By David North
Columbine High School appeared to be, at least in the view of its
administrators and the county school board, such a lovely place for
young people to grow up and learn. In its official profile, the institution
boasted of its "excellent facilities" and "long history of excellence in all
areas." Nothing seemed to be lacking--Honors and Advanced Placement
classes, foreign language instruction in Spanish, French and German, and
an artistic program that included ceramics, sculpture, acting, choir and no
less than five bands and one ensemble. There were even
"Cross-categorical programs for students with significantly limited
intellectual capacity." And, of course, there was no shortage of athletics.
"Stretch for Excellence" was the motto adopted by the school. And its
mission statement--over which, one must assume, various well-meaning
people labored--promised that Columbine High School "will teach, learn,
and model life skills and attitudes that prepare us to: work effectively with
people; show courtesy to others; prepare for change; think critically; act
responsibly; and respect our surroundings."
Columbine, with its six guidance counselors, accountability committee,
dozens of peer mediators and techniques for "conflict resolution," and an
ethos of "collaborative partnership" with parents, viewed itself as a
"twenty-first century high school." The surrounding neighborhoods were
prosperous, with housing from the low to high six-figures, numerous
shopping malls and high-tech workplaces. But on April 20, 1999, Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School armed
with assault rifles and pipe bombs. By the time their bloody rampage was
over, they had killed twelve students, one teacher, and themselves.
There have been, during the past two years, other school shootings that
have resulted in the death of students. But as terrible as the earlier
incidents at Pearl, West Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield, the carnage
at Columbine was of a qualitatively different scope and scale.
Harris and Klebold manufactured dozens of pipe bombs, stashed
explosives in the school kitchen, studied the layout and traffic pattern to
insure the largest number of victims, and chose Hitler's birthday as the
date for the attack, in the course of nearly a year of preparation. Their
intention was to kill as many students as possible and blow up the entire
school with a propane bomb. Had they had the opportunity, Harris and
Klebold would have continued their rampage beyond the school.
According to the diary that one of the youth left behind, they hoped to
hijack an airplane and crash it into the center of New York City. Only an
unexpected encounter with a school guard and the failure of the bomb to
explode thwarted their plan. Harris and Klebold then fled to the school
library where they proceeded to select their victims before killing
What Harris and Klebold did on Tuesday was horrible, brutal and
criminal. But these words are only descriptions of their acts, not
As usual, the media has nothing to offer by way of analysis. It is
extraordinarily adept at milking the grief of the parents and community for
every possible rating dollar. But those who wish to understand the
underlying causes of this tragedy will find nothing of value on the network
After a few perfunctory tears for the victims, the media is looking for
someone to blame. The parents, judging from the remarks of state
officials, are being singled out as the most likely target for public
vengeance. Perhaps they do bear some level of responsibility, but singling
out for exemplary punishment these grief-stricken mothers and
fathers--whose own lives have been utterly shattered by what their sons
did last week--seems not only cruel, but deceitful and hypocritical.
After all, the parents of Klebold and Harris were not the only ones who
failed to recognize and act on signs of the coming disaster. Columbine
High School administrators apparently ignored repeated warnings they
received about the boys' potential for violence.
This is not an individual failing, but one common to all the major
institutions of American society: governments, political parties,
corporations, the media, schools, churches, and trade unions. All are
essentially oblivious to the mounting social tensions, until they erupt into
homicidal violence at a post office, a high school, a McDonald's
restaurant, a commuter railroad train, or inside the US Capitol.
Then these outbreaks are invariably treated, not as a social phenomenon,
but as a police problem, to be handled by installing metal detectors, more
police, more surveillance cameras, and enlisting the population as
collaborators to inform on those with a supposed propensity to violence.
There's endless talk about "parents taking responsibility for their
children," and of "children taking responsibility for themselves." But there
is nothing said about the responsibility which American society has for a
tragedy like that which occurred at Columbine.
It is almost grotesque to treat the Columbine HS massacre as merely the
product of the breakdown of parental authority and supervision. Neither
parents nor high school guidance counselors are equipped to deal with
the societal dysfunction that found such devastating expression in the
rampage of Klebold and Harris.
