Ten years on: the enduring lessons of Columbine
Part one of a series
April 20, 2009: 11:19 am MDT
Ten years ago a co-worker turned to me and said something that I’ll never forget, no matter how long I live: “Hey, Sammy, there’s been a school shooting in Littleton.”
Since that day a great deal has been written and said about Columbine High School and the events of 4.20.99, and like a lot of other people I’ve tried my hardest to make sense of something that seemed (and still seems) inherently senseless. Tried and failed. Now, ten years on, the grief hasn’t fully dissipated here in the city that I have come to call home, and even if we manage to understand the whos, whats, and hows, there’s a part of us that’s doomed to wrestle forever with the whys.
We’ve learned a lot over the past decade, though, and as we mark the tenth anniversary of Columbine, let’s begin by recounting three important lessons.
1: The authorities cannot be relied on. From the emergency response through the investigation process, Columbine was a case study in how not to.
I hate to be overly critical of police because they really have to do a hellish job, but that day witnessed one of the worst failures by a law enforcement agency that we’ve ever seen.
Two officers exchanged fire with one of the teenage gunmen just outside the school door, then stopped — as they had been trained to do — to wait for a SWAT team. During the 45 minutes it took for the SWAT team to assemble and go in, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 10 of the 13 people they killed that day.
The killers committed suicide around the time the makeshift SWAT team finally entered. But the SWAT officers took several hours more to secure the place, moving methodically from room by room. One of the wounded, teacher Dave Sanders, slowly bled to death. [Source]
If this is the book on how to operate, explain to me exactly why you need a SWAT team in the first place. Events would have played out more or less identically if the SWAT budget had instead been allocated to Parks & Rec.
The good news, as the article goes on to explain, is that the meltdown at Columbine led to “active shooter” training, which is credited with making police officers across the country far more effective in these kinds of cases.
Sadly, there’s no indication at all that the longer, more mind-numbing process of investigating and reporting has been improved. “Quagmire,” “spin,” “cover-up,” “embarrassment,” “lost” and “hidden” reports – at every turn those charged with getting to the bottom of the worst school shooting in history acted like they were auditioning for roles on CSI Hooterville.
If the whole story – or at least most of it – is known today, it is despite these officials, not because of them.
2: Religious interests will colonize your grief for their own ends. As I walked the grounds of Columbine and Clement Park a few days after the massacre, I was absolutely staggered at the extent to which the tragedy had been transformed into an explicitly Christian extravaganza. Which was a little fascinating, since it wasn’t a Christian school and unless you were sucker enough to believe that there was a religious tint to the killings (there wasn’t – more on this in a minute) the tragedy had about as much to do with Jesus as it did Kubla Khan. Still, the impromptu memorials prayed, beseeched, questioned and promised in a distinctly evangelical way that had to make non-evangelicals a little uncomfortable. After all, this was their town, too, and I can say with absolute certainty that it didn’t matter what your religion was or wasn’t. Columbine was personal and the grief it engendered was profound.
It wasn’t just my imagination, either. One prominent local minister said he felt like he’d been “hit over the head with Jesus.”
To top it all off, Billy Graham’s lackwit boy Franklin parachuted in to preside over a nationally televised Mournapalooza service. No doubt some were comforted by the presence of a bona fide religious carpetbagger, but it’s hard to see, looking back, how the needs of the community were actually addressed by the self-serving machinations of a C-list opportunist.
To put it in Chaucerian terms, we could have done with a little less Summoner and a little more Parson.
3: The mainstream press values the narrative above the facts. They were goths! It was the Trenchcoat Mafia! They were targeting jocks, blacks and Christians! Cassie Bernall said yes!
Lie. Lie. Lie, lie, lie. And damnable, intentional lie. Local and national “reporters” could have been outperformed by monkeys with Ouija boards.
Not that the run-of-the-mill press bumbling came as any real surprise – journalistic malpractice is well-known in Colorado. But ineptitude is one thing. Outright, overt, premeditated lies are quite another, and that’s exactly what both of Denver’s mainstream papers – the Denver Post and the recently-defunct Rocky Mountain News – did when they ran the “Cassie Bernall said yes” story as fact. They knew, by their own admission, that it was false, so why did they lie? Well, the lie seemed to be providing comfort to a grieving city.
Take that as the foundational operating principle for a free press and see where it leads…
If some of us have sort of moved on, then, if we have somehow clawed our way to a modicum of closure, it has been against a backdrop of secrecy, deceit, ineptitude and a pervasive moral pathology born of evangelical self-righteousness. Whatever insights we have attained, whatever emotional peace we have found, it has all been accomplished without the help of our community’s central institutions. As a result, I suspect that many of us mark the tenth anniversary with a little anger, a little bitterness.
There’s not much I can do about that except to suggest that what happened ten years ago today was not a one-off. It has happened since and it will almost certainly happen again, and my deep suspicion is that these kinds of events arise, in part, as a result of the dysfunctions noted here. That is, the governmental breakdown, the evangelical circus and the unforgivable duplicity of those who were granted particular 1st Amendment freedoms so that they could safely tell us the goddamned truth were not results of Columbine. Maybe I’m cynical, but it seems to me that these flaws in the fabric of our society existed well in advance of 4.20.99 and it’s hardly surprising that a sick system would spawn broken children capable of unspeakable barbarism. Nor is it surprising that the system would then cannibalize those children and their victims in order to slake its spiraling lust for ignorance and hatred.
Whatever was wrong ten years and one day ago is still wrong.