Singularity | Commentary

The Littleton Follies by Lucius Shepard

During the days following the massacre at Columbine High School, I was laid up with back problems, watching through a haze of Vicodin as the media vultured down onto the community of Littleton, Colorado, snapping up every least scrap of emotion and rendering it juiceless, trying to hide their lust for telegenic survivors behind unconvincing masks of piety and woe. Pundits of every imaginable stripe began popping up with the frequency of maggots in a slaughterhouse dumpster, seeking to place blame for the tragedy (according to their political agenda) on video games, the lack of a stringent dress code, violent films, the song stylings of Marilyn Manson, the abandonment of prayer in schools, the availabilty of automatic weapons, and so on. There were ex-DAs and prominent defense lawyers; psychiatrists with a book to hump; grief counselors; gun enthusiasts; Hollywood producers; religious leaders; politicians by the bushel; and actors. Oh, yeah! How can the nation possibly recalibrate its moral compass without hearing from great intellects like . . . Charlton Heston. Ol’ Charlton’s been my favorite pundit ever since his Gulf War debate on CNN with British journalist Christopher Hitchens, a titantic struggle during which Hitchens challenged Heston to prove his expertise by naming the Gulf states. Charlton did not do the right wing proud; unnerved by his derisive opponent, he managed to name only three.

At any rate, my reaction to this fiesta of punditry came in the form of a Vicodin-induced flash-dream heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s late lamented Far Side strip. The dream was basically a single image: an enormous herd of cows, on the outskirts of which two wolves dressed in black trenchcoats were engaged in picking off a few strays. In the foreground two especially pompous-looking cows were holding converse, and one was saying to the other, “I blame it all on the moral decay of the culture.”

That appears to be the consensus of the pundits, that the moral decline of the American culture was the primary causal agent in driving Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold over the edge. I have something of a problem with that conclusion . . . though I might feel better about it if the word “decline” were changed to “sickness” or “vacancy” or some such. The concept of moral decline presupposes the existence of its opposite, but when, pray tell, was our culture ever in a state of moral ascendancy? Certainly not in my lifetime. I suppose we were on the right side in WWII, but a war fought in defense of life and liberty hardly qualifies as a moral Everest. How about the Depression? The Roaring Twenties? The period of Westward expansion, with its slaughters of Native Americans and rampant lawlessness? The Civil War era? Slavery days? Go all the way back to the beginning of the nation, back to the Declaration of Independence — a document that, no matter its worth, was drafted in large part by slave-owning tax evaders with undeniably self-serving motives — and you’ll be hard pressed to find a period that wasn’t marked by the same brutality, base motives, and indifference to suffering that flourish in our times. There may well have been a stronger sense of family and community in the past, and that may have helped restrain some of the darker urgings of human nature, but video games are hardly the cause of its erosion. Population explosion, the technologies of rapid travel and communications — indeed, all the myriad incidences of cultural evolution — have put the days of quilting bees and barn-raisings behind us for good. And, in any case, however much those forces have transformed the world around us, they have not had any significant effect upon our essential natures. We remain the same hoping, grasping, desperate creatures that we have always been, capable of the same sins and virtues, both admirable and despicable. Our culture is merely a symptom of our human truth. It does not define us — we define it.

What, I wonder, were your high school days like? I attended Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, Florida during the ’60s, a period which — though currently viewed with some nostalgia through the media lens — was basically a time of casual destruction (both in a personal and geopolitical sense) and vapid excess. The student body of Seabreeze was mostly white, mostly middle to upper-middle class, with a few black kids, even fewer Hispanics. Cliques abounded. Jocks were at the top of the food chain, geeks and people of color at the bottom. Bullying, taunting, and physical abuse were commonplace. I recall sitting in the cafeteria, watching as jocks entertained themselves by rolling dimes down a long table toward a group of Jewish students, betting on which one would make a grab for the coins. I recall beatings, racist attacks, sexual assaults, etc., etc., many of which were reported to the adminstration, which did nothing about them. Then as now, the basic job of a high school administrator was to maintain the status quo, to be a kind of Darwinian hall monitor, overseeing the survival of the fittest. If a few geeks and blacks and latinos took a physical and/or psychological beating along the way, well, that’s just the way it crumbled, right? Conformity was rewarded. Non-comformity was bad . . . maybe even evil. In essence, Seabreeze was a Tek-9 and a smattering of pipe bomb technology short of being Columbine South.

