Archives : May 1999

1999 May 21

Littleton rant

Note to those who missed the great American media frenzy of the spring of 1999: on April 20, two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, went on a terrifying shooting spree through the halls of their school, killing 12 students and a teacher with assault weapons before killing themselves. The tragedy almost instantly became a rallying point for every political and religious group in the country with an axe to grind about gun control, violence, or moral decay.

I suppose I'm no exception. I just took longer to get around to writing my rant.

This is in reply to a particularly wrong-headed essay written by a twelfth-grader apparently bewitched by the golden days of Leave it to Beaver.

Date: Fri, 21 May 1999 12:37:53 -0700
From: colin roald
Subject: Re: Cause & Effect

Quoth Sarah Roney:
> And we certainly didn't have a President who was in
> favor of NATO bombing and killing children in Serbia come
> on the television to grieve the loss for the families of
> children killed in America.

No, what we had instead was the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Korean
"police action", and segregated water fountains. With all due
respect, we *should* listen to teenagers when they tell us what's
wrong with schools, but I don't think we should uncritically accept
their understanding of history or the dynamics of society.

I think there are probably two or three real differences between now
and the fifties: (1) there are a lot more violent entertainments and
such available, which can't be completely innocent---though
free-speech advocates like myself will still insist on the right of
people to make them---and (2) there are a lot more military assault
weapons floating around---though gun-rights folks figure they are as
important as free speech---and maybe (3) the internet makes it a lot
easier for stressed-out youth ready to snap to get instructions for
making propane bombs.

Attacking any of those *might* help, or might prove so impossible that
it does no good at all. But the fact is they're all symptoms anyway:
the root cause is the same as it's *always* been: for far too many
kids, high school sucks beyond their capacity to deal with. It's always
been this way: the difference is that now the ones that snap make a
big enough bang to get the adult world to notice. An anecdote that
particularly struck me:

--- from ---
--- "Of course it happened here", by Laura Fraser ---

Littleton was not such a happy suburb when people broke
rank. It was a town so homogenous that complete
alienation was the only alternative to fitting in. At
school, you had to wear your hair in Farrah
Fawcett wings or you were uncool. You had to be a
jock or a cheerleader or you were a brain or a
freak, which meant you were an outcast, a target.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren't the first
alienated kids to crack. I remember a guy in high
school who didn't quite fit in. He was quiet,
unathletic and unfriendly. You didn't dislike him
because you didn't notice him. He was a cipher. He
had the locker two doors down from mine and
never spoke up in my Spanish class. One day he
murdered his brother. He tried to chop up the body
in pieces to push it down the garbage disposal, but
bones and flesh were a little too much for the
machine to handle. This was the '70s, so he did it
with an ax; he didn't have automatic weapons,
bombs or a Web site. We all pretended it never

--- end include ---

All we have to do is figure out how to make sure all teenagers have enough hope and enough help that they can deal with their anger and their hormones and their dysfunctional families and cruel classmates. Happy kids don't listen to death metal, and they only use their AK-47s on squirrels and bunny-rabbits, like they're supposed to.

I don't know how to make kids happy, but I can tell you one thing guaranteed to make at least some of them more miserable: treat them like interchangeable machine parts and try to shove them even harder into a mold they don't fit. Responsible choices are good; mushy liberalism and rigid conservative homogeneity are both bad.

Which brings me back to my point, and why Sarah Roney is mistaken:

> I think it's time for our -- America's -- Mom and Dad to
> ground us -- to say, "If you don't shape up by the time I
> count to three..." And then really count to three.

...but only half mistaken. I think there is a legitimate plea for more responsibility and rational consequences in there; I just think it belongs to be applied at an individual level in the schools, and not at a societal level. Regrettably or happily, "America" does not have a Mom or Dad.

colin roald | a day without fusion is like a day without sunshine. (unknown)