The Motivation Behind the Columbine High Shootings
Every major spectacle carries with it the potential of a new way of looking at the past and implications of a future. Usually within a brief period after the event, a consensual "explanation" is fashioned through the news media and by the political pundits who occupy much of the space and time dedicated by the media to the event. Political pundits seated in front of the camera become part of the event, often becoming a part of the process of transforming an event in time to a spectacle.
In this case, the event was the murder of 13 and wounding of 23 persons at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The event took place on April 22, 1999 and, because of the subsequent suicide of the two teenage perpetrators, observers could only speculate on their motivation. While students were still hiding from the gunmen and while the police were still plotting their strategy, the media coverage began. Perhaps two impulses led to the coverage. First of all, the victims were not the children of the Hutus or East Timorese or even the Kosovos. These were "our" children and the parents our "friends." Their grief could have been ours. In fact, in a month plus a few days, five million dollars were donated to the survivors and the victim families even without there being a major fund-raising drive (Morning Edition, NPR, June 8, 1999).
Secondly, the event had the earmarks of a media spectacle, that is, by transmogrifying the event to something beyond itself, the news media knew they would again be able to maximize their profit margins on the grief and graves of others. Events are news stories; spectacles are dollars. The old tv newsroom characterization of "if it bleeds, it leads" has been replaced in their business office ófrom graves to the gravy train.
In its societal context, the Columbine school shootings are not an obvious part of a discernible sociological pattern. We know that approximately 4,500 youngsters are killed every year in intentional shootings, with thirty per cent of that number probable suicides. That's almost 13 a day, the same number as were killed in Littleton (The Washington Post, April 25, 1999). The data on school shootings, according to the Center for Communicable Diseases, indicate that only about 28 per cent actually occurred inside the school and that one-third of the victims were not students (The New York Times, May 9, 1999). We have known, for quite some time, that homicide is the second leading cause of teenage deaths. Just the same, counting all deaths among children and teens, only one per cent are homicides.
Perhaps our first lesson is that what went on at Columbine may have been horrible, but it was not unique. Almost immediately following this high school spectacle, an array of stories, many even more bizarre than the Columbine story surfaced. Here is a sampling:
Costa Mesa, CA, May 4--The Associated Press reported that a man who wanted to "execute" children...