Columbine: The Search for Causes

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David R. Beisel, SUNY Rockland

Littleton, Colorado; Hitler’s Birthday, 1999.  The images are etched in our memories, at least for now.
Personally sickened by the mass-murder-suicide-mission of two high school youths, we are also scholars who, like much of the rest the nation, want to channel our energies into answering the question, “Why?”  In my case, the quest for cause was not a separate scholarly exercise, but became intertwined with my teaching, especially in my psychohistory classes.  Like many of us, I want to help students analyze, explain, and try to make sense of contemporary as well as past events. If any course lends itself to causes, it is psychohistory (and although some faculty in traditional history courses refuse to deviate from the history curriculum, how can one discuss Hitler, but not Columbine?). In any case, with feelings stoked by viewing hours of electronic images, most students came ready to talk.

As I drove to classes on the day after the Littleton shootings, my thoughts revolved around how best to use the previous day’s events to help highlight psychodynamic processes and principles while testing psychohistorical theories and interpretations. By the time I arrived on campus, my goals were threefold: to explore the causes of the perpetrators’ behavior; to identify the nation’s reactions, including what media “experts” were saying and not saying; and to learn how class members approached and analyzed the event.

Usually, classes move discussion all over the place.  Just as one student begins to talk on the level of description, another jumps in with a judgement, while someone else offers ways to “fix” what is deemed to be “wrong.” There is much venting, but little consistent analysis; students can leave class confused. To help everyone stay on track, I sometimes simplify discourse by reducing it to five categories, writing each on the board: first the descriptive level (the “facts” we agree upon); second, the causal level (what produced the behavior); third, the level of consequence (what follows from the event); fourth, the level of judgement (what is “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad” about these things); and fifth, the prescriptive level (what can be done, or not done, to make things better).  If discussion drifts from description, cause, or consequence, one can note this shift to more emotion-laden judgements and prescriptions, and students can better analyze what is happening as different themes are stated and intertwined.

I found my first class that morning (Western Civilization II, honors) raring to go.  Their observations included almost all the themes being played out in the media.  Near the end of the hour, it suddenly occurred to me, however, that almost 80 per cent of our time had been spent discussing prevention: gun control; metal detectors; how an unspecified “education” or “early education” could make a difference; how “sensitivity training” could help people better understand and empathize with “outsiders.” I took this preoccupation with security issues to mean that class members, on some level, were frightened, and were trying to get their anxieties under control.

I expected similar responses from my psychohistory classes (three introductory, one advanced).  I was wrong. Without prompting, they all looked directly at causes. One class patiently described the facts for a few students who were unclear about details.  All explored several possible causes, including:

  • The notion that the perpetrators were “nuts,” so alien that it was as if they came from another planet; the incident was so fundamentally bizarre, some said, to be unknowable;
  • The idea the perpetrators were “born evil” suffered from “a chemical imbalance in the brain,” or had inherited a “bad gene” (there clearly could be no environmental, family, or childhood influence);
  • The question, “Where were the parents?” (this meant only recent supervision of  them as adolescents);
  • The impact of an unspecified “media” or non-specific “media-violence;”
  • The impact of a specific medium — violent video games, television and movie images, nihilistic rock music, unsupervised wandering on the Internet;
  • The sinister influence of the Gothic sub-culture;
  • Feelings of being “outsiders;”
  • Seeking vengeance for being bullied and scapegoated; and
  • The accessibility of guns (one can point out here that the gun symbolically “empowers” those who are feeling disempowered).

Psychologists, psychotherapists, sociolo-gists, and psychohistorians can recognize the defensive nature of some of these observations, but the discussions were rich by any standards even if many of the themes echoed discussions in the media. In addition, many students were particularly focused on the fact that the event was planned (as if it is easier to understand such things when people “snap”). A few students noted that “this time the media didn’t blame drugs.” But no one mentioned any possible “copy cat” connection between the murders and the recently begun U.S./NATO war against Serbia.  No one asked about the scientific scholarship on violent children and on children who kill. No one asked about the childhoods of the perpetrators. All of these questions one might naturally expect from psychohistory students well into the third month of the semester.

The students’ avoidance offered an opportunity to suggest that the media not only provides information, but also performs a defensive function. It is as if the media is an analysand, presenting all kinds of detailed data while hiding impulses, fantasies, and wishes through denials, rationalizations, displacements, projections, and the avoidance of facts (or topics) that might hint at the truth.  To illustrate how The New York Times was covering the story and to show how it sought to convince us that the causes of such behavior are essentially unknowable, I read passages from the Times over the next three weeks.

Two days after the shooting, the Times reported a friend of one of the alleged murderers as saying, “He was a normal kid … I don’t know what happened, he turned into a nut case” (April 23, National:A21). A colleague of one of their mothers said, “As far as I can tell, this family was utterly normal …  They did everything right” (Ibid.). Two days later, the Times quoted the mother of one of their friends as saying that they “were just like any other young men, interested in bamboo sword fights, Star Wars, and computer games.”  The same page added that “…reporters have drawn attention to the Gothic culture, video games like Doom, violent movies, and the popularity of figures like Marilyn Manson.  But none of these is by itself evidence that something is wrong…;” For good measure, it quoted the director of Yale’s Child Studies Center that the parents could not be blamed (April 25, National:30).  The Sunday Times ran an article on “The Motives” in which Erica Goode wrote, “Exactly what propels young perpetrators like those in Littleton, [Colo., and] Jonesboro, Ark., and other communities remains a mystery.”

