A Colorado Tragedy

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A Colorado Tragedy

by Ari Armstrong

April 21, 1999

Most could only watch in horror. The families' grief must have been unimaginable. Dazed, bawling, I watching the bloody images play and replay on the television screen.

Murder by schoolyard shooting ripped apart the social serenity of Littleton and, by extension, Colorado and the nation. The tearful, angry, vulnerable, and unanswered question: WHY?

May our prayers and sympathy go with the families of Columbine High School.

As a tutor, I have worked with students within blocks of Columbine High School. I've been inside the school, talked with its staff and students. Friends of my friends perished in the assault. The shooting at Columbine High School is first and foremost a human tragedy of horrendous magnitude.

In order to regain a sense of security, and an assurance of security, the attempt to learn from the tragedy at Columbine is appropriate and necessary. Of course, the tragedy ought not be misused for political ends. President Clinton showed reserve and dignity in his comments the day of the tragedy, refusing to make political hay of the situation. For that at least he has my respect. (Unfortunately, he has since changed course.)

A respectful, intelligent discussion on the political ramifications of the tragedy is possible and warranted, though. Also needed are explorations of social trends and particular policies that impacted the terrible event. Here are my initial reflections on some of these painful subjects.

Could different localized policies have somehow altered the outcome? Criticizing the actions taken is for the most part pointless. However, that needn't stop us from learning how better to handle potentially similar situations in the future. The local 9 News reported some disturbing facts. One of the killers reportedly threatened to kill a Columbine student months earlier. This incident, along with information about the manufacture of pipe-bombs by the suspects, was reported to the police by the family of the threatened student. One of the killers also ran an internet web site that featured threatening, hateful material. The killers had also produced a video for one of their classes at Columbine featuring a mock-massacre. According to reports from students, the two killers were abusive to other students in school, even as others were abusive of them. So the murders, while shocking and unpredictable, did not take place in a vacuum.

Governor Bill Owens in a statement at the crime scene referred to the violent images depicted in our culture as a cause for concern. To be sure, much of what passes for entertainment in this country glorifies senseless violence, and this surely has an impact on the youth. However, all of us have been exposed to violence and violent ideas, and yet nearly all of us retain our sense of morality and choose to respect the person and property of others.

In the final analysis, blame must be assigned to the two young men who pulled the triggers. They bought into ideas of hate and bigotry and apparently believed that mass murder would somehow achieve revenge for their supposed mistreatment by other students. (Note that the gunmen -- or "gunkids" more appropriately -- intentionally refrained from killing at least four students whom they liked, and made disparaging comments about certain social and ethnic groups, which means that the killings were not strictly random.)

The killers' apparent desire for a mis-construed revenge arose from their evasion of reality and of responsibility. The "jocks" (athletes) of the school probably did pick on the suspects. However, the suspects obviously took many actions to create their own social problems. The murderers apparently didn't think to take any responsibility for their social relationships or for the school they attended. Even assuming the killers were mistreated in school, a shooting rampage is hardly the appropriate response to such treatment, an obvious fact which also escaped the killers' notice. Finally, the suspects surely killed and injured many who had never even associated with the suspects at all, another fact conveniently forgotten by the killers. Morality is nothing if not attention to reality and acceptance of responsibility.

We might almost imagine what the killers must have been feeling as they prepared for their heinous crime. They had a glorified notion of guns and war based more on Hollywood images than the real world. This, coupled with a radical "victim mentality" -- "the whole world's out to get me" -- seems to have given the killers the mental block they needed to enact their crime.

Of course, my appraisals are of necessity speculative, though I think they are highly plausible. What is more certain is the that the anti-gun movement will use the Columbine murders as rallying cry. Is this appropriate or helpful?

As the news broadcasts faded out for the evening, I tuned in to Politically Incorrect, which actually aired fairly representative interpretations of the relevance of the shooting to gun laws. One of the guests on the show, an actress named Beth Littleford, said, "People who can argue against gun control now are out of their minds." The thinking behind this position seems to be that if any guns are removed from society, fewer guns will be used to commit crimes. The assumption is that those who own guns and support gun rights are inherently evil or at least stupid, and they don't care about tragedies such as the Columbine shooting.

Littleford's view is fallacious for two immediate reasons. First, gun control removes the "average" stock of guns per capita, but it does not do so in an even fashion. Guns are restricted mostly for those who use them responsibly. Second, Littleford ignores the obvious fact that the killers' use of the guns was already illegal. It's against the law to make bombs, and certainly it is illegal for minors to carry firearms and pipe-bombs into schools.

However, surely legitimate gun restrictions for minors could be better-enforced. There's something wrong when a parent cannot or does not prevent his or her child from possessing an arsenal of guns and equipment to manufacture bombs. I have no problem with holding parents and others liable for irresponsibly granting access of guns to minors. However, I vehemently oppose such laws as mandatory locks, as these render guns useless in emergency situations and prevent gun owners from taking alternate safety measures that do not interfere with the usefulness of the gun.

But the main problem with Littleford's argument, and the main reason to support concealed carry laws and stringent gun education courses, is that no heavy police force entered Columbine until over an hour after the shooting started. The shooting started at around 11:15 local time (April 20). The main SWAT teams did not enter the school until around 12:30. In general, police can only respond to a crime after it has already been committed.

True, a couple police officers on duty in the school exchanged gun fire with the killers. But the officers did not take the initiative to stop the killers. Other officers entered the school within half an hour of the shooting to evacuate trapped students. On the other hand, a well-trained faculty carrying semi-automatic handguns might have been in a position to stop the killing. Of course, firearms training is no substitute for parental responsibility in monitoring their children's activities and access to weapons.

Also on Politically Incorrect, attorney Adrian Cronauer, inspiration for the film Good Morning Vietnam, said, "Self-esteem cannot be given to you, it must be earned." Amen. The implication was that groundless praise and the encouragement of narcissism may have been a factor in the killers' motivation. Whether or not false self-esteem factored into the motivation of the shooting, Cronauer is right on. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden expands the point in his books, particularly in The Art of Living Consciously. Branden distinguishes between "authentic self-esteem" and "pseudo-self-esteem." The former is grounded in strong character, responsibility, and achievement, while the later is based on self-aggrandizement and egotism. Surely fostering authentic self-esteem should be a goal of every parent and educator.

The atrocity committed at Columbine High School burdens my heart and burns my eyes, as I'm sure it does to everyone in Colorado and many around the nation. I hope we begin to engage in respectful discussion rather than shrill politicization. But above all let us help those in Littleton bear their tremendous sorrow as best we can.

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