Littleton, Colorado — They were 18 and 17, it was almost the end of the school year, and you look forward at the end of the school year to freedom. Eighteen and life: the whole vista, the whole landscape, is opening in front of you. They saw nothing. They had utterly nothing to live for and they chose to die, and there was no meaning in their life and they tried to give meaning to their death, and they came up with a really stupid meaning, a live-action video game with victims who really bled and couldn’t fight back. A sad painful story, considering what must have been inside those two boys. However smart they were, they did not look inside themselves because looking at whatever was closing them off would have hurt too much. It hurt less to kill people and finally to kill themselves.
Or anyway, that’s my pop-psych evaluation of two killers I’m never going to know anything about. (Andrew Palmer, analyzing it all from New Zealand: “Presume the dorky-looking one died a virgin.” That might sum it up. Or not.) Eventually there will be a book, since one of the boys, Eric Harris, left so much paper behind; but I’m not going to read it, since killers are boring. I’d much rather know about a trench-coat kid who didn’t kill anyone. Or about some jock, or skater, or freak. I’d rather know what Columbine High School was like on April 19, the day before the shooting, than read again what happened on April 20. And what Arapahoe High School is like, what Highlands Ranch High School is like, what Littleton High School is like, what Cherry Creek High School is like.
“The people I don’t want to walk past would be the jocks that are the good old boys,” says Sonia Pai, senior at Cherry Creek. “There’s a lot of abuse that goes on at our school, that no one talks about. Those guys are huge, they all play football; their girlfriends are maybe 100 pounds at the most, and I know there’s a lot of abuse in all kinds of forms. I’m a peer counselor at school, you hear more about things that aren’t talked about. A lot of sexual abuse happens, in all kinds of forms, and no one thinks anything of it.”
The two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, did do something useful, inadvertently. They talked about the normal terror of school life (not the terror they were committing but the terror they were claiming to avenge), and they talked about social divisions in suburbia, and they mentioned the name of a social class—jocks!—and said they were deliberately targeting that class and wanted to kill it. There’s an apparent paradox: They seemed to be shooting indiscriminately and setting off bombs, simply wanting to kill as many people as they could; yet they also questioned people, shot some, spared others, depending on the answers. The killers yelled, “All the jocks stand up. We are going to kill you.” They shot kids in sports hats. A gunman asked a girl if she believed in God and when she said “Yes!” he asked “Why?” and then not waiting for an answer he killed her. A gunman said, “We don’t like niggers,” and shot a black man in the face.
Actually, all of this is consistent; if (back to the pop psych) you’re fending off your inner terror by terrorizing others. Anything that’s a power trip works, even if it’s deciding to spare people. And saying to someone “Give me a reason not to kill you” is a form of taunting and torture whether you kill the kid or not.
The press basically had a few hours to not only get a story but to become sociologists. The most damaging error was to describe the shooters as “goths,” which is about as useful as describing Charles Manson as a hippie, and is going to put a lot of vulnerable outcast kids at risk. Same with the overemphasis on trench coats. Most newspeople seem to be accepting as cold fact that, because the killers wore trench coats (apparently not even that often, and not real trench coats), they belonged to “The Trench Coat Mafia,” and that all their beliefs were shared by the other trench-coaters and that they shared all the other trench-coaters’ tastes. Lou Kilzer and Lyn Bartels of the Denver Rocky Mountain News and Susan Greene of the Denver Post (an astonishing story published April 24), in work that seems unnoticed even by colleagues at their own papers, are reporting that the Trench Coat Mafia never considered the two killers members (so these two outcasts couldn’t even crack the outcast group), that an oft-cited yearbook picture of the Mafia doesn’t include either of them, and (in Greene’s piece) that only one kid in the Mafia likes to listen to Marilyn Manson. (Perhaps the rest don’t like the way Manson sings?)
Susan Greene is interviewing a kid—this is one of the kids who’s in the Trench Coat Mafia—and what he’s saying is that every day he’s filled with utter fright, it’s utter hell. The jocks on a daily basis, they’re smashing him into lockers, they’re calling him “faggot,” he’s riding his bike home from school and they’re throwing soda cans and rocks out car windows at him, and sometimes they’re sideswiping him with their cars.
This kid is not a scapegoater, not like the two killers. Susan Greene: “Not all jocks tormented him, the teen noted. But he said a handful of bullies held so much power that most of the school emulated them, or at least were too afraid to voice dissent.”The killers were like him in one way; they were tormented, bullied—except, unlike him, they got to the point where the only important thing in their lives was to plan for the great day when, for a few hours, they could be even bigger terrorizers than the guys who’d terrorized them.
Go to any predominantly white suburban school in the last 50 years. You’ll get a top-dog group, a high-status group, they’re the kids involved in the activities, they’re doing the proms, committees, student council, and so on, or are involved in sports. These people, depending on the year and place, are called socs (SO-shes, for socialites), debs, preppies, jocks.
And then you’ll get a refusal group. They’ve refused the school; it’s not their social life at all. They’re off fighting or smoking or fooling around, and if they’re concerned with school it’s to disrupt it or ridicule it, or just endure it. These people are called (a great tradition of expressive derogatory poetry) rocks, greaseballs, hoods, greasers, grits, burnouts, dirtbags, stoners, jells, jelly heads, skaters.
You’ll have different side groups, nerds, brains, some maybe following geeky roads to status: the drama club, the school newspaper. And you’ll have loners, the unaffiliated, and the real losers. And you’ll get some side refusal groups: rednecks, farmers. But everyone will be leaning one way or another, toward the preppies or toward the skaters, let’s say, who seem to be the kings of the heap and the antiheap these days in the suburbs south of Denver.
Sometimes those in the weird artsy-fartsy area will assert themselves, suddenly become a refusal group that challenges everybody. These are the freaks, the punks.
The names aren’t fair. They’re stereotypes that don’t necessarily really apply to anybody, but nonetheless people live in them, walk through them, are affected by them.
Somehow in political discourse and in journalism, these normal things, normal to every high school to some degree or another—terror, bullying, social stratification—are not known to exist. They don’t belong in suburbia, though every politician and reporter must have gone to a school, must have been in such social stratification, must have been in the neighborhood of terror, whether they felt it or not, whether they noticed or not. (Great line from the Denver Post: “Teasing is not new.”) Yet whenever these appear—terror and division—highlighted by some deadly event, they’re such a surprise. How did these get here? Were they brought in by the music, by Marilyn Manson?
Additional reporting by Naomi Ryerson