In a box labeled “Other Shootings Involving Students” (Times, April 21, National:A17), six recent incidents were mentioned, each ending with a statement relating to “causes.” One perpetrator said, “I had no other choice.”  Another acted because “a classmate … was dating his ex-girlfriend.” For another, “The motive is unclear.”  For yet another, “The police did not suggest a motive.”  For another, “When asked why he did it, he said he did not know.”  For another it was peer-pressure: “the teenagers were in a cult-like group.”

Whoever tried to make sense of these events — which the Times itself had linked together — would, of course, be hard pressed to find a common thread.  Four days later, the Times was more direct.  An article connecting Columbine to six earlier acts of mass murder (April 25, “Week in Review”:18) made the point that “long before violent video games, the Internet and nihilistic industrial rock music, America’s young were committing occasional acts of destruction and violence.”  Fair enough.  And the lesson?  “If the following example fails to show a pattern, it may be because there is none.”  One week later the Week in Review (May 2:1) stated, “Clearly, no single factor will ever explain any of the incidents.”

Specialists had earlier reassured us that events like this weren’t permanently traumatic.  Said a Times op-ed piece (April 23:A25), “Most people, in fact, are quite resilient and don’t need registered experts to deal with anguish.” This last Sunday’s Times Week in Review (May 9:1 & 4) headlined, “Science Looks at Littleton, and Shrugs.”  It declared, “…if there is anything left to be said about the recent tragedy” it is that since “such events are so rare … there may be no larger lessons to draw.” What was not done (said the Center on Disease Control), “What we were not able to do … was a psychological profile of the offenders, to look at the commonalities.”  The last word seemed to be that of the Director of the National Consortium on Violence Research at Carnegie Mellon University who blamed guns, which “transform what is widespread teenage behavior into disasters.” Perhaps more insightful than any of the experts was the student graffiti which appeared on the bulletin board outside the door of our Social Sciences Department: “Blaming violence on guns is like blaming obesity on the fork.”

This, of course, corroborates the scientific findings of psychology that the sources of violent behavior lie not in guns but in the personalities of the perpetrators, personalities formed in large part by early experiences. Like the analysand, the media (in this case, the Times) sometimes dropped hints to the effect even as they defensively focussed on other “factors” or claimed causes were essentially unknowable. An article (April 27, National:A21) on the earlier Jonesboro shooting revealed something in passing about child abuse: “…there was also the sexual abuse of both sons by a neighborhood teenager … an episode that neither child disclosed at the time,” about which the mother only learned when her ex-husband “revealed it to Barbara Walters on television.”  It is, of course, not my contention that one episode of sexual abuse produces violent behavior.  I am pointing out that childhood and the role of abuse are only mentioned as causes in passing, if at all, when many, many sources point to child abuse as a factor in violent behavior.

Indeed, The New York Times Book Review, two days before the Littleton shootings, carried a review of Gitta Sereny’s new book, Cries Unheard.  Headlined “Bad Seed?”, it told of the 1968 murder of two English boys, ages 3 and 4, by Mary Bell, a girl of 11, whose remorseless demeanor infuriated some and prompted the British press to speak of her as “a freak of nature” and as “evil born.”  Sereny, however, discovered something other than biology at work: “We learn that on four separate occasions, her mother, Betty, a prostitute, used her daughter as a sexual prop in some of her sadomasochistic encounters…. (In later years when Bell served time in prison, Betty would sell stories about her daughter, as well as photographs, to the tabloids; at one point she told her daughter that she was ‘the devil’s spawn’)” (April 18:9). We learn more details from the review in The New York Review of Books (May 20:4): When Mary was four or five, Betty “allowed her clients to sodomize Mary and introduce instruments into her body.  She restrained her while clients ejaculated into her mouth.  She allowed clients to whip her, to hood or gag her, and Mary was choked so that she briefly lost consciousness.”

Why were facts like these never considered by the media? Where were the studies by Alice Miller, where is Flora Rhea Schreiber’s The Shoemaker? Where was psychoanalyst Muriel Gardner, “the real Julia,” who spent a lifetime studying violent children?  Since we heard nothing, anywhere, about this body of work, no one had a chance to explore this possible cause in the national discussion which followed Littleton.

Of course, careful research needs to be undertaken for any specific cases before any conclusions can be drawn.  In history we work from sources to conclusions, not the other way around. Yet, once again the media had unconsciously suppressed important data by “overlooking” it, thus carrying out a central group-fantasy function by keeping the possible connection between violence and childhood experiences from group-consciousness. On the other hand, at least 130 psychohistory students were exposed to these ideas and to some of the ways in which powerful mediums, like The New York Times, help keep us in the dark.

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