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The Columbine High School Shootings:
The Lessons Learned

by Howard J. Ehrlich

Every major spectacle carries with it the potential of a new way of looking at the past and implications of a future. Usually within a brief period after the event, a consensual "explanation" is fashioned through the news media and by the political pundits who occupy much of the space and time dedicated by the media to the event. Political pundits seated in front of the camera become part of the event, often becoming a part of the process of transforming an event in time to a spectacle.

In this case, the event was the murder of 13 and wounding of 23 persons at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The event took place on April 22, 1999 and, because of the subsequent suicide of the two teenage perpetrators, observers could only speculate on their motivation. While students were still hiding from the gunmen and while the police were still plotting their strategy, the media coverage began. Perhaps two impulses led to the coverage. First of all, the victims were not the children of the Hutus or East Timorese or even the Kosovos. These were "our" children and the parents our "friends." Their grief could have been ours. In fact, in a month plus a few days, five million dollars were donated to the survivors and the victim families even without there being a major fund-raising drive (Morning Edition, NPR, June 8, 1999).

Secondly, the event had the earmarks of a media spectacle, that is, by transmogrifying the event to something beyond itself, the news media knew they would again be able to maximize their profit margins on the grief and graves of others. Events are news stories; spectacles are dollars. The old tv newsroom characterization of "if it bleeds, it leads" has been replaced in their business office ˇfrom graves to the gravy train.

In its societal context, the Columbine school shootings are not an obvious part of a discernible sociological pattern. We know that approximately 4,500 youngsters are killed every year in intentional shootings, with thirty per cent of that number probable suicides. That's almost 13 a day, the same number as were killed in Littleton (The Washington Post, April 25, 1999). The data on school shootings, according to the Center for Communicable Diseases, indicate that only about 28 per cent actually occurred inside the school and that one-third of the victims were not students (The New York Times, May 9, 1999). We have known, for quite some time, that homicide is the second leading cause of teenage deaths. Just the same, counting all deaths among children and teens, only one per cent are homicides.

Perhaps our first lesson is that what went on at Columbine may have been horrible, but it was not unique. Almost immediately following this high school spectacle, an array of stories, many even more bizarre than the Columbine story surfaced. Here is a sampling:

Costa Mesa, CA, May 4--The Associated Press reported that a man who wanted to "execute" children plowed into a day care center with his car killing two toddlers and injuring five adults.

Port Huron, MI, May 27--USA Today reported that four middle school students were arrested. They had planned to force their principal to call an assembly and then massacre those assembled. They had also planned to kill themselves.

San Marcos, TX, April 25--The Baltimore Sun reported that four 14- year-olds were arrested for plotting to kill teachers and students in an attack similar to the Colorado shooting. They had a cache of gunpowder and explosive devices.

Conyers, GA, May 20--Associated Press. A 15-year-old student in a rural Georgia high school shot and wounded six students. It was believed that he deliberately aimed his salvo below the waist to avoid killing anyone. He was stopped from a suicide attempt by the assistant principal whom he embraced while repeating "I'm scared. I'm scared."

Palm Harbor, FL, June 10, 1999--Baltimore Sun. One day after the Columbine event, a high school social studies teacher showed his class how to make a pipe bomb and where to place it in order to maximize its impact at the school. The intent of the teacher, presumably, was to demysrtify the events of the preceding day.

Transforming Events into Spectacles

What gave these events in Littleton, Colorado national prominence was a combination of geography and technology. Take this as our second lesson. Changes in the social organization of the news media, especially the multiplicity of news channels, permit the focus on single events at a level of intensity that earlier forms of news media organization did not. Widely dispersed events,despite their commonality, remain the province of local news channels and newspapers. Similarly, dramatic events which have a short duration and discrete ending ˇespecially if the events move faster than the news mediaˇ receive token coverage. This is why trials and extended investigations have become the money machines of the media"they permit the transformation of a "routine" event to a spectacle.

