Monday, April 20, 2009

Columbine Lessons

I'm sure you've heard that today marks the tenth anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. The predictable sensationalism proved to be too much for Oprah Winfrey who pulled an already-taped episode about the tragedy saying it "focused too much on the killers."

I suppose that move is respectable considering the number of mass shootings this country has seen lately. However, there are lessons to be learned and relearned from Columbine. Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, dispels a prevailing myth about school shooters:
The first lesson is really one that we have unlearned, which is that there actually isn't a distinct psychological profile of the school killer. Pre-Columbine, teachers, parents, journalists, and the general public were pretty clear on where we thought the danger lay: loners and outcasts, troubled misfits who could not figure out how to fit in. Harris and Klebold were mistakenly tagged with all those characteristics in the first hours after their attack. Every characterization of them was wrong, both in their case and for shooters generally. The FBI conducted a ground-breaking study to help teachers assess threats in their classrooms. Oddballs were not the problem, the FBI concluded. Oddballs did not fit the profile, because there was no profile. In a surprisingly empathetic report, the bureau urged school administrators to quit focusing on the misfits. These were not our killers, and weren't they having enough trouble already?
That's how we slide into a classic moral panic -- believing that public morality or safety is threatened by the activities of a stereotyped group.

The only people I feel comfortable stereotyping are psychopaths. Eric Harris was most likely one. His own journal entries document his contempt for everybody. But the most revealing passages describe his goals: "I have a goal to destroy as much as possible, so I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy, mercy, or any of that."

In order to kill his classmates, he first had to consciously kill his own humanity.

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