20 April 2009

Columbine, Ten Years After

What many people don’t remember is, it snowed the next day. Late April in the Rockies looks like winter in most other places, and by the time I got to Littleton, the flurries had begun. We remember the children in their T-shirts and shorts, on the day of the shooting, but we forget how it really was.

Ordinarily, we welcome the way in which snow covers over the details of everyday life. We talk about a “blanket” of snow, as if it offered comfort. As if there were some intelligence or sensibility behind the weather. The day after the shooting, the snow wasn’t pretty or even welcome; it was messy, a hindrance, dropping in clumps and turning to slush. Literary scholars speak of the macrocosm reflecting the microcosm, and it seemed easier to focus on that possibility — to see the snow as a metaphor for a world that had become suddenly colder and more difficult — than to look squarely at what really was happening, and had happened already.

I was one of hundreds of journalists from around the world who came to Littleton to try to prize out some hard facts from the event, but few among us knew anything at all. We moved among the police and the mourners who, like us, didn’t have any answers. Not really. Not the answers that counted.

For the things that others knew didn’t explain much about what had happened. Most of the time, I wanted to stand back, not only to let the police do their work but to put distance between myself and the awfulness of what I saw. Having no children of my own, I couldn’t know what the parents felt: bad enough to imagine how I’d feel if those were the names of my godchildren on the little wooden crosses on the hillside, where the Columbine families had set up a little shrine.

In the students’ confusion and in the ungraspable, unmanageable dimensions of their emotions, I saw a litle of myself, the teenager I used to be. Yet I’d never suffered as they did, and I was frankly afraid of understanding too closely. Some kind of assurance, some kind of defense was required: I wanted so much to believe that nothing like this could ever happen to me or to anyone I knew. That was selfish, yes. It was a survival mechanism.

Eventually, the world learned a few things about the shootings. Not enough to prevent other incidents, or to make us feel safe. It turns out that there’s no universal psychological profile, no guaranteed warning sign that would enable us to stop a boy before he picks up a gun. And though for the moment it seems as if every shooter or would-be shooter is indeed a boy, I expect it’s only a matter of time before a girl somewhere breaks the pattern.

The best security measure, it seems, is to take seriously any threat that a kid makes, yet we don’t seem to agree on what to do next. In many cases, we’ve overreacted to lesser provocations. (A young relative of mine paid an extravagant penalty for a stupid prank, in the post-Columbine atmosphere of zero tolerance.) Yet who wants to be the one who lets the next killer slip through his fingers? The debate over guns in America doesn’t seem to have progressed an iota during the past decade, but as a young man in Germany capably demonstrated a few weeks ago, mass shootings are not exclusively a Second Amendment issue.

Crime reports in French journalism are referred to as faits divers, which translates roughly as “random facts.” And how do we make sense of those? Even artists fail, and some (like Gus Van Sant, in his Columbine-inspired film, Elephant) don’t even try to do anything more than to reflect the randomness. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to make sense of this, to put into perspective the things I saw and the people I met in Littleton, to close this chapter. But I can’t.


Anonymous said...

You were clearly moved, and not in a good sense, by what you saw that day, but I don't agree with the notion of a "before Columbine/after Columbine" world. People talk as though it's a turning point, no longer do we have a false sense of safety, this could never happen to us or anyone we know -- there are too many guns and too many people with undetectable dangerous impulses.

Actually, this is a case where the Denver police were guilty of culpable negligence. The parents of one of the shooter's neighbors had filed a report citing his publicly stated desire "to kill everyone in Denver," starting with their own son. This went ignored. When the shootings were underway, the police lingered outside the school building. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know. The point is simply that I don't see the basis here for stating that there is "no universal psychological profile, no guaranteed warning sign that would enable us to stop a boy before he picks up a gun," because there were quite blatant warning signs.

We live in a culture of victimhood where one person's pain is everybody's pain -- if someone is suffering, you can bet you're going to hear about it -- and I can't help looking at the acts of these dejected teens as a sick, unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising extension of that feeling of entitlement.

Discussions of this and similar incidents invariably circle around to gun control or the lack thereof, but for every incident like this, I could give you hundreds -- thousands -- where responsible gun owners saved their own lives or those of other people in danger.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

My experience probably confirms your belief that there's no such thing as "before/after Columbine." We're still in the dark, only perhaps more frightened.

As for the reliability of warning signs, I wasn't offering my opinion but a synthesis of my reading of expert studies and analysis. Even beyond that -- it's a matter of fact that not every troubled teen who talks about blowing up his high school actually intends to do so. We do tend to take those remarks more seriously today, but they're not guaranteed -- which, you'll recall, is what I said in the essay.

Girl From Texas said...

I work in education, and it can safely be said that both students and teachers feel the effects of the "before Columbine/after Columbine" world. My school and many others routinely have, in addition to fire drills and tornado drills, what are euphemistically called "terrorist" drills, but are structured specifically along the lines of preparing for a Columbine-style attack. When we practice these drills, students never fail to nervously inquire if the strategies would truly keep them safe. I am always worried about the fact that my school, like so many, has classrooms without windows, or windows that do not open, or are too small - there is only one way to exit any classroom, which is through the front door.

A school librarian I know requested and received funding to remodel her school library from a large glass-walled room, central to the campus and as vulnerable to attack as working in a fishbowl. The new remodeled space will eliminate the windows and provide sheltered, reinforced offices for library staff and patrons to "duck and cover" should another Columbine (or Virginia Tech) style attack ever come.