On April 20, 1999, two high school students in Columbine, Colorado, committed one of the most notorious massacres of the 1990s, slaughtering 12 teenagers and a teacher. In “Empty Lessons” (July 1999), I described some of the baseless speculation and scapegoating that immediately clogged the airwaves.
With no evidence but their prejudices, pundits and advocates blamed the murders on movies, music, video games, goths, gays, drugs, the Internet, the radical right, trench coats, even irony. We were assured that the killers “haven’t been taught about God”; we were told the crime proved the need for therapy, school uniforms, or new gun laws. When evidence emerged that contradicted those instant narratives—when we learned that there were no illegal drugs in the shooters’ systems, or that they had broken more than a dozen existing gun laws—that didn’t stop the arguments. The pundits weren’t reacting to Columbine so much as they were using it as an excuse to proclaim whatever they would be saying anyway.
Thirteen years later, those initial speculations have been discredited. (So was one widely reported claim that I repeated as true: that other students had “routinely” bullied the killers.) Did anyone learn anything from the experience?
On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire in a crowded Aurora, Colorado, movie theater—about 20 miles from Columbine—killing 12 and injuring 58. In the aftermath we again heard denunciations of movies, video games, and “nihilistic” pop culture. Since Holmes entered the building wearing a costume, the AMC theater chain briefly decided to prohibit all costumes. There were calls to revive the law against “assault weapons,” on the mistaken grounds that the guns in this arbitrary category are especially suited for mass murder.
Joe Scarborough suggested that Holmes was “on the autism scale.” A former FBI profiler speculated that the shooter was a “Trekkie-like person.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) attributed the deaths to “the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs.” On ABC, correspondent Brian Ross rushed to report that a James Holmes in the area was linked to the Tea Party movement. At Breitbart.com, blogger Joel Pollack pointed to a James Holmes in the area who was a registered Democrat. Both had the wrong James Holmes.
But there was good news too. There may have been an abundance of Columbine-style speculation this time around, but the debunking was louder and quicker. Maybe some people did learn a lesson.