Lessons Not Learned From Columbine

“He could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons…”-The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Dave Cullen must be the most frequently invited guest to television news who no one actually listens to. Cullen is the author of the excellent Columbine. He spent ten years getting to the bottom of that tragic event, learning about the killers, the victims and the community. He gets a lot of exposure these days as he is invited to comment after each mass shooting.

He was on Anderson Cooper last night, explaining once again, that most of the narrative we create about a killer’s motivations in the immediate aftermath of an event will be wrong. He emphasized that even the killer’s own writings can create a misleading picture. (He had pages from Dylan Klebold’s diary as a visual aid.)  The question we most want answered in the wake of a tragedy is “why” and we will grasp any clues and expand on them. We need a sensible narrative and it is difficult for the sane to be satisfied with an explanation that makes no sense, the kind of motivation that the mentally ill mind produces.

In the wake of Columbine, a narrative emerged about two bullied teenagers who took revenge against the people who had tormented them. The truth was quite different.  I highly recommend Cullen’s book if you would like to explore this topic in depth. The Columbine shooters were not social outcasts. Dylan Klebold felt he was, but this was his own misconception. Eric Harris was a sadistic sociopath who wanted to bring down the world and the school just happened to be his environment.

Yet for the next couple of years we talked about bullying and schools trained teachers to watch the ones who were marginalized by their peers. All in all, cracking down on bullying is a noble cause. It is certainly worth doing. But linking it to Columbine and thinking anti-bullying efforts could have prevented that tragedy is misguided.

With the most recent event, the news coverage focused initially on one detail. In the report I saw, the reporter referred to the brand of the killer’s car every time she mentioned it. “He ran his BMW into…” I do not think she would have done this had he been driving a Toyota Camry. This tells you he was well-off. So immediately you hear the shocked, angry community members following suit using the word “entitled” to describe him. “He felt he was entitled to destroy any woman who didn’t serve his needs.”  Had he been driving a rusted out car, they would probably say he felt rejected and fell into an obsessive rage. The narrative would be slightly different.

“Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole,” Cullen wrote in the New York Times. “…The killer is rarely who he seems.” (This one was after the Aurora cinema shootings.)

That is why the current focus on “women” and the hashtag #YesAllWomen that sprung up in the wake of the tragedy seems a bit off to me. It is like Columbine all over again. Putting an end to bullying was noble, but it would not have prevented that event. Putting an end to sexual harassment is also noble, but as a response to the killing spree, it seems misplaced. It is taking a mentally ill person’s delusional sense of grievance and debating it as if there were some merit in it.

The Virginia Tech shooter also left a manifesto. He seems to identify rich people as the cause of his pain.  He also compares himself to Christ. The Tucson shooter (who shot Gabrielle Giffords and many others) also wrote an explanation. It was vaguely political but generally made no sense. The latest attacker seems to have been a better writer than his predecessors, because those who have read it (I have not.) understand what it says.  It is women, he says, who have caused him to take vengeance on the world. Had he been failed by a teacher or fired by a boss instead of rejected sexually, I am convinced he would have found another target for his rage and acted out in a similar fashion. The problem was his rage, not what he chose as its focus.

There is a discussion to be had about masculinity and if there is something in our cultural expectation of manhood that makes men so much more likely to present with this form of destructive mental illness. (The Good Men Project had quite a good article on this the other day.) We should discuss what cultural forces might be making the mass shooting part of the American “symptom pool.” I don’t think, however, that we should take a killer’s explanation for his own actions at face value.

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