The Less Obvious Tragedies At Columbine High School

Well, there’s been another incident of kids killing kids, this one at Columbine High School in Colorado—Have you noticed these shootings at schools are becoming almost as common as flag burnings?—and while there’s certainly nothing funny about the incident itself, I find a lot of the reaction to it darkly comical. Or more accurately, I would find it darkly comical if it wasn’t just as tragic as the shootings which spawned it.

Whenever something like this happens, the media jumps all over it, and self-proclaimed "experts" crawl out from underneath their rocks to assign blame to anyone and everyone and everything the kids have had contact with, ever. Violence in various media, including television and video games, gets blamed. Music that these experts don’t or can’t appreciate gets blamed. Teachers and administrators who failed to see "the Warning Signs" that are "Clear As Day" with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight get blamed. I suppose a strong case could be made that by understanding what led to the shootings one can better anticipate and prepare against similar future incidents. This makes a good amount of sense. So naturally it’s not why this happens. This happens because, faced with tragedy of this magnitude, some people want nothing more than something or someone concrete to condemn, convict, and crucify in the name of "justice."

USA Today described it in big, bold letters on the front page the day after it happened as a "massacre." Which of course it was, but is that really the most sensitive way to report what happened? I’m sure grieving parents loved reading that their kids had been "massacred." But that’s not the one of the things that really annoyed me. One that really annoyed me was the part of the class picture that showed the two people who committed the crimes pointing at the camera like their hands were guns. This is played up as a clear sign of what they were planning, as though they should have been thrown in prison the instant anyone noticed this. If pretending your finger is a gun is a warning sign that someone is planning on homicide, all I can say is, Lock me up, ‘cause I’ve done it. And so have millions of other people. (For the record, another of the ones that really annoyed me was a reporter asking a parent, "Later today you’re going to have to identify your son’s body. How’s that going to be?" That reporter should have been fired on the spot. If I was that parent, my reaction to that question would probably have led to a lawsuit.) Yes, there were warning signs more serious than the finger-as-gun thing, but putting something like that on the front page of a national publication is mere jumping at shadows.

The fact is, while people seem to actually care about the danger of potential future incidents, nobody wants to actually deal with the root causes. People cast blame. People offer up token solutions. People use cliches. People talk about preventing those who would commit these crimes from being able to. Few people talk about how to go about preventing people from wanting to do this sort of thing in the first place. Most of those few are idiots using the tragedy as a sounding board to try to get things banned, as though attempting to hide knowledge from people has ever improved a situation. And those who attempt to approach the matter from the right angle are drowned out by the sheer numbers of those who haven’t got a clue.

As there always is after tragedies like this, there are cries that schools should institute sweeping changes. There are calls for metal detectors at entrances (which won’t detect ceramic guns, but don’t even get me started on what the guy who came up with THAT brainstorm must have been thinking). There are calls for clear bookbags. There are calls for school uniforms. There are calls for random searches of lockers. About the only things I haven’t heard calls for are bars on all windows and leg chains on students. I can’t speak for everyone, but school often struck me as being too much like a prison already. Not that I had any real experience with what life in prison was like, but there were times when school seemed incredibly oppressive. Creative thinking was often discouraged. Speaking up at the wrong time or with the wrong thing could lead to disciplinary action. Cards were forbidden. (This was always one of my favorites. Remember, if students are allowed to play hearts or pitch during a study period, the next thing you know they’ll be selling crack on the recess playground to kindergartners.) Some teachers even actively discouraged students from asking to go to the bathroom. Minor things, perhaps, but when you’re a sixteen-year-old kid being told that you’re being disruptive when all you wanted to do was go to the bathroom or ask clarification on some point (I suppose I must have given away a trick question or something the time I asked for clarification about a test question—the teacher wouldn’t walk over to me, so I had to call my question across the classroom—and after hearing my question, he responded, genuinely annoyed, "Will you please shut up?"), these things make school seem to be a less than hospitable place. (And notice I haven’t even touched on dealing with other students.)

