All-American Gothic

Columbine High: a suburban horror story

At this moment, as I write this, some idiot will be penning a letter, article or speech about how the Nato bombing of Serbia is in some way related to Tuesday's Colorado school massacre. Violence, they will argue, begets violence. Others will blame guns. Had Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold been armed with machetes or knives, they could never have killed and wounded so many of their fellow students. So they probably wouldn't have tried. And Dunblane differed from the attack on Lisa Potts' Wolverhampton nursery school not because Thomas Hamilton's intentions were any more murderous, but because his arsenal was so much more effective.

Ah yes, but Eric and Dylan also had home-made pipe bombs. Where did those come from? Almost certainly from the pages of the Internet, where Randy from Idaho, or the Urban Terrorist's homepage, will give any teenager all the information he needs to blow up his enemies. And this marketplace for the anonymous exchange and barter of murderous information also sells fantasies of death and suicide. It was on this noticeboard that the boys posted their warning: "Preparing for the big April 20th!! You'll all be sorry that day!"

Perhaps they were rendered immune to the reality of what they were planning to do as a consequence of long, crepuscular hours spent at the keyboard, blasting punks and decapitating jerks to earn record scores. After a while, real flesh may become confused with pixellated gore and guts in the adolescent mind. And in computer games, of course, when you're killed, you always come back.

Or violent movies, where the villains can be the coolest guys, and killing is admirable half the time, and funny the other half. And how about the right's favourite: moral collapse? When families both prayed and stayed together, were the kids quite so likely to keep shotguns in their bedrooms and build bombs in the garage? Or the left's worries about the strains of modern capitalism - don't these wrench parents out of the home, away from their emotionally needy progeny and into endless meetings and sales conferences instead? Oh, and just for good measure, there's the Hitler worship and the racial element to be chucked in as well.

These all seem to me (all, that is, but the first one) to be a bit true. No guns, no shooting; no Internet, no pipe bombs; no violent movies, no role models; no inadequate parents, no empty children. But given the pattern that has emerged of where these massacres happen, and who commits them, this still leaves us with that most rigorous of questions: why these kids, and why these schools?

There hasn't been carnage in downtown LA. Schools in the Bronx may employ metal detectors and security guards, but not for fear of industrial-scale, random murder. The pictures of the parents arriving, chalk-white and staring, at Columbine High, also caught the great white limousines, and the imagination supplied where they had been driven from: the large houses, with lawns running down to the wide avenues. School massacres are a suburban phenomenon; a white phenomenon; an illness of the rich.

According to an American acquaintance of mine, who lived in Littleton for several years and knows Columbine High School very well, the movie- derived image that we have of the suburban high school (one that is more familiar to us now than are our own schools) is pretty accurate. The school in Clueless, the defining comedy of rich American high-school life, could well have had this as its mission statement: "We will teach, learn and model life skills and attitudes that prepare us to: work effectively with people; show courtesy to others; prepare for change; think critically; act responsibly; and respect our surroundings." That was what Columbine High, in its own words, aimed to do.

Columbine High ("a liberalish school with conservative parents", says my friend) is also very competitive. Its motto is "Stretch for Excellence", and its students, as it boasts, get higher than Colorado average grades in SATs and college entrance exams. There are 35 clubs for students, five separate musical bands, and the school won the state baseball championships in '87 and '91, the soccer championship in '86 and '93, and were the 1997 basketball champs.

The pressure that all this can place upon American students was well described in The Independent's education supplement two weeks ago by Anne Marie Sapsted, whose children go to school in America. She told of how friends of theirs, successes in every way, had made serious suicide attempts because of their fears of failing.

And academic or sporting failures are by no means the worst types. Pity the social failures: the geeks, dweebs, weirdos and nerds, who don't measure up or fit in. Rich, classless America abounds with classless hierarchies. Teachers may prefer the brainy kids, but socially it is still the pretty ones and the athletic ones who are the most envied. Then come the bulk of the students, who get by. Then there are the outcasts. They do not get voted Most Likely To Succeed, they will not become Prom Queens, they are not elected to, or selected for, anything. And, when they graduate, they can anticipate this rejection being repeated every time there is a class reunion. It's interesting that the gang calling itself the Trenchcoat Mafia, fans of the violently androgynous (but heterosexual) Goth rock singer Marilyn Manson, was described by some students at the school as being a "gay gang". Gayness is still a feature that is associated with being an outsider, being a loner.

Here, with there being no material hardship, no money to fight over, the emphasis is placed on difference. There isn't, therefore, the solidarity that one might find among the students in an inner-city school. Instead of glaring defiantly at the institutions that fail to represent them or that repress them, the suburban school rebel's target for hatred is the fellow student.

And how might you best express this hatred? In the film Heathers, a decidedly Gothic Winona Ryder and her black-coated sidekick Christian Slater do indeed take on the other kids. One by one, they kill the preppy girls who have oppressed the loners and the dweebs, and then they force two of the school jocks to strip naked under a tree, and execute them, making it look like a gay suicide pact. What a revenge that is!

This is lifestyle murder; the most egotistical rebellion of all. In fact, of course, with one exception (the one referred to in the Boomtown Rats' hit, "I Don't Like Mondays"), all the armed avengers have been boys, while many of the victims have been girls. It is the most persuasive argument against co-education that I have yet encountered.

What it comes down to is this. Many of these kids have ceased to have respect for others as human beings. In a sentimentalised culture, empathy actually means self-pity, and to talk about the "problems" of others is, in reality, to construct a box - like the one on the bottom of The Jerry Springer Show, into which to drop other people. Our difficulties are genuine and we demand help; those of others, however, are simply risible, zoological, weird.

And it must all start in rich homes. I know that the desperation of my children for my time represents the most terrible deficit in my life. I also learned a long time ago that mental cruelty and neglect are not related to the size of someone's bank account. The most wretched children that I have ever encountered were the loveless kids of wealthy and competitive parents who were disappointed in them.

In America, as Anne Marie Sapsted reminded us, it's worse. She wrote about how many middle-class families never eat together, of the boy with a suite of rooms and every gadget, who communicated with his mum by intercom, of how many of the parents had no idea what the kids wanted or who they were. You go to work, you earn the money, you come home late, and your kid kills people. Or gets killed.

Guns don't help, and Americans should do something about it, but won't. Film-makers who allow violence to seem cool and attractive should examine their consciences. And we should criticise them much more. Organisations like CNN, who offered "uninterrupted live coverage" of events at Columbine High School, should consider whether that isn't exactly what avenging dweebs want. They, too, should be questioned.

Teachers need to keep an eye on who is having a bad time, and be ready to offer help. But above all, parents who have enough should ask how much more they really need. Kids are kids once. That's it. They take their values from us and what we do, not from what we preach. In the age of the Internet we cannot prevent them from having knowledge that we do not like, but we can help them to understand what should be done with it.

At a guess, I'd say understanding and discussion were what Eric and Dylan didn't get enough of.

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