Consider, for a moment, the social outlook of these two youth. They
were admirers of Adolf Hitler, fascinated by fascism's racism, its cult of
sadistic violence and death, and its general contempt for humanity. And
yet, there was nothing particularly Germanic about the views of Harris
and Klebold. In a statement that he posted on his web site, Harris wrote:
"I am the law, if you don't like it you die. If I don't like you or I don't like
what you want me to do, you die."
These sentiments, expressed with a little more polish, sum up the
approach of the American government to the rest of the world. "Do what
we want or we'll destroy you." As we reread the lines of Harris, in the
aftermath of the Columbine massacre, we recognize the brutality of a
potential killer. But what, then, are we to see in the words written last
Friday by the highly paid and celebrated columnist of the New York
Times, Thomas Friedman?:
"While there are many obvious downsides to war-from-15,000 feet, it
does have one great strength--its sustainability. NATO can carry on this
sort of air war for a long, long time. The Serbs need to remember that....
"But if NATO's only strength is that it can bomb forever, then it has to
get every ounce out of that. Let's at least have a real air war.... It should
be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, road and
war-related factory has to be targeted.
"Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (they certainly
so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage
Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing
you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do
Harris and Klebold did not have to study Mein Kampf to find special
"inspiration" for their actions. The editorials and columns that appear in
American newspapers, not to mention the vicious outpourings on talk
radio, would do just as well. And here we come to the crucial paradox
that finds expression in their assault on Columbine High. It is likely that
Harris and Klebold viewed themselves as rebels against society. In this
they were quite mistaken. Certainly, the venue of their action was
unconventional. But the deed itself represented an extreme application of
the selfish and inhumane attitudes that are commonplace in American
First, their violent outburst was not conceived of as a response to social
injustice. Rather, Harris and Klebold took revenge against what they
perceived as personal slights. They did not act on behalf of others, but
for themselves. Further, they attacked not a symbol of oppression, but
defenseless children and a well-meaning teacher. And finally, even if one
were to accept that these two boys had been harassed at school, the
scale of their violence was out of all proportion to the injury they had
suffered. Their aim was not to right a wrong, but to create as much pain
and suffering as possible.
What Harris and Klebold did was monstrous. But does it help to portray
them as monsters? They were, let us not forget, only teenagers. Youth is
supposedly a time of hope and idealism. How, then, was it possible that
so much hate could be accumulated by these youth in so short a time?
And not only hate, but utter despair as well. In their own minds, they had
many reasons to kill, but none to live.
They plotted this deed, but were they its only authors? They are, in the
final analysis, the products of a particular time and place. However
terrible its consequences, the mad rampage of Harris and Klebold has
deep social roots. Of course, the political leaders and the media elite do
not care to delve too deeply into the social pathology of this dreadful
crime. It would require that they hold a mirror up to themselves.
Since the Littleton killings, the media is full of commentary from
psychologists, ministers, priests, police and experts of all sorts, gravely
enumerating the "warning signs" which may alert parents to the possibility
that their teenage son or daughter may be a potential mass murderer: Is
your child depressed, discouraged, anxious, over-stressed,
uncommunicative, disinterested, addicted to computer games, subject to
mood swings, getting consistently bad grades, worrying too much about
maintaining consistently high grades, etc.? At least 75 percent of all
American children express one if not more of these characteristics.
In reality, the concentration on individual warning signs will be of little
help in preventing further tragedies. Attention should be focused, rather,
on the social warning signs, that is, the indications and indices of social
and political dysfunction which create the climate that produces events
like the Columbine HS massacre. Vital indicators of impending disaster
might include: growing polarization between wealth and poverty;
atomization of working people and the suppression of their class identity;
the glorification of militarism and war; the absence of serious social
commentary and political debate; the debased state of popular culture;
the worship of the stock exchange; the unrestrained celebration of
individual success and personal wealth; the denigration of the ideals of
social progress and equality.
What is happening to America's kids? This is a question posed by Philip
Roth in his provocative novel American Pastoral, which tells the story
of a family ruined by a teenage daughter's dreadful and unexpected act of
violence. "Something is driving them crazy. Something has set them
against everything. Something is leading them into disaster."
What is that something? Look honestly at this society--its political
leaders, its religious spokesmen, its corporate CEOs, its military machine,
its celebrities, its "popular" culture, and, above all, the entire economic
system upon which the whole vast superstructure of violence, suffering
and hypocrisy is based. It is there that the answer is to be found.