The point is, students in high school generally find it an oppressive and unfriendly place where they’re not trusted by those in charge and are forbidden from doing things that don’t have any apparent bearing on anything. The grounds for these feelings have varying degrees of validity—sometimes there’s ample grounds to support the students’ feelings, and sometimes there’s not a shred of anything to support it; as always, reality lies somewhere in the middle—but the feelings exist nonetheless. Perhaps violence is the only way that some kids feel they can get attention in an environment where they’re so incapable of expressing themselves; I don’t know. I do know that all of these proposed changes to schools will only exacerbate the situation, because they’ll make schools seem a LOT more oppressive. Have you actually thought about a dress code? Where do people GET these things? My high school banned baggy pants on the grounds that "people could trip on them and get hurt." Say what? They made people who showed up at school in what they called "offensive" shirts to wear them inside-out for the day so that no one else would be offended, unaware or uncaring that this merely drew attention and got people to ask what the shirt said, spreading the word much faster and giving the kid that much more support. They also put the good Mr. Panunti and two of his staunch supporters on in-school suspension the time they showed up at school in dresses to sustain the groundswell of support behind his candidacy for homecoming queen, unaware that the vote was the NEXT Thursday, even though there was nothing in the dress code saying men can’t wear dresses. (Well, okay, I can sort of see that one.)

The last thing we need in an era where children’s lives are so structured by adults is to force even MORE regimentation upon them. People seem to think that the way to prevent tragedies such as the one in Colorado from happening is to control people’s behavior strictly enough that they won’t be able to commit them. This belief that control is the key is everywhere, but it’s misguided and does more harm than good. You can fight the symptoms all you want, but eventually the disease will adapt, and you’ll lose. You have to fight the problem at the root, where it starts. And the only people who can do that are parents.

It’s not that children cause most crime, but the seeds that grow into crime are usually planted in a person’s mind when they’re still a child. If a child is raised properly by responsible and caring adults, the problem will be drastically reduced. Not eliminated, to be sure, but certainly reduced. Unfortunately, while many parents have the "responsible" and "caring" parts down pat, few understand the "properly" part.

Most parents, it seems, operate with the same sort of mindset that is so popular in the media regarding the shootings. They think that the way to deal with the evil in the world is to shield their children from it. Some of the more extreme parents don’t even like words such as "darn" spoken in front of their children. Their children need to be "protected" from things that could hurt them, because they don’t want their children to suffer.

An admirable goal, perhaps, but it’s completely unattainable. You can screen things as much as you want, put ten content filters on your internet connection, install V-chips in your televisions, only let them listen to music that you approve of, refuse to let them play Doom or Mortal Kombat 42 or whatever one they’re up to now, but kids aren’t dumb. They’ll realize what’s happening, and they’ll want to know. And the harder you fight to control what they can know, the harder they’re going to fight against you. They’ll stop telling you things for fear you’ll try to stop them from doing what they want, they’ll go to a friend’s house and watch the TV shows and listen to the music and play the video games that you’ve forbidden them access to, they’ll do whatever it takes to know, and learn, and experience. Protect your children all you want, but rest assured, they’ll win. They’ll find out. They’ll learn what the world is really like outside the confines of their tiny little corner of the world.

The world is a scary place. There’s hatred, there’s racism, there’s murder, there’s rape, there’s cults, there’s slavery, there’s genocide, there’s misogyny, there’s all that and more. And you know it. And I know it. And someday, that little kid is going to know it. And how they handle these oppressive realities is largely up to their parents. Will they be able to deal with it and face reality on its own terms? Or will they crumble under the weight of the world?

This is why so many good and well-meaning people are such half-assed parents. They make this simple yet fundamental mistake that so many parents make. Parenthood is not about censorship and it’s not about control and it’s not about screening. Parenthood is about preparation.

