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27 April 1999

American psychos?

David Nolan reports from Washington on the hysterical discussion about the shooting at Columbine High School

Before the smoke had cleared over Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the questions were on everybody's lips: 'Who was to blame?'; 'What caused this tragedy?'; 'How can we stop it happening again?'. Lots of people had their say, but as James Poniewozik pointed out in the online magazine Salon, 'In the land of no good explanations, the man with the daffiest explanation is king'.

As with so many recent tragedies, much coverage was devoted to the fact that the killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had websites, played video and computer games and maybe even watched too much television. One Gallup survey revealed that 82 percent of people said the internet was at least partly to blame for the shootings and 34 percent thought it was one of the factors that 'deserves a great deal of blame'. Sixty percent blamed the availability of guns, 49 percent TV, movies and music and 34 percent the media.

The fact that the kids wore trenchcoats was even used as evidence against them. The San Francisco Chronicle suggested the coats were 'a symbol for everything from Hitler and the Nazis to mass murder to suicidal fantasies'. They are also protection against the traditionally cold Colorado winters - but to point that out would have detracted from the irrational helter-skelter that passed for informed discussion on the issue.

As the horror of the events became apparent, and the media had time to do a quick web search, television news programmes showed images downloaded from websites purporting to 'predict' the carnage. Goths, or anybody dressed in black and wearing makeup, were interviewed. Basement rooms filled with game-playing computer nerds were filmed to show us all exactly where the tragedy came from.

Soon after, the 'mind police' came on the scene. Counsellors, psychologists, safety experts and bullying experts all had their say. The fact that none of them had anything to add to what your average bar-room bore could make up after a couple of beers was irrelevant. In a thoughtful piece in the Washington Post, columnist Jonathan Yardley described the scene: 'First comes the sad, calamitous event...Then come the ghouls: the oleaginous journalists, the grief therapists, the ambulance chasers, the gurus, the zealots, the Mister Fix-Its...the invasion of the bodysnatchers.'

While some demanded controls on guns, and several commentators have pointed out that every other country (including Serbia) has blamed the tragedy on America's gun culture, the discussion in the US itself has skirted the issue. While the Clinton administration has said that it would (yet again) examine the laws, that route has been tried, and few expect much to happen. The rhetoric comes out, but with no expectation behind it. It is just one of many routes open to regulators.

The real impetus is behind increasing the regulatory controls available to schools and the police. There is a demand for yet more controls on the internet, video games and television violence. But, as one almost hidden piece in the New York Times pointed out, it could just as easily be argued that these media had nothing to do with the tragedy. Citing seven multiple murders by teenagers between 1951 and 1979, the conclusion was obvious: 'If the...examples fail to show a pattern, it may be because there is none.'

That won't prevent anybody from looking for one. And it certainly won't stop the overreaction. In the days after the shootings, several people were arrested for the sort of threats dished out in schools every day of the week. And then every public high school in Washington was evacuated after one anonymous bomb threat. Last week America witnessed two tragedies. In one, 15 people died, including some of Colorado's brightest students. In the other, we took a further step towards the monitoring of our every move, word and thought.

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