27 April 1999
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
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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