The singular focus on an event by highly skilled producers and newspeople is transformative. The transformative aspect has two consequences; call these lessons three and four. Lesson three is that the level of attention dedicated to the event magnifies its importance. Like moths, Americans fluttered around their tv screens in record numbers. The Columbine shootings meant big audiences. With the story at an "end," the audiences tuned out. CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Fox News Channel lost 30-42 per cent of their viewers in May (Washington Post, June 7, 1999). Lesson four is a lesson about "mainstreaming." In order for an event to be important, it must be mainstream. Not everything mainstream is important, but the far out, the countercultural, the deviant, or the politically radical are not eligible for membership in the mainstream. Because newspeople believe that they can only attract a mass audience by staying within the mainstream, they narrow what falls within their frames of the acceptable. The result is that only a small segment of existing explanations are framed. Further, given the underlying anti-intellectualism of the media (if not American society in general), careful and deliberative analysis of complex issues is also not permitted within the frame. A case in point was the appearance of Professor Jack Levin as a panelist on the evening national cable news-talk show hosted by Geraldo Rivera. Levin, a sociologist who has studied both mass murders and hate crimes, brings considerable expertness to the subject. His sociological analysis, however, was so alien to the host, whose program specializes in the spectacular event, that Rivera "respectfully" declared him "off base" and turned to the other guests whose analyses were considerably more mainstream.

There is another dimension of mainstreaming that relates to the definition of the problem. As events are transformed into spectacles, the problem takes on an urgency (also helped by the design of tv news programs) that does not permit the articulation of complex analyses.

Lesson five. In American society, if something is broken, somebody broke it. In this event, as in other recent spectacular events, there was a rush to blame somebody. Although the perpetrators were known, they were not to be defined as part of an offending category. Being white, male, violent, and middle class, were not categories in the media agenda of blame. There may have been a rush to blame somebody, but these somebodies had to be exceptions. If they weren't, then clearly we would have to admit to some more basic defect. If there is intense pressure to find the cause or agent, there is also intense pressure to avoid responsibility. I am not part of the problem, you/they/it are. Further, your solution cannot extend into my backyard/my lifestyle/my life. That's lesson six.

The Quick Fix

Once it is agreed that there is something broken and that it can be fixed without much disturbance in the way things are, it is time to exhibit the solutions. With the limitations placed on the definition of the problems, the exhibition of solutions is seldom surprising. Most of them are old agendas tailored to fit the new spectacle. Sometimes they come out downright silly, So the head of the National Rifle Association declares that what high schools need are security guards. Columbine did have a security guard, besides most shootings do not occur inside the school building. From the standpoint of the NRA, this was simply another opportunity to present their agenda in opposition to gun control legislation The facts were irrelevant.

If something is broken, it can be fixed. Lesson 8: Americans view their world as a model of a machine. It's true for their bodies; it's true for their social theory. Find the part that's out of whack and whack it. Generally speaking, this model leads people to focus on a single part (that is, cause). The list of "parts" needing repair or replacement was unusually long: inattentive parents, violent tv and movies, video games, the Internet, the absence of religion in the schools, the elite treatment of athletes, wearing trench coats, Satanism, the culture of the high schools and, of course, guns. Both President and Mrs. Clinton gave speeches pointing to, as Mrs. Clinton put it, "the culture of violence that infects the lives of our children (Washington Post, April 23, 1999)." The wording carefully points to children at a time when adults were waging a 28 wars around the globe and the United States, in particular, was engaged in a massive bombing of Serbia. Government spokespeople seldom refer to their acts of the state as "violent."

Too often victims are accused of being the instruments of their own oppression. In this case, it was clear: Teenagers were out of control. Interventions at high schools were the necessary fix. Of course parents had to be made more accountable, and "character education" would be desirable. (In this context character education is code for religion.) But the real issue is that by not controlling the high schools correctly, "we" have permitted tragedies such as this. Consider this lesson, number 9: When elite interests are threatened by the exposure of their role in the victimization of others, controls on the victims are increased. The intended result is to define the public agenda to avoid any examination of social causation. Here are some of the policies seriously proposed in response to the Columbine spectacle: require mesh or transparent book bags; buy two sets of books"one for school and one for home use; establish dress codes, or uniforms, and outlaw the wearing of trench coats; remove lockers; install metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and door buzzers; conduct random searches with trained sniffing dogs; develop profiles of potential troublemakers; install anonymous, toll-free telephone tip lines so students can turn in the potential troublemakers; arm principals with chemical sprays or stun guns; and, finally, post the ten commandments in classrooms. Of course, enhanced penalties and mandatory sentences for violent teens are on the legislative agenda.

