“It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the capacity for moral self-reflection.”
I was a junior in high school when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed with guns and ammunition they should have never been able to possess, walked into Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, murdered 12 students and a teacher, and injured 24 others, before they turned their guns on themselves. In the aftermath of Columbine, America’s punditocracy seemed to obsess over the notion that our culture was culpable: Harris and Klebold listened to Marilyn Manson. They played violent video games. They read subversive stuff on the still relatively nascent Internet. We argued over the ways in which culture enabled their sociopathic and monstrous actions. We struggled with it.
Here in Louisiana, the Columbine massacre provided a reason to implement a series of institutional changes: mandatory uniforms, ID badges, and, in many schools, expensive metal detectors. In Rapides Parish, we even passed a tax increase in order to ensure that every single school in the district would have a full-time deputy assigned to them.
To be sure, Columbine was not the first school shooting in the 1990s; there had been several others, some of which involved elementary school students. Columbine, however, because of its scale, because it was premeditated, and, perhaps, because it occurred in a middle-class suburban community, terrorized the entire country. It captured our collective imagination, and we felt compelled to respond, even if was merely instituting a series of largely symbolic policies.
(For the record, I support the School Resource Officer program, but I’ve never been a fan of mandatory school uniforms, particularly in a public high school. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to serve as the fashion police; I’ve never seen any credible evidence that a uniform policy actually increases safety, performance, or discipline; and I think if you want to encourage teenagers to become invested in themselves and their education, then there’s absolutely no harm in allowing them to pick out their own clothes every morning. Of course there should be some standards about obscenity and indecency, but until the rash of school shootings in the 1990s, there was no reason for anyone to assume that mandating a strict uniform policy had any real impact on school violence; indeed, prior to Columbine, there were a handful of school shootings that occurred in schools with mandatory uniforms).
In my opinion, the emphasis that we placed on popular culture, on people like Marilyn Manson, for example, was completely misdirected. Marilyn Manson was one of many red herrings, and as a teenager who had owned a couple of Marilyn Manson albums, I remember, very clearly, how completely absurd and disconnected so-called adults sounded when they attempted to connect Manson’s music with a school shooting massacre. Manson was just an entertainer, a late 90s post-industrial goth rock musician who trafficked in religious subversion for headlines the same way Michael Jackson leaked false stories about anti-aging hyperbaric chambers, the same way Lady Gaga dresses up in a gown made out of raw meat to protest Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
More often than not, the people who wanted to blame music and video games were also skilled at deflecting simple questions like, “Don’t you think we should make it more difficult, if not impossible, for high school students to collect a huge arsenal of weapons?” I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment, but I seriously doubt our founders would have pivoted away from such an easy question.
To me, the lasting lessons of Columbine have been about how easy it was for us to accept and promote a deflection.
I say all of this knowing full-well that some may find distinct parallels between the media narrative after Columbine and the current narrative surrounding the massacre in Tucson. After Columbine, people blamed the toxicity of American popular culture, but that missed the point: It wasn’t about music or video games; it was about parental and institutional failure, the parts of culture that really define and shape our values and inform our understanding of the world.
Of course, there’s a sound and legitimate reason Americans decided to significantly beef up school security after Columbine: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold both terrorized and threatened what has been established as a fundamental right of all American citizens, the right to a free education. We may have gone a little overboard. We shouldn’t have simplified and cheapened the tragedy by assigning blame to rock musicians and video games. We definitely shied away from the truly difficult questions.We focused far too much on cosmetic changes and not nearly enough on pedagogical and institutional changes. In many instances, we further fortified and depersonalized public education.
But it’s all profoundly understandable. After enduring a series of senseless, high-profile school shootings, the vast majority of Americans believed we needed to better protect our right to a free education. Our collective desire for more school protection was earnest, well-intentioned, and grounded in real experience. As I mentioned earlier, in my home parish, we even passed a tax increase for school security, something that, today, would seem nearly impossible.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Public education in America wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for publicly-elected officials. Sure, violent language has always been a part of American politics, but you know, American politics has always been way too violent. According to former First Lady Laura Bush, she and President George W. Bush “may have been poisoned” during the G-8 Summit in 2007. In fact, all of our modern Presidents have faced credible attempts on their lives. The 1960s were particularly brutal, especially for a country that likes to champion itself as a model of peaceful democracy: Assassins murdered our President, two of our nation’s most influential African-American leaders, and a Senator who seemed destined to become the Democratic nominee for President. In the 1980s, our President, Ronald Reagan, was wounded by a bullet after an assassination attempt. This, taken as a whole, is the awful and frightening subplot of American political history.
We need to grow up. We need to become responsible. We need to stop pretending as if it’s acceptable to use violent language, violent metaphors, and violent imagery in order to discredit someone who seeks to serve the public as a representative of our democracy. It’s not acceptable. It never has been. It’s reckless, and likely, it contributes to a culture of distrust and depersonalized hatred more than any music video ever could.
Politics is not merely theater. We’re far more fragile than some may hope.
Here in Alexandria, there’s a guy who posts on his website, almost daily, about how our local mayor, a man who was recently re-elected overwhelmingly, is actually a crazy, drug-addled, Nazi-loving communist. Seriously, he spews this venom almost every day, and often, he extends his hatred toward the mayor’s staff. It’s always disturbing, each and every time it occurs. The first couple of times this blogger manipulated a photo of the mayor or me, I thought it was absurd but amusing. Today, there are nearly a hundred altered photos, nearly all of which are altered in an incendiary and hateful way: The mayor of a town of less than 50,000 people and the mayor’s staff are often depicted as Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan or mass murderers.
This shouldn’t be accepted and isn’t normal in our political discourse. It’s not playful or flippant conjecture. This blogger thinks the city owes him legal fees, though, unfortunately for him, the Louisiana Supreme Court disagrees. This is not about politics or principles; it’s about money, and he’s never been honest enough to just come out and say it.
Again, we need to be more responsible. Hatred can be toxic, and toxicity can be rapidly spread.
Hopefully, we can be decent and mature enough to respond decently and maturely. Hopefully, this time, we’ll realize the problem should be treated systemically, not cosmetically. Hopefully, we’ll stop supplying a blow-horn to the most divisive and destructive blowhards. Hopefully, mutual respect will become imperative.
No, I am not trying to equivocate or mandate , only to elucidate and explain.