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March 2004

Some shootings in Colorado:
On Columbine - five years after

By George A. Ricker

In all the discussion and breast-beating about the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999, some connections that should have been made were either overlooked or avoided by the dominant media in our society. Major broadcast networks and print media were too busy hyping the story and trotting out the usual assortment of sound bites, talking heads and heart-rending personal anecdotes to engage in anything approaching thoughtful analysis of either the event or its causes.

It’s true we live in a culture dominated by violent imagery. The more interesting issue is how we got that way. Maybe if we understand that, we’ll have a better handle on what happened in Colorado.

Consider that not long after the shootings, NBC aired its much-ballyhooed rendition of the story of Noah and the ark, a biblical myth wherein the deity worshipped — according to most polls — by a majority of the people in this nation commits the worst act of mass murder in the history of humankind by slaughtering every man, woman and child on the planet because of their sin and wickedness, except for Noah and his immediate family. Alongside Yahweh’s temper tantrum, the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et. al., pale by comparison. None of them, after all, came within eight people of exterminating the entire human race. They weren’t even close.

It always amazes me that, while deploring the violence depicted on television and in the movies, so many people are totally oblivious to the carnage in the collection of books they regard as sacred writ. If we are going to go into the business of banning violent media (and I don’t suggest we should) — whether it be books, records, video games or whatever — the only sane place to begin is with the Bible. Compared to the conduct of Yahweh, his prophets and followers, the depravities practiced by mere mortals, absent “divine” inspiration, are almost minor offenses. And nowhere in the developed world is that violent and depraved mythology given greater credence than here in the United States.

In his "Age of Reason," Thomas Paine had this to say about the Bible, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”

Perhaps one of the reasons we’re such violent people isn’t that we need more religion, as religionists are fond of suggesting, but that we have too much of it. After all, when the myths we claim to hold most sacred come to us dripping with blood, why should we be surprised by a little carnage in more mundane fare?

Meanwhile, we have turned war into a video game played in segments on the nightly news. In the twelve months preceding the shootings at Columbine High School, our nation launched missile and bomb attacks on four nations — Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yugoslavia — and, while we were at it, accidentally hit a site in Pakistan.

As we agonized over the tragedy at Columbine, we witnessed a different tragedy unfolding — on NBC and other news networks — as the NATO allies visited godlike retribution on the people of Serbia in an effort to force their leader to conform his policies to NATO’s wishes. The bombing runs killed an undetermined number of innocent people, blew up all the bridges over the Danube — stopping all shipping traffic in the river because of the debris — and, as if that weren’t enough, precipitated one of the worst humanitarian crises seen in Europe in decades. On our way to those accomplishments we also managed to deepen the rift between Russia and the West and place more strain on an already strained relationship.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and England continued their air war against Iraq and, according to the UN and various relief agencies trying to ease their suffering, between 4,000 and 6,000 Iraqi children died every month as a direct consequence of the more subtle violence of a sanctions regime being insisted on by the United States. They died because of inadequate food, inadequate medical supplies and an infrastructure that had been turned to rubble. They died because they had the bad luck to live in a nation that is being run by a brutal dictator who fell out of favor with the Corporate States of America when he demonstrated the colossal bad judgment to attack an oil-rich oligarchy (Kuwait) and threaten the hegemony of the oil producers in the region (The Persian Gulf).

They died, in short, because of the indifference of the rest of the world. They died because we were unable to bludgeon the leader of their nation into acting the way we wanted him to act, and we possessed neither the wit nor the wisdom to seek nonviolent alternatives to that attempt.

Lest anyone think the inauguration of a new administration might signal the beginning of a more thoughtful policy toward Iraq, our newly selected president (George W. Bush, the clear choice of five Supreme Court justices and the political hacks who run the state of Florida) authorized the “routine” bombing of targets in and around Baghdad as the first military action of his presidency, thus following in the footsteps of both his daddy and his immediate predecessor.

Once the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001 had occurred, the Bush administration responded by declaring a “War” on terrorism, followed in short order by the launching of a war on Afghanistan, in which the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime and attempted to deprive Osama bin Laden’s Al-Quaeda terror network of its chief base of operations. In the spring of 2003 we invaded Iraq on the pretext that (a) it was necessary to “disarm” Saddam Hussein of the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration was adamant he possessed in such quantities as to pose a clear and immediate danger to the United States and its interests, and (b) to disrupt the alleged (by the Bush administration) linkage between Saddam Hussein and Al-Quaeda. Unfortunately for the Bush administration, although both wars ended rather quickly, neither is really over. The Taliban are reforming in Afghanistan. Al-Quaeda has launched new attacks (though no doubt its capacities have been diminished). Iraq is now in a state of near anarchy with religious strife evident and daily attacks on U.S. military personnel ongoing. We still haven’t found any weapons of mass destruction, and we still have been unable to produce any clear evidence for either their existence or the existence of the linkage we claimed.

At a time when the U.S. government has substituted “smart” bombs for thoughtful diplomacy, why should we be surprised that some of our children adopt the same approach when dealing with the tensions and difficulties of adolescence. The temptation, as always, is to write such children off as members of a lunatic fringe, but there is a sense in which they act in accordance with precisely the same values that are utilized year-in and year-out by the various regimes we elect to run the planet from Washington, D.C. They may not be the values we proclaim to the world in clouds of self-righteous rhetoric, but they certainly are the values we practice in it.

How is it we were so astonished by the violence in Colorado?

If the adult leaders of this nation cannot resolve situations like those in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq without resorting to violence, and the deity said to be worshipped by many of our fellow citizens cannot deal with the beings it supposedly created except by resorting to violence and the threat of violence, why should we expect teenagers to deal with their problems any differently?

Those who call for reinventing our culture so that it promotes nonviolent alternatives as the preferred means of solving our human problems are kidding themselves if they believe that objective can be achieved by changing a few song lyrics, editing a few TV shows and movies and putting warning labels on video games. We have a culture which is violent because the basic institutions of that culture rely on violence — both real and threatened — to achieve their goals.

Of course, that always has been true. It also always has been true that immature people — children and a discouragingly high number of chronological adults — tend to use violent behavior to attempt to achieve their goals. One of the signs of maturity is the recognition that while it can sometimes be effective, violence isn’t always the best way to get what you want in life. What’s different today is, even if no more violent than ever, our children have access to a better class of weapons.

I realize it’s much less troubling to deal with such events by trotting out vague generalities. Talk about the “dark side” of human nature; talk about how it’s “everybody’s fault” that these kids decided to blow away their classmates; blame it on adolescent angst, dark trench coats, D&D, too much television, the Goth lifestyle, too much freedom, too little responsibility, not enough parental supervision ... blah … blah … blah. People immediately want to propose new laws or new procedures that will ensure that “this never happens again.”

And when the quick fixes fail and it does happen again, we doubtless will remain just as shocked, just as horrified, and just as unwilling to deal with the awful truth as we always have been.

What happened in Colorado didn’t happen because of a breakdown in our society. It happened because of values that are enshrined at its very core. Until we change them, we have no hope of dealing honestly with events like the one that occurred at Columbine High School five years ago or preventing them from happening again.

* A shorter version of this article (
“Five Years After Columbine” ) ran in the April, 2004 issue of Freethought Today.

© 2004 George A. Ricker

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