Words can be like bullets. That’s ultimately the lesson from the Columbine High School shooting.
April 20, 2019 is the 20th anniversary of what was at the time the worst school shooting in American history. Columbine was an opportunity for American society to reflect on itself, understand its role in the tragedy, and to make amends. Yet instead of facing the truth, we found scapegoats in video games, music, and movies. In the twenty years since, we have ignored the true cause for these tragedies even while it stares right at us in the mirror.
I’ll never forget my reaction when I first learned of the details and possible motivations for the Columbine shooters. [Out of respect for the victims, I will not use the names of the two perpetrators and will refer to them only as the “Columbine shooters.”] I was in college and just a few years removed from high school myself. When I learned some of the shooters’ peers relentlessly bullied and tormented them, I remember thinking to myself, “It’s awful what the shooters did, but I understand.” That I seemed to empathize with the shooters disturbed me to my core, and it took years for me to come to terms with that.
In time, I realized what I empathized with and understood was the power and influence bullying must have had on their brief lives. I understood what it meant to be an outcast, how impactful it is to feel like the whole world is against you, and how social isolation disturbs your thoughts and attitudes.
I was socially awkward throughout middle and high school and I had just a couple of friends. I was an easy target for the bullies, and when my peers weren’t mocking me, they mostly ignored me as if I was a ghost roaming the halls. I didn’t fit into any social group, not even the outcasts. Anyone who played sports—the “jocks”—treated me the worst, similar to the experience of the Columbine shooters. I thought I was naturally unlikable and that I was the reason for my own isolation. I struggled to find my place in this world.
Thankfully, I found college to be the opposite of my high school experience. College was where I came out of my shell and made quite a few friends. So by the time Columbine happened I had some context and perspective from which to reflect on high school. I had healed on the most part. Yet the words and actions of my high school peers still to this day rip like bullets through my soul every time I talk to a stranger or need to draw from a well of self-confidence that will probably forever be slow to recharge.
It’s a mistake to consider the harassment suffered by the Columbine shooters an excuse for their actions. To kill others seemingly without remorse requires a deeply troubled mind and a twisted soul. However, to dismiss the harassment is just as much a mistake. Like most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
In the aftermath of Columbine, rock band Marilyn Manson’s aggressive music was often criticized as an influencer to the shooters. In the 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” the band’s lead singer is asked what he would have said to the students at Columbine. “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did.”
Every mass shooting is a cry for help by the shooter. And every mass shooting produces victims, directly and indirectly, who have a unique perspective few of us will ever understand on our own. Yet from Columbine, to Virginia Tech, to Sandy Hook, to Parkland, a large portion of our population refuse to listen to the shooters and the victims, paralyzed in fear that what they hear will be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
For the past fifty to seventy years, our culture has increasingly become obsessed with the self. We have become a people far more concerned about how others affect our lives rather than how our own actions affect other people. Our focus has shifted from “us” to “me.” The process has been slow, so we’ve hardly noticed it. But America, we are selfish spoiled brats.
Our society is rife with Delta Bravos who think someone else has to lose for them to win. Life is an aggressive zero sum game, where dominating other players leads to winning, and offering mercy always results in a loss. Kindness, compassion, and mercy are weaknesses practiced by noble losers. Showing kindness only creates opportunities for others to take advantage of you. Over time, this caustic perspective leads people to believe immigrants are criminals and poor people are lazy, and elects a President who brags about grabbing women by their genitals and posts demeaning and belittling tweets. It leads to thinking that those with beliefs different from yours are opponents or—even worse—your enemies. And it leads to more Columbines.
Yet there is not one answer to preventing the next Columbine. We can and should implement common sense gun control laws that do not limit the right of responsible citizens to own firearms. There is no legitimate reason young people should be allowed to purchase weapons when at the same age they are not allowed to purchase alcohol. And it seems to be widely understood that shooters have mental health issues that our current system is not robust enough to address. Though gun control and mental health reform are not long-term answers, they are key pieces of a holistic solution. Yet too many people use the Second Amendment as a lazy excuse for fighting laws that will probably make it much more difficult for troubled youth and adults alike to carry out these massacres. Congress has voted against mental health reform several times, and prospects for meaningful reform in the future seem grim. The real reason for the resistance to gun and mental health reforms is rooted in the fact people don’t like the inconvenience of gun restrictions and the price tag of robust mental health programs. We are against these things because they inconvenience us, and we don’t give a damn that doing nothing kills others.
Each of us can do more to support, encourage, and appreciate those we encounter each day. And all of us are more than capable of sacrificing a little convenience and a few tax dollars.
Every school shooting and every mass shooting since April 1999 is an echo of Columbine. And every one is an indictment of a culture that celebrates egotism and self-interest while paying mere lip service to kindness and generosity.
These echoes will haunt us forever unless we remember that life is not a competition, kindness is not a weakness, and compassion requires more courage than does malice.