Lessons from Columbine High
Littleton is a sleepy town, really. My friends and I used to refer to it as "Little-fun" during high school; crazy Saturday nights consisted of renting a video and sharing a pack of red licorice with a group of friends. Single family homes line the streets, the "cookie-cutter" houses on half-acre lots a perfect example of the architectural monotony of suburbia. My family never locks our front door, and people take walks through the neighborhood on sunny afternoons. But you've heard this story before.
Columbine High School, where two high school students opened fire on their classmates Tuesday, is about a mile from my house. I didn't go there. I don't claim any strong connection with any of the kids who died there. Proximity is all I claim. Geography's a bitch.
The phone lines were jammed when I tried to call home. "Please call back later" a pleasant voice told me. I knew that my brother and sister were fine. I felt sorry for those concerned others who were calling home and didn't know.
Of course I feel unspeakable sympathy for the families who lost loved ones, and I'll abstain from attempting a comforting turn-of-phrase. But there are two tragedies at play here: the first is that 14 teenagers and one teacher are dead, and the second is that we live in a society where something like this can happen. Everyone knows that there is nothing we can do about the first tragedy. To assuage our feelings of helplessness, we set our sights upon dealing with the second.
People have already started talking about school reform, and reporters have quizzed President Clinton about what policy initiatives he might take to make America's schools safer. Gun control activists are rushing to microphones, anxious to comment. Incredibly, even those against gun control are using the opportunity to defend their interpretation of the second amendment. (Could the rampage have been halted if one of the teachers had had a concealed weapon? one asked.) We should think about public policy, but not yet.
Elsewhere, people are raising the issue of racial hatred--as if the fact that the two boys supposedly targeted minorities during their shooting spree somehow makes it all more understandable. We should talk about the persistence of racism in America, but not yet.
Others will use this event as concrete evidence of the decline of family values and warn of the consequences of national moral atrophy. I hope that they will hesitate before jumping up on their soapbox. It's okay to campaign for family values, but not yet.
The older generation starts talking about "kids these days" and reminding us that things like this didn't happen 50 years ago. The younger generation retorts with claims that things like this are as random and senseless as they seem. Of course, neither generation is correct. We should talk about generational differences, but not yet.
Events like the shooting didn't happen 20 years ago, much less 50 years ago. But they are less a reflection of kids these days than they are of the society as a whole. And we should not dismiss the shooting at Columbine a random occurrence. The recent plague of school shootings is evidence of the fact that this tragedy wasn't random at all, only that it could have happened anywhere.
When President Clinton spoke to the nation Tuesday night he alluded to the words of St. Paul and said that we never really understand what happens in life. But when things like this happen everybody grapples for an explanation. By disrupting the status quo, these events call into question the things that we believe to be true about the world. Under the guise of trying to understand tragedy, we also try to relocate it, to distance ourselves from it. So we reframe it as a problem of public policy, as a question of racism, as evidence of social ills.
But these convenient paradigms obscure the raw, revolting truth of the situation. We immediately focus upon the question of "what should we do?" instead of taking time to answer the equally important question of "what should we think?"
Two students, juniors in high school, murdered 12 of their classmates on Tuesday before killing themselves. Before we start thinking about tangible solutions, we must think about what this event shows us about what it means to be human. Instead of asking how it happened that these ordinary boys felt so unloved (anyone can be an outcast in suburbia) and so hateful that they were driven to kill, we must wait for a while and ponder the painful fact that they did kill. We must take the time to ask ourselves how this affects our understanding of the world. What are the principles that we believe govern life? And why is it important to us to be able to believe that we don't live in a violent, unloving world?
I am not suggesting that we should indulge in a session of pathetic national self-flagellation. It is right that we should realize that the problem is in our midst, but at the same time we should know that the solutions lie there as well. What I am suggesting is that in the aftermath of tragedy we face the challenge of accepting a very painful, but very genuine, sense of humility. Too often we avoid the introspection and reflection that the situation demands, instead choosing to distance ourselves by self-righteously discussing solutions. What we must realize is that while self-righteousness may allow us to feel comfortably detached, our detachment can only show us what the tragedy is. It is humility that can help us understand what this tragedy means. Daniel B. Baer '00, a Afro-American studies and social studies concentrator in Quincy House, is a resident of Littleton, Colo.