An Objectivist Analysis of the Columbine Tragedy
by Ari Armstrong, May 1999
Someone recently posted a quote by Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher who named her system of thought Objectivism, on an e-mail discussion list to which I subscribe. Reading this quote prompted me to review several of Rand's essays, which raised the hair on my neck because of their prophetic description of the Columbine massacre, which was to occur almost 25 years after Rand wrote the words.
Eric Harris, one of the killers, wrote in his "The Official Eric Harris Manifesto" (reprinted in the Rocky Mountain News April 24):
By now it's over. If you are reading this my mission is complete. I have finished revolutionizing the neoeuphoric infliction of my internal terror. Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time are dead. THEY ARE F... DEAD.
Ayn Rand, in her essay "Selfishness Without a Self," reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It, wrote:
With all of his emphasis on "himself"... the tribal lone wolf has no self and no personal interests, only momentary whims.... Observe that whenever he ventures to speak of spiritual (i.e., intellectual) values -- of the things he personally loves or admires -- one is shocked by the triteness, the vulgarity, the borrowed trashiness of what comes out of him.
In retrospect Rand's words can be taken as an ominous warning. But what is Rand talking about, with the "tribal lone wolf" language? Isn't a "tribal lone wolf" oxy-moronic? Ayn Rand wrote a pair of articles, the first called "The Missing Link" and the second "Selfishness Without a Self." In the first, Rand discusses what she calls the "anti-conceptual mentality."
The main characteristic of this mentality is a special kind of passivity: not passivity as such and not across-the-board, but passivity beyond a certain limit -- i.e., passivity in regards to the process of conceptualization and, therefore, in regard to fundamental principles. (38)
According to Rand, the anti-conceptual mentality leads to tribalism. "The concrete-bound, anti-conceptual mentality can cope only with men who are bound by the same concretes" (40). Those with anti-conceptual mentalities cluster into social groups in order to feel safe. Racism is one sort of anti-conceptualism. Another example, also of particular relevance today, is the case of the "Balkan nations, which are perennially bent upon exterminating one another over minuscule differences of tradition or language" (42).
Rand is quick to point out the difference between tribalism and civil interaction. "It is eminently reasonable that men should seek to associate with those who share their convictions and values," she writes. Tribes are not bonded by ideas or values, but rather by fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the new.
The contemporary cultural critic Camille Paglia describes the tribalism that frequently arises in today's government schools:
Last week's horrifying massacre at Columbine High School in a suburb of Denver has brought widespread attention to clique-formation in high school -- a pitiless process that has remained amazingly consistent for the past 60 years. The arrogant jocks and debs still sublimely sail over the cowering nerds and wallflowers, who compensate by organizing their own pecking order, in minute gradations of status painfully obvious to everyone.
Of course, not all students fall into such "clique-formation." In my school, a large group of us were interested in athletics as well as intellectual pursuits such as debate as well as social functions. Cliques seem to be more entrenched among some groups of students and at particular schools.
Rand is again chillingly prophetic in describing the hysterical cries for more government controls, particular gun controls, following the tragedy. Thousands gathered in downtown Denver May 1 to protest the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, even though that organization promotes firearms safety and self-defense and opposes violence. In discussing the modern manifestations of tribalism, Rand wrote:
The common denominator of all such gangs is the belief in motion (mass demonstrations), not action -- in chanting, not arguing -- in demanding, not achieving -- in feeling, not thinking -- in denouncing "outsiders," not in pursuing values... (43)
But not everyone with an anti-conceptual mentality is a tribalist. Some are "lone wolves," which Rand describes as "frustrated tribalists" (46). Even though the lone wolf is alienated from the tribe, he or she operates on the assumption that the tribe is basis of value. Thus, the lone wolf feels isolated and bitter.
The clearest symptom by which one can recognize this type of person, is his total inability to judge himself, his actions, or his work by any sort of standard.... [His or her] implicit pattern of self-appraisal (which he seldom identifies or admits) is: "I am good because it's me." (47)
But Harris did admit as much. On his web page (reprinted in the Rocky Mountain News April 23), he wrote, "My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law, if you don't like it, you die. If I don't like you or I don't like what you want me to do, you die...."
The tribalist and the lone wolf share the characteristic of the anti-conceptual mentality. Some do not break free from this destructive set of false alternatives. Those who think for themselves in terms of principles and conceptual knowledge are neither tribalists nor lone wolves, but individualists capable of amicable, respectful, valuable relationships with others.
The title of the book containing Rand's collection of essays was taken from a speech she gave at West Point's graduation in 1974. In that speech she turns the dismissive, "philosophy -- who needs it," into a probing question, "philosophy: who needs it?" Her answer is everybody. Ayn Rand calls her ideas "a philosophy for living on earth" (10). It's horrifying that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold never contemplated Rand's philosophy or similar Enlightenment ideas. Instead, the young men remained anti-conceptual lone wolves who decided to leave this earth by ending a murderous rampage with blowing out their own brains.