The Columbine Tragedy Countering the Hysteria

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, July 1999 | Go to article overview

The Columbine Tragedy Countering the Hysteria


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


Columbine High School is an open, attractive, sprawling campus in the middle of a relatively safe suburban enclave in Littleton, Colorado. The school was a showplace when it opened, distinguishing itself in academics, music, drama, and athletics. Thus it was an unlikely setting for a tragedy of the magnitude that took place on April 20, 1999, when witnesses say at least two students--eighteen-year-old Eric Harris and seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold--killed thirteen people and wounded twenty-three others before shooting themselves.

Fellow students later said the group Harris and Klebold belonged to, self-proclaimed the Trench Coat Mafia, had been a target of derision for at least four years. Members were picked on, harassed, and excluded--"always on the outside looking in." Most of the time, the members appeared to like it that way. As many cliques of young people do, the members played up their differentness. They wore army gear, black trench coats, and Nazi symbols. They spoke German to each other and were quite vocal about their fascination with Hitler and World War II.

Membership in such groups is just one of a remarkable assortment of "explanations" and assignments of blame that panicked overreaction to this tragedy has produced, accompanied by an onslaught of repressive "solutions" allegedly designed to prevent recurrences. We are witnessing the institution of a myriad of alarming civil-liberties violations, most aimed at obstructing the basic rights of young people--an already heavily restricted group of U.S. citizens.

This is a classic scenario: particularly shocking incidents of violence, especially those involving young people, lead to mass hysteria and are invariably used to justify repressive government intervention. Fred Medway, psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, says, "People feel much more comfortable overreacting than underreacting. It makes them feel they've done something to prevent a potentially negative thing from happening."

It is in the midst of just such frightening and dangerous times that this tendency to overreact must be most forcefully resisted. A few reality checks can be the first step in countering panic and assisting us in putting the situation into a realistic perspective:

* According to information from the National School Safety Center, killings are the exception, not the rule, at schools across the United States, and suburban and rural schools remain safer than their inner-city counterparts.

* The number of violent deaths in both urban and suburban neighborhoods has dropped dramatically since 1992. More than 95 percent of children are never involved in a violent crime.

* Not one of the mass school shootings of the past two and a half years has occurred in an inner-city area, and nearly all victims have been white.

* A 1998 report by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education says children have more chance of getting killed by lightning than suffering a violent death on campus--which boils down to less than one chance in a million.

* The current generation of teenagers is less likely to use drugs, more sexually conservative, and less likely to be caught up in school violence than the one of twenty years ago.

* It's not unusual for young males, especially students at large suburban schools, to make videos of shootings and robberies in video-production classes (as Harris and Klebold are said to have done); in fact, nearly half do so.

* In a recent survey of 900 fourth- through eighth-grade students, almost half said their favorite video games involve simulated violence.

* High-profile school violence isn't new. Similar incidents have occurred at least as early as the 1950s.

But despite all these facts, we're being told that the primary cause of the Columbine and similar tragedies is violence on network television and in cartoons, comic books, music, and movies. …

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