Don’t hide bad things from your children. Teach them why these things are bad. Don’t tell them that they shouldn’t do something. Explain why they shouldn’t do it. No kid is going to accept "Just because" or "Because I said so, that’s why" as an explanation. Nor should they. You certainly wouldn’t. Kids are smarter than most adults seem to realize, and deserve a lot more respect than they are generally given. So respect kids. Be aware of who they are and what they do, and be involved, but not controlling. How big a difference would it make if children were raised to understand the world and be ready for it, instead of being raised protected from it?

Sadly, bad parenting and scapegoating are pandemic in America these days. Channel-surfing one day, I came across a talk show, I forget which one, where the topic was shock rock, specifically Marilyn Manson. The parents of a young man who had committed suicide were on the show, claiming that Marilyn Manson’s music was responsible. In order to provide a balanced, unbiased picture, also on the show were goth wannabes, with their faces painted white and dressed from head to toe in jet black making statements that they’re going to look back on in twenty years and wonder what the hell they were thinking.

But anyway, the parents told the tragic tale of their son, who was one of these goth sorts. Christmas came around, and the only thing he requested was a copy of Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Now, I’ve heard the CD, and I don’t think it’s great or anything, but it’s certainly not evil. In fact, back home we’ve played it each of the last two years during the decorating of the Christmas tree. Some of you may feel that that is wrong on so many levels; ask me if I care. Back to the point at hand, though... The mother said she was shocked and horrified by the CD title and song titles. But she bought the CD for him anyway, since it was all he wanted. After the suicide, she finally got around to actually LISTENING to the damned thing, and that was when she came to the conclusion that Marilyn Manson was responsible for her son’s death.

I’m not unsympathetic to these parents. They lost a child, and were clearly hurting, and I can only imagine what that must feel like. But they knew long before the kid ever requested that CD that their son—let’s be charitable and say that he had "issues." The CD title and track titles were so ghastly that they gave him the CD without even bothering to listen to what it said. And then they blame some musician who never met any of them? I’m sorry, but no, Marilyn Manson didn’t have a damn thing to do with the suicide. When I heard this, I didn’t say to myself, "That Marilyn Manson! What a bastard! His CDs should be banned!" No, my thoughts were more along the lines of, "What is WRONG with these parents?" If they were really that concerned with the state of mind of their son, why on Earth didn’t they take the time to listen to the CD? To find out what was going on? To get more involved? All I saw on that talk show was a tragic example of bad parenting. Am I blaming the suicide on bad parenting? No. Better parenting might not have prevented the suicide, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt matters. (As for what happened in Colorado, I don't know about the parenting there, so I have no grounds to say. I don't blame the parents, though; as obvious a scapegoat as the parents might be, the sins of the son are not the sins of the parents.)

This is where the work needs to be done. And the government can’t do it, and the schools can’t do it. They shouldn’t be expected to, either. It’s up to the parent to raise the child. People who think that dress codes or locker searches will make things all better are completely missing the boat. The more firmly they try to hold high school kids under their thumb, the more miserable the kids will become, and the more they’ll fight back. Parenting 101. The core of these people’s problem is that they aren’t anticipatory, they’re reactionary, so they don’t realize how people are going to react to the changes they talk of instituting. Whittling away at students’ privacy isn’t exactly going to endear them to authority figures; it’s just going to make matters worse.

Yes, what happened in Colorado is a tragedy, and nothing can change that. Hopefully future tragedies of this sort can be prevented. But they won’t be prevented through the implementation of all sorts of changes that will simply fuel the fires that lead to the symptoms they’re fighting, and they won’t be prevented by putting the screws to whatever convenient scapegoat happens to be nearby, and they won’t be prevented by making some faceless government agency responsible for the duties of parenting. People are learning lessons from what happened. Let’s hope a few of them learn the right ones instead of the easy ones.

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