Across the hall dwelled the classroom of my favorite teacher – a student instructor from my sophomore year, who can be credited for my obsession to Shakespeare. By that point she was long past her curriculum and had settled in to full time teaching. There were frequent visits between us throughout her early tenure, most of which involved talking about the world, literature, and movies. It was her face I saw first when news broke that a terrible tragedy was unfolding in Littleton, Colorado that morning. I didn’t understand just how bad it was at the time; few of us did. But as details emerged over an old radio in between class breaks and newspaper production, the gravity in the expressions of those around me would be etched into my vision forever. Studying film, you are taught that you can learn more from the way people exchange looks than what they physically say. No matter how harsh it was to hear the details, it was those looks of horror, fright and dejection that were more piercing. And it was those looks that set the course for seeing the world I was about to descend into from a place of total and unforgiving darkness.
Fifteen years ago today, Columbine High School was forever frozen in our minds as a place of great tragedy. The story is well known: two troubled teenagers, who had been meticulous in their planning for well over a year, wandered into their school cafeteria, dropped two backpacks of bombs down, and began firing assault weapons on a crowd of innocent and unknowing schoolmates. Their actions were not exactly new in a national history already filled with school shootings (including one noteworthy one in Oregon exactly a year prior), but the degree of their massacre was, at the time, more sweeping than any that came before it. At the end of a long and horrific day, 12 students and one teacher were murdered, another 24 injured, the gunmen gone in a final act of suicide, and hundreds of others forever scarred by a senseless act.
Those of us on the outside could never come close to imagining what those kids went through, but their cries of suffering were powerful enough to leave behind deafening impressions. School years were winding down quickly, and the cloud of horror created on that day enveloped us in a collective hysteria. Why did Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two guys who had their whole lives ahead of them, resort to such a dreadful final act? How long had they been planning it? Were they bullied and teased, as nightly news broadcasts suggested? Did that open the door for other shootings elsewhere? The education system is so enclosed as a world that one never expects it to be dropped into the center of real world conflicts, and yet here we were, all players in an infrastructure that now seemed unsafe, even dangerous to be around. No moment emphasized that greater than the day when I walked into the facility carrying food and beverages for our final get together in the Journalism program, and a security guard stopped me after suspecting that a 24-pack case of Coca Cola was hiding an explosive.
Many grieved, some silently. Others were content to search for answers by blaming possible influences in the entertainment industry. “They did this because they learned it from computer games!” “They wore trench coats! They got that from ‘The Matrix’!” “They copied that famous scene from ‘The Basketball Diaries’ with Leonardo DiCaprio!” “I hear they listened to Marilyn Manson; that must be the reason why.” How startlingly parallel such comparisons are when it comes to a populace searching for reason amidst the grief; as long as there has been violence, the arts are a fair target for the elitist types looking for scapegoats. Nowadays these specific examples almost seem laughable, but in 1999 many took them extremely seriously. Manson's music was widely boycotted, and the band even received death threats. Tighter restrictions on violent movies were imposed by theater chains, while record stores refused to advertise CDs that contained parental advisory stickers. And don’t get me started on how much flack game designers got as new first person shooters continued to flood the market.
Harris and Klebold spoke honestly through video and journals about their intentions: they wanted to create a national tragedy that would rival the Oklahoma City bombings. The fatal flaw in the logic of those who act on their violent tendencies is that they are too short-sighted to see both sides of the ripple; they may forever be known with notoriety, but their actions create an overreaching awareness that influences preventative measures. Schools for a long time after were air-tight when it came to campus security, and today such security measures exist as part of a daily regiment in our public lives. Many complain about such restrictions on routine, but it is important to remember that such things exist for very real reasons. Are we so impatient with the hassles of safety that we are willing to circumvent them just for the sake of convenience?
In a hindsight that includes awareness of things like the Virginia Tech Massacre, Columbine may indeed seem like just another unfortunate tragedy in a nation chock full of preventable public carnage. But its timing was alarming, and impactful. It dragged an entire generation out of the cozy daydreams of tomorrow and dropped them headfirst into a reality where trust was futile, and safety elusive. Those scars stick with us even today; those who were direct witnesses may never even recover fully. But looking back at it now, in a head space fifteen years beyond the moment when gunshots played like a startling wake-up call, we are all older and wiser, and have hopefully found acceptance in the notion that we cannot spend our lives living in fear of the evil that walks among us. And maybe, just maybe, the legacy of those who died that day – or any other day when weapons are used against the innocent – continues to hold a mirror up to our culture in order to reduce the opportunity of such tragedies happening again.
Written by DAVID KEYES