangerous man. These twisted partners in crime suffered to a perverse degree from the stereotype of the “macho man” and from that overly militaristic jingo “big boys don’t cry”. They could never dare to let on, not even to those closest to them—not even to one another— just how much the little boy inside was hurting.

Harris and Klebold took the only “final solution” that completely desperate and powerless persons will take. They killed the actors in the dream they once loved and so badly coveted. They tried to kill the American dream with its longing for status, peer acceptability, athletic prowess, beauty, brains and that ubiquitous password of all upwardly mobile high schoolers: “popularity” Young men and women have died in Littleton because two young men were left out of that dream.

Surely there is a lesson, too, for all the students in Columbine High School who knowingly rejected these boys and generally contributed to their becoming outcasts. For that felt need to be “one of” and to experience the family-like bond of unity with a group of peers, would seem to run deeper than we have ever realised before. That sense of belonging brings the real bottom line— love and acceptance. No. I correct myself. I should say rather that love and acceptance bring that sense of belonging. These factors are the sine qua non for youth, a combined human, spiritual and social imperative without which life becomes unbearable. For the violent misfits Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, belonging to a group of two was better than not belonging at all. The saddest irony is that although they were single-minded in their devotion to death, they did not even understand one another!

It’s happened before in America. Will it happen again? Over and over. Unless the symptoms are understood and remedied, the disease that flows in the blood shall linger. Other innocents will regrettably pay the price.

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