12 August 2006


The Columbine shootings have a bit of a grip on the darker half of my imagination. I know many folks regard it as an inexplicable bolt of evil, no more accessible to our understanding than a car crash or a meteor strike. But I cannot leave it at that.

I'm guessing that most of my readers are familiar with Michael Moore's sharp-edged non-answer.

Why do 11,000 people die in America each year at the hands of gun violence? The talking heads yelling from every TV camera blame everything from Satan to video games. But are we that much different from many other countries? What sets us apart? How have we become both the master and victim of such enormous amounts of violence? This is not a film about gun control. It is a film about the fearful heart and soul of the United States, and the 280 million Americans lucky enough to have the right to a constitutionally protected Uzi.

Many probably also know Jon Katz' Voices From the Hellmouth essay from Slashdot, in which he quotes a lot of teenagers talking about how they understood the killers—and had scary experiences with “geek profiling” as panicked parents and school officials worried about the killer potential of kids who favoured video games or black trenchcoats.

I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone. But that I could, on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate, and that hatred grows and takes you over sometimes, especially when you come to see that you're hated only because you're smart and different, or sometimes even because you are online a lot ....

And a few probably also know Warren Ellis' chilling fictional exploration of the question—unpublished because he had the poor grace to write it just before the shooting, such that it would have appeared on shelves too quickly after. (After I wrote this piece, DC Comics eventually relented, publishing the story in a collection.)

You're all looking for something to blame when you should be looking out the window. I mean, it's typical, innit? You're looking for that one thing to subtract out of children's lives to make it all better. Take out the videogames, the funny music, the food coloring, kids won't shoot each other any more.

Dave Cullin at Slate reports that a team of FBI agents and shrinks have come up with a clarifying explanation.

Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just “fame” they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.

Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the “worst school shooting in American history.” They set their sights on eclipsing the world's greatest mass murderers, but the media never saw past the choice of venue. The school setting drove analysis in precisely the wrong direction.

The theory Cullin reports isn't comforting, but I suspect that it is correct.

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