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Saturday, March 20, 1999
By Paul Ford
Hours after Columbine, I wrote this
“He was shooting people right in front of me. He was shooting people of color and people who play sports. He put the gun right in my face and started laughing and said it was because people were mean to him last year.”
We'll hear that they loved to play Doom or Quake, these black-trenchcoat Satanists, celebrating Hitler's birthday, each with a collection of 12-sided dice and German industrial-music CD's, email with bomb recipes downloaded from the Internet, all the paraphernalia of the modern isolated psychotic teen. The NRA already has a counter-release and a fax list, waiting to respond to the backlash and Democrat's speeches on the senate floor. Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, two stupid, ratty virgins, dumb teen faces staring out from their yearbooks. But now they're everything, as famous as Britney Spears.
From the inside, high school is all there is; the pinnacle of childhood, with no clear horizon, a refugee camp for adolescents, pressed together so tightly they catch each other's emotional cholers, whether it's athletic pomposity or medieval trenchcoat-wearing gloom. Graduation is the end of the world, when the boat goes over the edge, and suddenly you find the earth is round and steer for other continents in life, forgetting soon how real everything seemed when you were 15, 16, 17, 18, the cosmos of social jockeying, the hierarchies of coolness, the sexual cruelties. Someone giving someone else a blowjob in a car was as important as having a new president, or going to war, the fervent topic at the long fake-wood lunch tables. The salty taste of jealousy stayed in all of our mouths, impossible to wash out.
At Rock, Paper, Scissors, we read the reports online, clicking “refresh” every few minutes to see if the story had changed. I spoke the numbers out loud as they increased. “9 injured. Kids with guns in black trenchcoats.” At first it seemed there were no deaths, just blood, that it was an ugliness but only slightly tragic. Then the shooters had committed suicide: “2 dead, 9 injured. But the 2 dead are the kids with guns.” Through the office you heard the sloppy audio from CNN streaming video, people eating lunch, writing programs, watching.
It's every picked-on kid's fantasy, to live out the pixelated video game with much better resolution, addressing the inward confusion with a few leaden bursts of clarity. But most hurt, lonely kids know the stopping point, which is mutilation of self, long, thin lines in blood over 15-year-old bodies, with kitchen and hunting knives, burning themselves with incense and cigarettes, getting in fistfights, going to hardcore concerts, maybe suicide. These two in Colorado turned the ferality of sex and fear outward, their faces peach-hairy, their bodies soft and white, leaving gashes through the building, leaving holes in classmates.
The pictures appeared quickly, first video snapshots, then sharp digital photography. The boy hanging out the window, bloody, arm dangling limp; the mother with her hands around her weeping daughter; the anguished, pink face of a screaming girl, gripping her head; the students being led from the high school, arms up for frisking. The maps of Colorado with arrows and callouts, the expected trigger words: “tragedy,” “terror,” “horror,” “massacre.” As required, the news about the media coverage of the violence began before the gunfire was over, a new angle on the story when the details were slow to arrive, noting that this event had taken the war in Serbia and Kosovo off the front page, giving you the cues for how to feel, which was numb, indifferent, while simultaneously upset and connected, playing your passive part in the ritual of mass murder in the United States at the end of the 20th century.
The killers went first for popular athletes, the locker-room princes who had mocked them. What real power did any of them have, except the ability to make fun of each other? They couldn't vote or drink, could barely drive, or hold real jobs. Eric and Dylan must have figured they knew what real power was.
Then they searched for minority students, and this moves them outside the “classic” teen psycho killer model. They needed more than vengeance and retribution; they victimized those who had also had their share of sneers in the school next to Clement Park. Their racism bloomed in gunbursts. When they were freed of jocks and minorities, they would be free to breathe in a world made solely of boys in black trenchoats, a life without adversity, no one to pick on them or disagree. Those who could remind them of their difference, of their isolation, those with colors of skin other than pasty, pasty white, would also be gone far away. Then they put the guns to themselves. I wonder if they giggled about that, too.
Candlelight vigils, the President and First Lady, tears and singing, reporters genuinely moved. There'll be mothers or fathers who come out of it politicians, memorializing their children in campaigns and votes, while others start a foundation in remembrance. Some will hit the bottle hard and lose themselves that way, some will find the church doors open.
Yearbook pictures of the victims in the papers, their best qualities listed: “Susan wanted to be a doctor.” “Accepted at Dartmouth.” “Volunteer with AIDS patients.” “Star athlete with a scholarship at Penn State.” We're not there yet, but it's coming, in the next few days.
To my right, a project manager said, “you got your black trenchcoat? You want to go back and take care of the designers?” We laughed. It wasn't as grim a laugh as it might have been. It's a tragedy, but it's no Princess Diana--the story is in the breadth of the violence, the scope, not in the individuals gone. There is nothing to grasp on to, nothing to put a face on the missing and dead.
That's why they'll focus on the killers in the next few weeks, their lives and the notes they left, their inevitably abusive, cruel, humiliated parents, the warning signs, their friends. There is a story there, a way to put a face on the event, to humanize it grimly. The visages of goofball teens in black T-shirts will offer us something human onto which we can hitch our fears and anger, something filled with bile to bursting. Far more than the smiling yearbook photos of the kids they killed, who had no chance to say anything before they were murdered, you'll get to know Eric and Dylan, who had the last word above their enemies, as well as you know anyone famous.
“They were going around, they were laughing about it. They'd shoot somebody, they'd laugh, they'd giggle.” A video game, a horror story, a front page, something to take our minds off the war. I'll read all the articles and watch the news, every detail, filling in the blanks, finding a place for myself in the narrative, casting myself as murderer, victim, friend, and parent, to find the best fit. This critical distance is almost as frightening as the image of a boy in a trenchcoat with a semiautomatic -- or at least it sounds good to write that.