Judging by my experience, and by those of others, it doesn’t seem that the nature of the pressures upon high school students have changed that much over the years. And I don’t believe that video games and gory films and shock rock have done all that much to amp up the blood and thunder of childish fantasies. The flood of dark imagery washing over us through the Internet and movies may have had an exacerbating effect on kids with violent tendencies, but my own boyhood fantasies, conceived in a Doom-free environment, were thoroughly vicious, vindictive, and mean-spirited to a fault. The main influence on them was a physically abusive father whose easy way with belts, electrical cords, tree branches, and whatever else fell to hand bred in me a lust for brutality that resulted in hundreds of fights and inspired me to carry a knife well into my adult years. That I failed to kill someone — or to be killed — was a matter of sheer luck. It’s like Henry Jenkins (an MIT professor and expert on popular culture who recently testified at the Congressional hearings inspired by the Columbine massacre) has said: “Reality trumps media images every time. We can shut down a video game if it is ugly, hurtful, or displeasing, but many teens are required to return day after day to schools where they are ridiculed and taunted and sometimes physically abused by their classmates.”

Jenkins’ statement echoes the suicide note left by Eric Harris, which reads as follows:

By now, it’s over. If you are reading this, my mission is complete. . . . Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time are dead. THEY ARE FUCKING DEAD. . . .

Surely you will blame it on the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, or the way I choose to present myself, but no. Do not hide behind my choices. You need to face the fact that this comes as a result of YOUR CHOICES.

Parents and teachers, you fucked up. You have taught these kids not to accept what is different, YOU ARE IN THE WRONG. I have taken their lives and my own — but it was your doing. Teachers, parents, LET THIS MASSACRE BE ON YOUR SHOULDERS UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE.

To my knowledge, Harris’s note has been reprinted only once before, that in the Rocky Mountain News, and considering the high profile of the story, this at first struck me as odd. On second thought, however, I realized that the explanation of the massacre offered by Harris and Professor Jenkins, the notion that “Reality trumps media images every time,” was not what the media or the politicians wanted to hear. It’s much sexier, much more facile, to point at a spot of decay on a leper’s cheek and shout “Unclean!” than it is to work quietly and diligently on finding a cure. And so, knowing that such simplistic reactions would play to the groundlings and do good things for their polls, the leaders of our nation, almost as one, rose with evangelic intensity to denounce video shooter games and Marilyn Manson (who has far more Alice Cooper than Kurt Cobain in him) and Hollywood gore, going so far as to draw idiotic distinctions between morally uplifting carnage (Saving Private Ryan and Clear and Present Danger = Gooood!) and the kind of blood and guts that undermines the truefine spirit of our nation’s youth (Casino and Scream = Baaaad!).

I’m always amazed by the tolerance of the American public for the sort of Bad Breath Committtee on Armchair Disarmament and/or Quasi-Spiritual Reform such as is now playing to SRO audiences in Washington, D.C. Maybe it’s comforting somehow, all that pompous bluster and flatulence echoing through the marble halls. Maybe it has the soothing effect of a mantra. But this particular version of the old standard has been made especially nauseating in my view thanks to the gloomy, rhinocerous-like presence of William Bennett, the nation’s self-appointed moral policeman, a man who delights in referring to his days of public service when he was — as he likes to call himself — “drug czar.” (And what a bang-up job he did in solving that crisis, huh, folks?) Bennett, who has discovered that one can make quite a nice living by being a professional prude, often delivers his neo-Puritain cant with a lugubrious spite that has caused me to wonder at times if this blue-serge-suited tub of goo isn’t really Sheriff Andy’s Aunt Bea made up to play Cotton Mather in Mayberry’s annual Segregation Day Festival. During the current hearings, it has been Bennett’s role to show edited clips from films such as The Basketball Diaries and Scream, intoning lines such as “Have we seen enough? Is that enough for you?”, while women hide their eyes and senators shake their heads ruefully, as though unmanned by the recognition that this vile pornography could have been produced in the Land of the Free. It is a proceeding reminiscent in its emotional falsity and specious political intensity of that revival-like declaration-of-war scene in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Watching on C-Span, I kept expecting one of the senators (Lieberman, perhaps) to put on blackface, drop to his knees in the aisle, and offer up a soliloquy beginning with the words, “Lawsy, Lawsy, what’s we gwine do now?” backed up by a chorus of his colleagues humming “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with every now and then a shouted “Amen!”

