No easy answer to violence: Blaming Goth or bullying too simple

April 22, 1999


   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 goes'. ''  

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 problems.  

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 Belgrade. While 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,'' he said.  

Perhaps an explanation lies in the incongruity between his words and actions. Maybe people are looking for answers in the wrong places.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,