Tragedy has hit another U.S.
school, this time in Littleton, Colorado.
Responding almost as quickly as police, journalists set up posts
to cover the story. For hours, we were given snippets of news
mixed with rumours and conjecture.
Now we know that 15 young people, including
two suspected killers, are dead.
But why? In the immediate aftermath, people
have begun searching for an explanation
to why this happened and what could be done to make sure
that it never happens again.
For answers, the media naturally turns to
those they perceive as experts; psychologists,
sociologists, and law-makers. With few facts on
which to base their opinions, the experts have rushed to explain
that the two suspects, Eric Harris,
18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, were ''outcasts''
who felt different from their peers and were teased by the
''in'' group at school. Supposedly, as members of a clique known
as the ''Trench Coat Mafia,'' they
bonded with similar outsiders in a hatred
of their oppressors.
Thus, these experts say, the suspects associated
with Nazi-oriented hate groups, enjoyed
Doom-type violent video games, listened to the music
of ''shock-rocker'' Marilyn Manson and espoused anarchy. Shawn
Johnston, a California psychologist,
describes such individuals as ''very
self-centered, very self-absorbed, angry youngsters who derive
extraordinary pleasure from savage
vengeance they wreak on one another.''
Other experts, drawing attention to the
reports that these young men dressed
in long, black trench coats and wore white facial makeup and
mascara, attribute their violent behaviour to their involvement
in a relatively new American phenomenon,
the ''Goth'' subculture.
Goths, as they call themselves, express
a fascination with a pseudo-medieval
world of death and dark images, and generally dress in unusual
black outfits. Dr. Pamela Riley, executive director of the Centre
for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, North Carolina,
warns that this fad can cross the line into deviant behaviour.
''Our culture has become too tolerant of
deviant lifestyles,'' she said, ''and
this has allowed young people to feel more secure with 'anything
Others agree, believing that early identification
and counseling of trouble young people
would eliminate such tragedies.
At the same time, gun law activists point
out that, while the ''Gun Free School
Act'' has lead to the expulsion of 475 students aged five-to-17
from Colorado schools in one year, handgun possession by people
less than 18 years of age is only a misdemeanor, a slap on the
wrist. Tightening the law, they believe,
might have prevented this tragedy.
Do these experts help us to understand why
this catastrophe occurred or how to
prevent a similar one?
While the Goth culture, an outgrowth of
the punk era, may be disturbing, it
has no known connection with unusual violence. In most cases,
Goths are merely resisting the pressure to fit into a culture
they do not want to be part of. By
rebelling, usually in benign ways, against
a society they see as too controlling, they are much like the
hippies of the 1960s. That the two
accused in this killing were attracted
to this subculture hardly makes it responsible for their behaviour.
Likewise, to diagnose them as outcasts or
victims of bullying fails to explain
their actions. Many adolescents feel they don't fit in, but
the vast majority do nothing violent.
In fact, one classmate said that while
the pair had a dark side, they worked hard and received fair
grades. And school officials said
the youths had never presented any discipline
All of this leaves one wondering if an explanation
can be found and whether such events
can be avoided. Neil Boyd, professor of criminology
at Simon Fraser University, points out that violent crime is
on the decline and what happened in Littleton was a rare event,
just human behaviour at its extreme
and neither explainable or predictable.
Mr. Boyd believes people err by trying to make events fit a
simplistic explanation rather than accepting that there are
exceptions which are random and unpredictable.
''There is no individual solution,'' he
said. ''Identifying kids at risk and
providing counseling for them does not work.''
He cites the case of the 15 year-old boy
in Oregon who shot and killed two
students and wounded 22 at his high school. He had been in counseling
with a whole a cadre of therapists and psychologists and still
he committed the act. Rather than throwing money at psychological
solutions, Mr. Boyd suggests the problem is in our culture
and ''the solution has to be a cultural one.''
It would appear that in America culture
violence is often seen as the solution
to disagreements. As I watched the news about the shootings,
the reports were occasionally interrupted by bulletins from
NATO was bombing Yugoslavia, President Bill Clinton was on TV
deploring the killings in Colorado.
''We must do more to reach out to our
children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve
their conflicts with words, not weapons,''
Perhaps an explanation lies in the incongruity
between his words and actions. Maybe
people are looking for answers in the wrong places.