When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold casually walked through the doors of Columbine High school last week armed with two sawed-off shotguns, two semi-automatic rifles, more than 30 pipe bombs and a 20-pound propane tanked wired to explode, they knew they would inflict physical injury upon their classmates. But they probably never envisioned their bullets targeting the heart of the First Amendment as well.
Harris and Klebold's killing rampage was a strange sort of gift for our morally righteous society that continuously rants about the detrimental effects of violent video games and TV shows. What better way to prove the necessity of censorship than two all-American boys caught up in nihilistic video games and Marilyn Manson that decide to shoot 12 of their classmates and try to blow up their school?
Our outrage and grief naturally dispose us to seek something to blame and, if possible, to eradicate it with all the force and vengeance we can muster. But we ought to pause before we let the axe of our sorrow strike a blow at the trunk of our constitution.
The First Amendment is predicated on the belief that while words and images are powerful tools that make us think, it is by our own free will and volition that we choose to act. Thus, free expression, even expression that is repugnant to the majority of society, is tolerable precisely because words themselves are benign. Speech can encourage positive change but can just as easily evoke our most animalistic tendencies and encourage us to act out of greed, malice and spite. Ultimately, though, we make our own decisions. As responsible and rational human beings we determine when and how we act. Accordingly, when injustice occurs we indict people and not words, phrases or moving pictures.
Video games like Doom (in which players gain points by stalking and mutilating the enemy) probably did little to placate the hostility and aggression brewing within the two disturbed students. Yet computer graphics were far from the only impetus for the Columbine massacre. The more we learn about the assailants, the more we realize the April 20th tragedy was influenced by several factors. These included the taunts of peers, the complacency of educators who never questioned the boys' violent writings, the detached parents' ignorance of pipe bombs being built in their basement and the laws that allowed Harris' girlfriend to legally purchase three of the guns used in the killings. But the most disturbing fact to confront is that no one person or thing made Harris and Klebold shatter the serenity of a small Colorado town. That was their own decision.
Our democracy relies on impartial toleration of all speech and we walk a dangerous line when we attempt to differentiate "good" speech from the "bad" and selectively filter out what may be detrimental to society. Indeed, it was terrible that two troubled teens unleashed years of bottled-up violence and hate by murdering 13 innocent individuals and wounding countless others. But the shooting would only be worsened if we added the First Amendment to the list of victims in critical condition.
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