Lesson 10. Spectacular events evoke a sense of urgency and typically arouse the anxiety levels of the audience: It happened to them, it could happen to me. It is not surprising, then, that many proposals which follow such events are proposals to increase the level of controlˇmore police, more surveillance, greater restrictions on privacy and assembly. So not only is there a tendency to shift the burden of guilt to the victims, but the victims need to be protected from themselves. The spectacular event almost always becomes a social justification for increased authoritarianism. The Littleton shootings were no exception. Two months after the event, the Denver police chief told a conference on school safety: "Maybe kids will have to give up some of their individual rights (Associated Press, June 20, 1999)."

To be sure there has been no consensus on the "cause" of the events at Columbine. Two Gallup surveys conducted within three weeks of the event are quite revealing (www. The first, a youth sample, ages 13-17, was asked the open-ended question: "In your opinion, why did the shooting tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado happen?" Forty percent of the students focused "on problems of peer relations and peer pressures." They talked of being taunted by other students, being pushed too far and picked on, being made to feel like outcasts, being left out, and feeling lonely. In contrast, only 16 percent of the comments are directed towards the perpetrators and only 4 percent mention issues relating to parents.

While the teens looked mainly at the behavior of the students around the perpetrators rather than the shooters themselves, the parents, in a separate adult survey, place the blame on the parents and families. Only 11 percent of the parents mention the perpetrators.

For the conservative political scientist, James Q. Wilson, the parents and the schools are to be held accountable. The schools are there, he wrote in a New York Times op-ed article, "to raise good citizens (April 26, 1999)." To Wilson, the absence of such citizenship leads to anarchism"and the parents are presumably to blame for this turn of events. "My guess is that in many middle-class suburbs, parents worry greatly about their children smoking. They just don't worry about them being anarchists."

One Internet pundit shifted the blame to the organized right wing and described the Columbine perpetrators as "adolescent fascists set on a path to destruction by a well-funded international adult movement" (G. Hodderson, May 19, 1999 via

There are two more lessons that are embedded in our discussion so far. Lesson eleven: most people are not well-equipped to conduct complex political-sociological analysis. The result is that the analyses presented are typically atheoretical, ungrounded in empirical research, and often without an awareness of their political implications. All people have an "implicit theory" of society, although their theories are limited by their education and personal experiences. However, it is this implicit theory that enables them to understand and explain reasonably well what is going on around them. Nonetheless, spectacular events are beyond the range of convenience of most of these implicit theories. An analogy to newspaper reporting may be helpful. For most stories, a general assignment reporter will be adequate. S/he likely has enough knowledge and skill to muck around long enough to gain and write up the basic story. But suppose that same reporter is assigned to cover a nuclear power plant disaster"the likelihood is a reportorial disaster. Similarly, could you imagine a reporter who had never seen a football game covering the Super Bowl?

There is a profound anti-intellectual strain in American society, and the mainstreaming of media analysis has contributed strongly to the maintenance of that strain. The role of the intellectual (or professor) is regarded with some ambivalence. One of the consequences of devaluing intellectual or sociological analyses, is that social explanations of spectacular events are typically simplistic. Furthermore, the simplistic analysis has its roots in a psychological reductionism. That is, Americans tend to view social problems as having their roots in individual psychology. Instead of looking at the school shootings as a societal issue involving matters of the social organization of the schools, the changing patterns of socialization and the roles of adolescence, the norms of violence, and so on, people tend to look at the psychological characteristics of the participants. The two young shooters at Columbine may have had psychological problems, but not even an understanding of their problems will explain the social phenomena of school and teen age violence in society today.

The Story So Far

Let us review the lessons so far.

  • While the events at the high school were unique in time, place, and person, there was an underlying sociological pattern to the events and their aftermath.

  • Changes in the social organization and technology of the communications media led to the facile transformation of this occurrence from an "event" to a "spectacle."

  • The consequence of this transformation is to magnify the importance of an event. As a spectacle it commands an audience. The greater the size of an audience, the greater the spectacularization, the greater the profits of the communications media.

  • The "causes" of a spectacle have to fit into an explanation which is easily integrated into mainstream ideas and thoughtways.

