The Columbine Tragedy

Along with the rest of the country, we are compelled to ask about the horrific events at Columbine High, “Why?”

It is up to the parents, law enforcement personnel, and school officials in Littleton to unravel the personal motives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. For others, an appropriate beginning might be to analyze the tragedy’s social contexts.

The sad reality is, the United States is one of the most violent countries in the world. We have the Western world’s highest handgun murder rate. In 1996, two people were murdered with handguns in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 106 in Canada, and 9,390 in the United States. We are the only industrialized nation that still uses the death penalty. Our military budget is 18 times higher than the combined military budgets of the seven countries identified by the Pentagon as “our most likely adversaries.” Inevitably, this real-world violence finds its way into the dream world of our culture — in song lyrics, video games, and movies.

Immediately following the Littleton shootings, President Clinton — the First Teacher — urged that “we do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.” Clinton spoke these words as NATO bombs rained death and destruction on Yugoslavia. It’s as if the president were saying, “Pay attention to what I say, not to what I do.” But young people know that actions speak louder than words.

On the eve of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Eric Harris told his classmates, “I hope we do go to war, I’ll be the first one there.” He tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist in the Marines. As the Washington Post reported about Harris and Klebold, “What’s clear is that they liked war, war as a game, war as entertainment.”

This country’s fascination with violence, militarization, and guns must end. One obvious step is to implement strict gun control. The Littleton killings have helped spur a mass upsurge against handguns and the National Rifle Association. Teachers and youth have an important role to play in this movement.

School Context

We also need to reflect on the tragedy’s school context and this country’s overall high-school culture of bullying and intolerance. One member of the so-called trench coat mafia told the Denver Post that “he was taunted and terrorized by his schoolmates — so-called jocks who called him ‘faggot,’ bashed him into lockers, and threw rocks at him from their cars while he rode his bike home from school.”

“I can’t describe how hard it was to get up in the morning and face that,” the boy said. “Hell,” he added. “Pure hell.”

Every school in the country needs to perform a safety inventory, asking: Do we tolerate racist, sexist, or homophobic put-downs? Are students allowed to be different without being taunted or bullied? Who is marginalized by the school culture, and how? Are students able to speak openly about the issues that concern them most deeply? Are adults at the school given the resources and time it takes to personally connect with each student?

High schools are overly large and impersonal, they track and sort students, and they treat education as a mere transfer of information. Competition, not caring, rules the day. As Timothy Egan wrote recently in the New York Times, “Schools today are so focused on test scores, and not emotional train wrecks, that they are missing the real problems in their midst. …”

Clearly, we must transform the nature of teaching and learning in our schools, so that schools can nurture a culture of conversation, empathy, and appreciation of difference. Students are complex human beings, struggling to make sense of the world and their place in it. We must never forget that.

We also need to channel adolescent alienation into righteous anger and the fight for social justice. In so doing, we must take active and clear steps against the growing fascination, especially among alienated white males, with paramilitary fantasies of power. The fact that Harris and Klebold chose Hitler’s birthday for their murderous rampage must serve as a wake-up call.

As educators, we need to remember that we can’t barricade schools off from the ills of society. Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, or armed security guards will never solve the problem. Our job is to build school communities that foster the values needed to build a better world. Our schools, to the greatest extent possible, must be democratic, caring, humane, joyful, inclusive — and critical of unfairness of all kinds. We need to turn tragedy into renewal.