Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Weep Not For the Memories

Today is the 11th anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

And all I can think about is an incident from my own high school days.

I guess I was a sophomore in those days. The weather was pleasant, and I was one of several students who had decided to eat lunch outside.

Anyway, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and all of a sudden there was a disturbance off to one side. I didn't see how it started. By the time I looked in that direction, a black student was on his feet and keeping other students at a distance with the knife he held in his right hand.

We all just sort of froze, including my group of lunch companions (even though we probably were a safe distance from the action). I couldn't hear what was being said, only the anger with which it was said. It was frightening, not necessarily because I was concerned for my own safety but because the whole situation was so unpredictable.

Well, some alert person in the office must have contacted the police because a squad car pulled up a few minutes later, and a couple of officers got out. They confronted the knife–wielding student, and, almost in the blink of an eye, subdued him. They handcuffed him and maneuvered him to the squad car while he loudly protested that he was a victim of racism. "Racial profiling" has been in use for centuries, but, if it had been as controversial at that time as it has become in recent years, it probably would have been his accusation of choice.

As far as I was concerned, though, the incident was over, and that was about the extent of my exposure to school violence when I was growing up. Lots of my friends knew how to handle a gun, but I don't think it ever would have occurred to any of them to bring one to school.

For that matter, that incident from my sophomore year is the only time I can recall seeing a knife at school. I'll bet my parents never thought about the possibility that one of my schoolmates — or one of my brother's — would bring a knife or a gun or a bomb to school. It has to be more than a fleeting thought for parents these days, though.

Times sure have changed — and not always for the better. And I often wonder: What happened?

Granted, I'm no longer a high school student. But I'm not an ancient relic, either. I have no children of my own, but my friends do, and many have children who are high school age or younger.

School violence is not a recent phenomenon. When I was small, a man went to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus and opened fire on the people below. Just a few years ago, a student went on a rampage on the campus of Virginia Tech.

But those were college shootings. They were not entirely uncommon when I was growing up. But high school shootings were. Not so in recent years.

And, on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were responsible for the deadliest high school shooting on record. They killed a dozen students and a teacher, and they injured two dozen more.

That might not have been enough to please them. There was a lot of speculation at the time that Harris and Klebold were retaliating for having been picked on at school, but, on the fifth anniversary of the shooting, Dave Cullen revealed in Slate both the extent of their plan and the reasons why the FBI had concluded that they were cold–blooded killers.

There was also speculation that the callous nature of the shootings at Columbine implied that young people could be numbed to human suffering by exposure to violent video games, TV programs and movies. No conclusive link has ever been shown between violence in the media and what happened in Littleton, Col., 11 years ago today.

The so–called "goth" culture was criticized by some. So was popular music. But aren't those the kinds of things that people always blame when seemingly inexplicable things happen?

I am inclined to agree with what Cullen suggested, that Harris was a psychopath and Klebold was clinically depressed. Neither could have pulled off the massacre without the other. Didn't matter whether they watched "Natural Born Killers" or "Bambi." Didn't matter whether they listened to Marilyn Manson or Pat Boone. Didn't matter whether they wore black trenchcoats or business suits.

That doesn't mean that, in the aftermath of the massacre, it wasn't a good thing that some things were done.

For example, stronger security measures were put in place in many schools, and, in addition to cracking down on weapons, schools also started cracking down on bullying behavior. There are those who say these things rob children of their innocence. That may be true, but it seems to me that, until we devote more money and attention to mental health research, we will never know all that we need to know about psychopaths. And until we know more about psychopaths, how can we be sure we are devoting our resources to the appropriate causes of school violence?

We may never know what we need to know, anyway. Life has always been tough for adolescents. I suspect it always will be, and the psychopaths among them probably always will play roles in most of their peers' woes. Psychopaths, I am told, represent less than 1% of the total population, but I would guess they are responsible for a far greater percentage of the world's misery.

Even if we can prove, as many researchers have long believed, that psychopathy is biological, we cannot be sure of preventing future Columbines by identifying and then isolating those with this defect. Psychopaths are self–centered and manipulative. What matters to them is the satisfaction of their needs.

The rest is, to use a term favored by Timothy McVeigh, "collateral damage," in one form or another. Killing is the objective for some psychopaths. It is the means to an end for others, not even a factor for still others.

If you identify and isolate a psychopath, that does not necessarily mean you have prevented a massacre. It means you have engaged in preventive detention — which introduces a whole new set of issues.

And we will almost certainly never restore our schools to the sanctuaries of safety that they were when I was growing up.

Perhaps my schools were never as idyllic as they sometimes appear from this distance, but the only bullets I had to dodge were verbal. Sometimes they hurt, but they never killed. If there were psychopaths in our midst, they never brought guns to school.

If any bullets are fired at Columbine High School today, there won't be anyone there to be hit by them. The Denver Post reports that classes were canceled. That is probably a good idea. Can't imagine that Columbine would be much of a learning environment today.

And the New York Times flogs another familiar whipping boy, urging Congress to "close the gun show loophole that made the carnage possible."

That's a good idea. But I still think we need to do more research into psychopathy.

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