  • Central to mainstreaming is the idea that peopleˇ as opposed to institutional structures ˇare the causal agents of spectacular events.

  • In events transformed into spectacles, there is intense pressure to avoid personal responsibility or to accept responsibility for implementing a solution. This personal release enables people to fully become spectators to the event.

  • Solutions which point to the culpability of dominant or elite groups to major institutional practices or to the class interests of the analysts are not acceptable.

  • The dominant though implicit theoretical model of society that is dominant is a machine model. This model carries with it two basic assumptions: if something is broken it can be fixed and the fix is attributable usually to a single cause.

  • There are strong normative pressures to place some level of responsibility on the victim. Sociologically, this functions to shift the agenda from looking at societal causes to looking at how the victims were at least partly and individually responsible for their own fate.

  • Because events transformed into spectacles create heightened arousal, and frequently great anxiety, and because mainstream solutions can neither be self-reflexive nor can they indict dominant institutions or institutional actors, there is a strong tendency to invoke authoritarian solutions as the "fix" for the problem being faced.

  • The absence of critical analytic skills, or more strongly, the impermissibility of these skills, has several consequences beyond the obvious consequence of sociologically naivete. Analysts fall back on mainstream, pop-psychological analysis, and media pundits are selected for their celebrity status or their ability to articulate mainstream ideas.

What is Violence?

At a minimum, the conceptualization of violence has to be reviewed. Violence is not a singular entity, or act, or process. There are many different forms of violence. If your objective is that of prevention or intervention, then it is crucial that you determine the type of violence being dealt with. Ethnoviolence, for example, is not the same as interpersonal violence; and they call for different programs of intervention.

There are many different ways that violence can be categorized or catalogued. You can classify it by the motives of the actor, by the identity of the targeted victim, by the sce has no such effect on another person. Once we decide the problem of classification, that may be the central question for social scientists: Why is it that for two people exposed to the same violent-inducing stimulation, one may act violently and the other not at all? Obviously there is no single cause of violence. Moreover the influence of any given factor may vary among individuals. For some people the social context may be the strongest factor in violence, while for others the social identity of the target may be the critical dimension. There are no social factors that we know of that inescapably lead to violent behavior. I would argue, however, that the pattern of visible violence in the American mass media, in public places, as well as privately in families increases the probability of an individual act of violence.

Part of the disinformation that characterizes writing on the subject is the belief that violence is culturally regarded with disapproval. Oddly, there have been very few studies addressing this issue directly. All of those I have seen indicate that most Americans accept the use of violence to achieve some ends under some conditions. To the extent that some violent behaviors become acceptable and possibly normative, and to the extent that they are modeled in the mass media, people come to include a violent response as an option within their behavioral repertory. This too increases the probability of violent acts.

We need to be clear: violence and models of violence are part of American society. Violence is learned and becomes, in some persons, a habitual mode of behavior.

The Issue is Power

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ended their lives, their suicide conveyed the explicit message that in the end they retained power over themselves. Their shooting rampage was an act of retaliatory violence. They saw themselves, more or less correctly, as victims of prejudice-motivated violence. They were stereotyped and discriminated against, verbally and physically assaulted on a regular basis. They lacked the resources to cope with their situation and perceived the school system and the teachers and parents as part of their oppression.

Harris left a suicide note at his home. Though initially reported by the Rocky Mountain News, it was too far beyond the mainstream for most news media to report. In his note he wrote:

By now it's over....Your children whohave ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treatedme like I am not worth their time are dead....Surely you will try to 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....You taught these kids not to accept what is different.

Harris and Klebold, armed with guns and bombs, grotesquely mobilized what little power they thought they had. Perhaps at another time or in another place these murders would not have occurred. But right now, the issue is power. That is our final lesson. One Georgia school board member -- obviously aware of the issue -- said following the Conyers, GA shooting: "We've got to let these kids know who's in charge of the schools" (New York Times, May 24, 1999).

Violence in all of its manifestations is based on an exercise of power. It represents a means to gain power, to maintain power, or as a response to a threat to one's power. As long as a society maintains the legitimacy of social hierarchies, of the right of some people to have power over others, there will be violence. One can either seek to diffuse the concentration of power or to control violence. By its very character, the attempt to control violence is self-defeating. The control will itself become violent.

The quest for a society without coercion is only now being charted.


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