Monday, April 20, 2009

On the Columbine Anniversary

The past decade has seen many events that have overtaken most of our memories about the shocking massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, precisely ten years ago. USA Today has a report on the commemorations taking place:

Tributes began Sunday evening with a candlelight vigil at the native Colorado stone monument in neighboring Clement Park, where the community left impromptu memorials in the days after the shooting. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter ordered flags to fly at half-staff Monday. A formal commemoration begins at 5 p.m.Monday at the Clement Park Amphitheater.

"We cannot allow the lessons of this tragedy to fade with the passage of time," Ritter said in the statement.
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings at Columbine, I wrote an article for The Metro Herald, which appeared in its edition of April 30, 1999. In retrospect, I might have written something different, and I would not have had just this same reaction if these events happened last year or last month or last week.

We have learned more about Columbine itself, and we have experienced similar school shootings -- such as the one two years ago at Virginia Tech -- that have provided still more questions and more material for study, and thus for learning better techniques for prevention and response. Police tactics are different today because of Columbine, for instance.

Those caveats aside, much of the piece holds up after ten years, so I am republishing it here and welcome comments.
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Special to The Metro Herald

Crime stories in the news seldom merit my attention. Yet the story of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20 has kept me transfixed in front of my TV for days. The drama has been preternaturally compelling. The shattering news from Littleton has evoked hours upon hours, page upon page of reporting, analysis, speculation, and bewilderment. A book would be necessary to reply to all of the commentary on the shooting and its aftermath. (No doubt not just one book, but several, will be on sale soon, with movies and TV shows to follow.)

It is difficult to keep silent in the face of such tragedy. Although my preference would be to provide a comprehensive, coherent essay—and may still do so—what follows are some random thoughts about random violence.

We have heard that the mayhem at Columbine High School demonstrates that our culture is corrupt and depraved. This is simply not so. Precisely the opposite is true. What happened in Littleton was the work of two individuals (perhaps with accomplices), not that of our culture or our society. Two facts are important here. First, events like that of April 20 are exceedingly rare in the United States. There are more than 40 million children in school, and less than 10 percent of them will ever be affected by or observe violent acts of any sort in their schools. Rarity makes us take notice. Second, we have almost universally reacted to the Littleton killings with horror, disgust, and grief. The abnormality of the event, plus our proper reaction to it, provide irrefutable evidence that our culture is strong, that our society and we as individuals still possess a profound sense of right and wrong.

We have heard that school killings like this do not happen "anywhere else," that America is almost unique in experiencing such things. Sadly, this is not true, either. In other countries, such occurrences are all too frequent. In Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, events like this have taken place regularly and with more vicious cruelty. The difference from America, of course, is that there the massacres are carried out by governments or by those who want to control the government. The only comparable acts by the U.S. government since the end of the Indian Wars in the nineteenth century were the destruction of the home of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and of the MOVE rowhouses in Philadelphia a few years before.

We have heard that the Littleton massacre shows the need for more stringent gun control. Once again, a tragedy is being used by those who want to see the state extend its control over the lives of individual citizens. This is misguided, wrongheaded, and exploitative. It is easy to say that we must do it "for the children," but how do those children benefit if their rights as adults are circumscribed and violated by the time they grow up? Previous generations have spent their childhoods in a climate in which guns were pervasive. The difference was that children in those days were taught both to respect their weapons and to respect other people.

A retired police chief noted in a letter published in the Wall Street Journal that the problem at Columbine was that "only the bad guys had guns." Columnist Vin Suprynowicz of the Las Vegas Review-Journal points out that "in Israel, teachers and parents who serve as school aides go armed at all times on school grounds, with semi-automatic weapons. Since this policy was put into effect, terrorist attacks in Israeli schools have dropped to zero. The only recent exception was the tragic case of a group of schoolchildren who were murdered by an Arab gunman as they visited the 'Zone of Peace' on the Jordanian border. The Jordanians specifically requested that the Israeli teachers and chaperones leave their weapons behind—which they did. American schools are, on the other hand, 'gun free zones,'" by law.

We have heard that the tragedy at Columbine High School shows the need for more active intervention into the personal lives of students and parents, to prevent future such events. No amount of intervention is likely to help, and it will more probably result in unconscionable intrusion by government in the form of school authorities. The suspected gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had had no disciplinary problems in school. In their one brush with the law, they were released from a community-service program with favorable recommendations. By all accounts, they came from good families, their older siblings had no problems, and they were not "loners" as initial reports indicated—they had friends, girlfriends, and even belonged to a "clique" of their own, the now-notorious Trench Coat Mafia.

Alienation and a sense of loneliness are typical of adolescence. Each of us felt it at some time during our high school years, but for the vast majority of us, it did not lead to crime or violence. The check lists we see about youth "at risk" for disturbing behavior sound like a list of answers to the question, Is your child between the ages of 13 and 19? The "warning signs" include things like: spending a lot of time alone in his room listening to music; rebelling against authority; disdaining being seen in public with his parents; acting "different" from a few years before.

The fact is, we can seldom know when such acts of violence are or have been prevented. An exception was last November in Burlington, Wisconsin, where local authorities received an anonymous tip that an attack on the local high school was scheduled to take place. A quick response led to the arrest of the students involved. In most cases, however, prevention will take place early and unknowingly, through the kindness of teachers and administrators, respect paid by parents or fellow students, by turning potential killers onto the right path of normal behavior. And we cannot know which of them might have been seduced by the dark side. Americans do not like to feel out of control. Randomness itself terrifies us. Random violence compounds the terror. But randomness is part of the price we pay to live in a free society. Only a dystopian sort of totalitarianism could eliminate risks completely, and none of us is willing to live under that kind of dictatorship.

Finally, a question: Why has no one pointed out that the school killings of the past few years—in Bethel, Alaska; Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; and now Littleton, Colorado—have all taken place at government-run schools? Not a single incident like this has occurred at a private or religious school. That, perhaps, tells us more than anything else. It may tell us more than we want to know.

The next few weeks will bring us more solid knowledge about what happened on April 20. But the questions will linger for many years to come, as will the sadness and the pain. Fortunately for those who suffered, the first Sunday following the Columbine tragedy was "Good Shepherd Sunday" in the calendars of the liturgical churches. Across the country and in Littleton itself, congregations were comforted by the words of the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . . Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever" (KJV).

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