Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to school with guns and bombs and a plan to kill as many kids as they could. Their killing spree ended with 15 dead and dozens wounded.
We were witnesses to this horrendous event.
A witness is one who has a firsthand account-one who is present and takes note of or ‘observes.’
We weren’t at Columbine High School, but we felt like we were there, and we had reports from the scene, and in-depth analyses and interviews broadcast into our homes.
So, in a sense, we were witnesses. It felt close to home. It could have been Staples High School, or Wilton or Norwalk or Fairfield or New Canaan. It could have been the high school you went to.
We saw a bleeding, traumatized victim climb out a window and fall into the hands of emergency rescue workers.
We saw dozens of students running from the school with their hands on their heads. We saw, read and heard detailed accounts of the terrible, tragic incident, and we’ve been searching our collective as well as individual souls since.
What do we make of it?
The word witness is rooted in wit.
Wit: the natural ability to understand; intelligence.
Some words with roots in the word wit include: view; vision; evident; idea; and history.
The word wit, and witness, share the root of the word wisdom. The Indo-European root of the word is shared with the word Hades, the underworld, the invisible.
The Sanskrit word veda shares this root: veda means knowledge. The most ancient collection of Hindu sacred writings is called the Rig-Veáda, the collection of wisdom.
So, what do we know? We know some things about this incident and its implications for our culture, and there are some unknowns, some things that remain in that hidden place–the netherworld.
As soon as I started listening to commentary and reading editorials and op-ed pieces in response to the Columbine massacre, I found myself back in my high school Algebra class.
My American Heritage Dictionary says this about Algebra:
Algebra is a “Égeneralization of arithmetic in which symbols, usually letters of the alphabet, represent numbers or members of a specified set of numbers and are related by operations that hold for all numbers in the set.”
“A set together with operations defined in the set that obey specified laws.”
This is precisely what I was thinking about all the ingredients–the set, or collection of elements–that went into the Columbine massacre and will continue to haunt and plague our culture.
Just like a math problem, the Columbine problem contains a ‘collection of distinct elements having specific common properties.’
On one side of the math problem’s equal sign is the April 20 (Hitler’s birthday) massacre at Columbine High School.
Now let me put you on the witness stand and ask you what you knowÉwhat you sawÉwhat you seeÉwhat are all the possible elements in the set?
The most obvious element is guns. No one, not even Charlton Heston, can avoid this fact: they had guns, and they made bombs, learning how to assemble the stuff to make the bombs with information provided on the internet and purchased at the local hardware store.
Behind the guns are the two young men who bought them, and brought them to school with murderous intent.
Now we dig into that netherworld, the less obvious and more speculativeÉthe invisible elements in the set, and this is where the arguments erupt because the discomfort gets personal and runs deep.
Since we don’t know, for certain, which of these elements played major and minor parts, we can and should include everything we can possible imagine.
Violent video games, violence on television, violence in the movies must be included in the set. Fantasy and imagination play an important part in the drama of life.
Violence in the worldÉviolence in this the most violent of nations, must be included in the set.
This real-life violence is reported on the nightly news. A Columbine massacre occurs every single day in this country where, we’re told, statistically, that 12 children are killed with gunsÉevery day!
Another element in the set is news about wars that are going on around the world, news about the bombing of Yugoslavia, for example, with thousands upon thousands of victims of brutality in Kosovo filling our television screens, newspapers and weighing on our hearts.
Included in the news of this war, and most wars, is the religious ingredient and the prejudice and hatreds which are too often part of the religious equation. Hate, racism, bigotry in all its ugly shapes and sizes can be put between the parenthesis on the left side of our algebraic equation.
All the elements we can imagine must be included, and with each element there are sub-sets.
Under guns, for example, is the NRA, the gun lobby, the weapons industry-the manufacture, sale and profit from guns.
Under the NRA we might include statements like the one from Charlton Heston: “We cannot let this tragedy (the Columbine High School massacre) lay waste to the most rare and hard won human right in history.”
Under the bombs we must include the easy access on the internet to information and instructions about how to make bombs.
Included in all of the above we must include another key element: parents, and parenting.
Now this is where things get most uncomfortable for all of us because it suggests some culpability. Now there’s a word which draws us all into the big, unsolvable equation: culpability.
