School Shootings: Learning the Wrong Lesson

Wil McCarthy

26 April 1999

As a resident of Lakewood, CO, only a few miles from Littleton's Columbine High School, I'm increasingly distressed by the press coverage of that terrible shooting, and of recent school violence in general. America can be unbelievably dense sometimes, and seems determined in this case to explore every possible alternative except the truth.

The media's persistent attempts to twist Columbine into a racially motivated hate crime are reprehensible. Less damaging but equally wrong are the attempts to blame music, games and movies; the Cowboys & Indians and Righteous War themes of times gone by are at least as violent and vengeance-minded as anything we see today, and Will Shakespeare himself wrote of murders and battles, duels and feuds and executions in quite graphic detail. And of course, blaming guns seems mandatory anytime any defenseless person is shot, while examining why that person was defenseless and why they got shot is almost completely taboo. The idea that a couple of furious, determined, suicidal geniuses could be foiled by new laws or metal detectors is absurd, and begs the question: what drove them to the point that they so violently snapped?

The sad truth is that across the U.S., in all the copycat crimes of this type, the motivations of the gunmen are no mystery. We don't have to speculate -- we don't even have to ask. These boys scream their desperate frustration at us in countless pleading missives, outlining the ways in which American high school culture has systematically isolated, ostracised, intimidated and physically abused them, until they simply couldn't take it anymore.

Outside of a prison, no adult would ever stand for this humiliating treatment. We'd quit our jobs, move, sue, file restraining orders, and otherwise do whatever seemed necessary to find peace and get on with our lives. But children -- especially poorly parented children -- don't have these options. Public schools seem helpless to protect them, and in fact there's a persistent "narc" ethic that promises savage reprisal to anyone foolish enough to approach these so-called authorities. Schools are quick to expel any student caught on campus with a weapon -- and rightly so! -- but no one ever seems to ask why these children feel they need them.

Answer: clearly, the bullying really is that bad. In America, unpopular kids really do fear for their safety, every day. They really do get beaten -- or at least threatened with beatings -- every day. Even in Littleton, yes, they really do have the hope and compassion squeezed out of them by years and years of this sorry treatment, and it's no surprise, really, that some of them choose to put a dramatic and decisive end to their helplessness. Ten years ago, they committed violence primarily against themselves -- there's nothing new about teen suicide -- but in the faddish, imitative way of teenagers, it has become fashionable to take other victims down on the way.

Nothing excuses a murder, and these mass-murdering rampages are the product of narrow, vengeful minds. I'm a parent myself, and to the parents of every killed or wounded child I extend my deepest, most heartfelt sympathy. Ditto other relatives, friends, and of course the victims themselves. The greatest tragedy of all is that people who "go postal" in this way rarely seem to target the individuals they're actually angry with, but lash out against the entire world in a muddled, pathetic way that reflects their own suffering in the eyes of terrified innocents.

But in all the handwringing and the asking "what, oh what can we do to prevent this?" it is vital that we wake up to the basic cruelty of our high schools. For all but the most popular 25% or so of students, ostracism and harassment and petty violence are daily realities. Oftentimes, the perpetrators are so immersed in the primate culture that they don't even realize they're causing pain to other human beings. For those children unfortunate enough to be in the bottom 25% or worse, the results are often tragically scarring, and until that is changed, until credible authorities are installed in our schools and real behavior codes are enforced, we can expect our troubles to continue in one tragic form or another.

See last quarter's rant.

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