Empty Lessons

Going to lunch on the ruins


With a tone that was simultaneously hysterical and pompous, the pundits started searching for "the lessons of Littleton." Hundreds of commentaries later, only one lesson seems clear: No event is so unique or horrific that it cannot instantly be reduced to an editorialist's cliché.

The very day of the massacre–long before we even had an accurate count of the dead–Peter Jennings was treating viewers to a clip from The Basketball Diaries, a fantasy sequence in which a trench coat-clad Leonardo DiCaprio carries a gun to school and blows his classmates away. Littleton, Jennings announced, was sure to "reopen the debate" (had it been closed?) on the effects of media violence. He did not, however, stop showing footage of the terror, surely as intense a blast of media violence as anything in any movie.

So it began. Editorialists, activists, preachers, politicians: Everyone with a platform became an instant expert on the inner lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the boys who killed 12 students, one teacher, and themselves at Columbine High School. Within a day of the assault, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens was declaring that the murderers didn't "have the same moral background as the rest of us." Bill Davenport, a Baptist pastor in San Clemente, confidently asserted that the killers didn't value life "because they haven't been taught about God." On CNN, criminologist Mike Rustigan declared, "Obviously, here, we are seeing non-parenting parents."

And where did these people acquire this insight into the shooters' moral upbringing? From thin air.

If you didn't like some part of pop culture, Littleton was a gold mine: Anything and everything could be attacked. Want to blame movies? MGM recalled all videos of The Basketball Diaries, letting the commentators turn their tut-tuts against Heathers and The Matrix. Want to blame video games? No report from Colorado was complete without the obligatory allusion to Doom. Want to blame music? Critics attacked Rammstein, KMFDM, and Marilyn Manson; the last bowed to political pressure and canceled the rest of his concert tour. (One wonders how many of the Marilyn-bashing moralists used to giggle to the folk ditty that begins, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school/We have murdered every teacher, we have broken every rule…")

The president himself weighed in, taking a break from his own massacre in the Balkans to declare that he would meet with "some high-level folks from the entertainment industry" to ask them to tone down their products. The Wall Street Journal blamed the massacre on a "culture of chaos" in which one might see "surviving Columbine students willing to go on national TV to talk about the massacre of 15 among them, but by golly they're not going to take off those backward baseball caps to do it." Jerry Falwell suggested that the killers were gay, a cry taken up in a press release from Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church: "Two filthy fags slaughtered 13 people at Columbine High."

In the course of their crimes, Harris and Klebold broke more than a dozen gun laws already on the books. There were, nonetheless, calls for still more gun control, as though there were some magic number of regulations that would suddenly make a potential schoolhouse killer junk his plans. "By the time our children leave school at the start of the summer," announced Handgun Control, Inc. Chair Sarah Brady, "they should know that the lawmakers of this country have done something to protect them from the type of gun violence that occurred at Littleton." Further demands for gun laws issued from figures ranging from Rosie O'Donnell to…Marilyn Manson.

And, as always, there were attacks on the Internet. If anything was suspicious about shooter Eric Harris, surely it was that he had a Web page. (He kept a diary, too, but for some reason there have been no frantic denunciations of notebooks.) The BBC straightfacedly described a "probe" into "whether the killers learned how to make bombs from the Internet." On MSNBC, criminologist Casey Jordan declared that the Net was "the key" to the story: "They were in chat rooms; they had Web pages. And on the Internet, the possibility for recruiting is just unknown."

Drugs, too, took a drubbing. Reps. John Peterson (R-Pa.) and James Rogan (R-Calif.) announced that they would propose legislation allowing schools to give students random drug tests, declaring that this would make future massacres less likely. When told that no traces of any drugs had been found in the shooters' bodies, Peterson was unswayed, arguing that narcotics had been a factor in "other" incidents. The Family Research Council sent out a fax claiming that April 20, the date of the shootings, was "the national marijuana smoke-off day" and that "420" was "the police code for marijuana." (420…4/20…get it?)

More often, analysts stressed that April 20 was Hitler's birthday–a sign, we were told, that the killers were neo-Nazis. (It was Marcus Aurelius' birthday too, but no one as yet has claimed the murderers were neo-Stoics.) Media reports described Harris and Klebold as inveterate racists, a charge the shooters' friends denied. No matter. Marc Fisher, in The Washington Post, seemed almost scrambling to find a racial angle the day after the massacre, in what might be the greatest self-undermining pair of sentences in the history of journalism: "Some witnesses said the shooters, who were white, appeared to be targeting black and Hispanic students, as well as student athletes of all races. Many whites were also among the victims."

Some pundits attacked goths; others took on trench coats; still others, the abolition of school prayer. Tipper Gore called for more therapy. George Will called for school uniforms. Camille Paglia blamed the nuclear family and the industrial revolution. Screenwriter Stephen Schiff blamed shopping malls.

In fact, anyone with an agenda found that, with enough effort, he could find a way to tie his wagon to the Littleton massacre. The Libertarian Party sent out a press release: "Public schools may be a contributing factor in the recent spate of school shootings…" From the privatizers to the proletarians: The People's Tribune, newspaper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, blamed the shootings on capitalism. "Our youth see what the future holds for them," wrote the revolutionaries. "They know that a society based on a market economy holds them valueless."

The hubbub reached its low point on April 28, when The Washington Post's film critic, Stephen Hunter, decided the dreadful force responsible for the deaths was…irony. After a labored analysis of The Basketball Diaries, Hunter made his point: "Jim Carroll writes a book that becomes a movie; he and everyone between him and the end user gets that it's ironic. The end user doesn't. His name is Eric Harris. The results are tragic….[U]ntil the irony-addicted and the irony-impaired begin to speak the same language and make an attempt to understand each other, it seems unlikely that there will be any healing–and there may even be a lot more killing."

The Littleton murders weren't just terrible. They were mysterious. My pacifist friends have wondered why there have been so few comparisons between the violence in the Balkans and the violence in Colorado. Surely, they say, both are mass slaughter. They have a point, but they're also missing something important. When Serbs slaughter Kosovars or NATO slaughters Serbs, one can at least discern reasons for the butchery, even if those rationales are amoral and offensive. The massacre at Columbine does not yield to such explanations. It hangs in the air, a mystery that can never be completely solved.

And never should be solved. Human beings are ciphers, capable of terrible acts. When someone does something this awful, and this unusual, it does no good to pretend we can reduce it to any simple lesson.

In the weeks since the Littleton slaughter, we've learned that most of what the media initially told us about the Columbine killers wasn't true. They weren't Nazis. They weren't especially racist. They weren't necessarily Goths. They might not even have been members of the clique of outcasts called the Trench Coat Mafia, which, by the way, wasn't originally called the Trench Coat Mafia.

We do know that bullies routinely picked on Harris, Klebold, and others like them. We do know that such behavior goes on in most of the country's schools. But most outcasts do not take weapons to school and kill the people who tormented them. We don't know what it was inside Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that made them into the exceptions. And we never will.