Tragedy is different -- and all too similar

Colorado: Spree deadlier, more macabre, but guns again find their way into hands of disturbed youth.

April 22, 1999

THE MASS MURDER at a Colorado high school was different from a half-dozen others that have horrified the nation in recent years.

But in too many ways, it was disturbingly similar.

Tuesday's episode of school violence was the deadliest in U.S. history, with at least 15 students and teachers dead and 23 injured.

The killers, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, were armed with an astonishing array of automatic weapons and homemade explosives. How they obtained and hid them is unclear.

Compared with Jonesboro, Ark., where two youngsters took aim at classmates from a distance, or Paducah, Ky., where an expressionless teen killed peers in an instant, the pair at Littleton's Columbine High took gruesome glee in the attack that took hours.

Students were gunned down as they pleaded for mercy. Bodies were found with hands clasped behind heads, as if shot execution style. "Who's next? Who's ready to die?" the shooters asked, according to survivors.

The murderers' lack of remorse evoked the Nazis they revered: They singled out groups for extermination -- minorities and athletes -- in a well-planned attack. Like Hitler, born 110 years ago to the day of the killings, the suspects killed themselves.

The clues to preventing another tragedy, however, aren't found in the differences between this and previous incidents, but in the similarities.

As President Clinton noted in eloquent response, "Perhaps now America would wake up." In Littleton, as in other school killings, youngsters feared the suspects as simmering time bombs; adults appeared clueless. The Columbine assassins were part of a gang classmates dubbed the "Trench Coat Mafia," but educators seemed unaware of the pervasive threat.

The home life of the killers remained a mystery hours after the massacre, but like the other shootings, this one occurred in a place perhaps overly generalized as stable and serene.

More safeguards and penalties are needed to keep guns out of the hands of children. Even the National Rifle Association, about to convene in Denver, can't argue that.

The mass media, musicians and video-game makers have a moral obligation to more carefully weigh the indelible messages they send to youth, especially those who make light of harming others.

More adults must open their eyes and ears before more kids open fire.

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