What did their parents know? What should they have knownÉabout their kids, about the guns and bombs they collected and assembled, about their behaviors and attitudes?
What should they and their teachers, probation officers, counselors and therapists have known about them, about the effects of video games and violent movies and music?
And, if we assume they knew what they should have known as responsible parents, and youth workers, what should or could they have done about it?
Money and profits, from guns, movies and videos are important elements in our algebra set.
Gary Ross, who wrote and directed movies: “Big,” “Dave” and “Pleasantville” wrote about the need to accept personal responsibilityÉin this tragedy; to search our souls for culpability. “Guns kill people and movies kill people and video games kill people and it soon becomes obvious that the list doesn’t stop there.”
I hope you don’t think I’m going to attempt a bottom-line answer to the tough and thorny problem that was dropped on our plate on April 20. My only intention here is to state the complexity of the problem, like a long, unsolvable algebra problem.
But, after stating the complexity of the problem, my intention is to suggest that we share some responsibility for what happened. We share responsibility to do whatever we can to change those things in the set of elements which can be changedÉto make this world safer and sanerÉto share the responsibility for all the children of the world.
We must not accept the notion that there’s nothing we can do. The idea that there is nothing we can do is defeatist, and it is the defeatist feeling that sinks deep into the soul and corrupts it.
Maybe Eric and Dylan felt that deep feeling of powerlessness. Maybe. And maybe they felt extremely powerful. Somehow it seems they felt a lethal combination of power and powerlessness.
Going back to our set, the elements in the equation, we must not leave out their response to the taunts and teases, the cliques and clubs, the put-downs and insults, their sense of alienation and the anger that erupted.
In the sub-set of that part of the equation we can include the violence of so-called professional wrestling; the violence of the Jerry Springer show and the inane but dangerous Sally Rafael show.
Nor should we leave out genetic factors from the equation: the old brain which influences all of us as we drive on the turnpike and feel the fear and anger-when we feel that adrenaline rushing into us, the adrenaline which, we are told, is “Ésecreted by the adrenal medulla that is released into the bloodstream in response to physical or mental stress, as from fear or injury. It initiates many bodily responses, including the stimulation of heart action and an increase in blood pressure, metabolic rate, and blood glucose concentration.”
We humans are complex creatures. We know a lot, and we know that there’s a lot we don’t know.
We know what influences us, what influenced Eric and Dylan, and we know that we don’t know it all.
Simplistic answers, defensive responses, and finger-pointing blame to the killings at Columbine don’t help.
We’re wise enough to know the need for humility, the need to accept the limits of our knowing, without losing face or faith.
We have been battered and bruised during the last month or so-the war, the Columbine killing, the tornadoes with its death and destruction, and the steady flow of news about the violence and evil in our day-to-day world.
Not every kid is going to go get a gun and start shooting because he has watched violence on television or played violent video games-and maybe those ingredients or elements in our ‘set’ had nothing to do with Eric and Dylan’s killing spree. We simply don’t know.
But we do know that we need to take some responsibility for the kind of world we’re living in-for the values we have, and the values we’re adopting together.
The film writer, Gary Ross, quoted above, said more. Taking some personal and professional responsibility he said;
“Élet me start now. I will not defend the role of movies in the culture. Despite my deep and abiding passion for the first Amendment, I will not even defend our right to make them. Let me say that movies can contribute to this desensitization. And let me promise that, on each screenplay, I will ask myself what the ramifications are to the culture in which I live and the children who may see these films.”
Each of us is called upon to make some similar statement, even if only to ourselves.
We have to promise we’ll do what we can do, that we’ll be as aware as we can be, as sensitive as we can be.
That’s a religious commitment. Paul Lehman, who wrote Religion and Culture, 1959, put it this way:
“Authentic religion has always enabled humans to see that the power by which we can endure the world requires us to change the world.”
‘The power by which we can endure the world, requires us to change the world.’
May we allow ourselves to find some peace of mind so that we do not become too immersed in the problems of the world, and so that we can look sanely and sensibly at how we can help make the world a better place to live.
May we be committed to beginning with ourselves, as we areÉwith our family and friends, as they areÉand with this community of faith, as it is.
Then we can say, with the poet e. e. cummings: ‘now the ears of my ears awake, now the eyes of my eyes are opened’