The chances that anything salient in the way of reform will emerge from this Congressional minstrel show, or from the so-called “moral summit” sponsored by the White House, are slim and none, and — to quote Don King — slim just left town. Professor Jenkins reports that one senator put forward the notion that what was needed was not gun control, but (heh heh heh) “goth control,” thereby displaying a near-total ignorance of the goth subculture, and ignoring the fact that neither Harris nor Klebold was a goth. Other senators enjoyed making homophobic jokes about Marilyn Manson, the “is it a he or a she” kind of thing. Jenkins notes that these comments were likely similar to those leveled at Klebold and Harris in the halls of Columbine. By implication, Jenkins suggests that the senators themselves may once have been successful high school kids, clique-dwellers who lorded it over their less fortunate peers, and that — most pertinently — embedded in the traditions they strive to maintain through the legislative process is something akin to the high school hierarchy of jocks and geeks. It’s not a difficult leap to make. The poet Allen Ginsberg once described America as “the vast high school,” and viewed in light of the petty self-absorbtion of our national concerns, the shallowness of our focus on glittering celebrity and trendiness, the unrelenting banality of our leaders, the image has come to seem increasingly apt.

Over the past twenty years I’ve watched American presidents go to war in places like Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Grenada, et al., employing billions of dollars’ worth of explosives and other forms of technology against countries with marginal capacities for self-defense. As regrettable as these exercises may have been in their own right, they have been made even more so by the media’s treatment of them. It’s not the war coverage itself I’m speaking about — it’s the base motivation that commentators have ascribed to the presidents involved. George Bush needed to prove he wasn’t a wimp. Reagan had to distract attention from the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton bombed Iraq to get the nation’s mind off his infidelities. Whether or not these assertions are accurate is certainly relevant to the subject at hand, but even more relevant is the way in which the assertions were made — off-handedly, blithely, sometimes jokingly, as if the act of bombing a civilian population or of killing more than 4,000 Panamanians in order to arrest a man who had not yet been charged with a crime were, more or less, pranks. Reprehensible, but pranks nonetheless, and to be expected from a president under heavy domestic pressures. This pervasive and almost fondly shaped image of the American president as a roguish bully with a pocketful of testosterone, tough-talking but always ready with a quip, like a cross between David Letterman and Teddy Roosevelt on steroids, an image recast again and again by Chairman Channel Twenty-Five — this has surely had at least as much subversive effect upon the nation’s moral climate as have video games and slasher flicks. Like the man said: Reality trumps media images every time.

Whatever went wrong in the heads of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold cannot be explained by their attraction to shooter games or death metal, or by any other of the simplistic answers put forward by the pundits. One cannot logically blame the sickness of the culture for a specific act of violence, and then claim that if one or two elements of that culture are excised all will be well. The culture is too large, too interpenetrating, to respond to such primitive surgery. We may certainly examine the question of whether popular culture is having a deleterious effect upon the citizenry or not, but we need to approach the matter calmly, deliberately, and without recourse to political agenda. Unfortunately, given the current national temperature, such a rational approach is probably impossible. If it were possible, however, I firmly believe we would discover that whatever has gone wrong with our culture has been going wrong for a long, long time, and that only recently have the symptoms of the affliction grown sufficiently pronounced to provoke our alarm. And I bet we would find that the causes of youth violence in cases like Littleton have a lot more to do with serotonin deficiences, pre- and post-natal care, early childhood experiences and nutrition, the over-prescription of antidepressants, parental dysfunction, lack of mentoring, and similar socio-biological factors than they do with all the really cool causes du jour like black lipstick, gypsy curses, and The Evil That Is N’SYNC.

But the sad truth is, now that the dead have been buried and the funerals broadcast to the world, the story of the Columbine massacre is heading for the back pages. I suppose we can expect the usual blahblahblah to be modified by sanctimonious calls to set political differences aside and focus on the problem. We can expect symposia to be held, grants to be handed out, presidential task forces to be mounted. We can expect civil lawsuits, a few last tabloid surprises, and commissions to report to Congress as part of what will be called a “rigorous national dialogue.” But can we expect any vital change? Any steps taken to create a healthier high school environment, or a healthier cultural climate in general?

I doubt it.

And if that’s the case, if we let this moment pass without substantive reaction . . . well, to paraphrase Eric Harris, let the next massacre be on our shoulders until the day we die.

About the Author

Copyright © 1999 by Lucius Shepard and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.