In Colorado, no answer for the `why' question

April 23, 1999|By Mike Littwin

LITTLETON, Colo. -- It is the day after the tragedy, and the sky is showing snow, as it sometimes will in late April here in the shadow of the Rockies. You think maybe that's a sign, even as you know it can't be. If it's not too late for snow, it's much too late for signs. Still, you search. We all do.

If you go to Columbine High School -- or as close as the police lines allow you to what the visiting network news anchormen like to call the killing fields -- you find a scene that is by now numbingly familiar.

Familiar scene

There are, of course, the long lines of red-eyed teen-agers, framed by the long rows of mobile television units. And there's a minicam in pursuit of some kids carrying beribboned teddy bears. The cameraman has his eye on the perfect shot of the too-young mourners placing the bears alongside the flowers at one of the makeshift memorials. And he gets it.

Copycat crimes

This is the eighth school shooting in two years. And each time you're shocked that you can still be so shocked. And then it happens in your town, and the shock and grief know no bounds.

Those with the cameras aren't interested in the "why" question -- not just yet. We think we know some of the answers anyway. The left blames guns, and the right blames the violent popular culture, and all have to know that it's some odd combination of the two.

Put a couple of disaffected teen-agers in touch with 30-odd pipe bombs and a stockpile of guns, and, the next thing you know, if it's Hitler's birthday and the kids are German-spouting Gothics in trench coats, a dozen youngsters and a teacher will lie dead in an orgy of school-day killing.

Or maybe it's not as simple as that, or wouldn't there be a Littleton for every alienated kid who refuses to wear Abercrombie & Fitch to school? In any case, at this moment, what these cameras are after is not the cause. They want effect.

The press and the public meet in the school's parking lot. At the foot of one car belonging to a victim, classmates gather to console one another, pile another bouquet of flowers onto the hood and weep in someone's arms. The cameras can't resist. And yet, Joe Dreaden, a Columbine freshman who knew the victim, stands guard at the scene, asking all the cameramen not to shoot there.

It is heartbreaking to watch him in his sad sentry. "I just want them to show respect," he says. And they do, once reminded.

Meanwhile, I'm watching another camera pan a long canvas of notes written to the dead. Many of the notes are prayers. A few are angry. And one, in singular bold strokes, is a one-word question: Why?

So we do come back to why, even as the shooting frenzy at Columbine causes the Colorado legislature to kill a concealed-weapons bill just before passage. Assumptions need to be re-assumed. It will be said more than once that Littleton, in a fast-growth county 10 miles south of downtown Denver, is the kind of place to which affluent Americans have retreated -- and not the place for a killing field.

People move here for schools and for safety. And now they find themselves wondering where to go next, except there's nowhere left. You can make your own Web site from wherever you can plug in a modem.

Besides, every high school in every socioeconomic class has its share of misfits. But these were possibly the first to launch a massive assault on their high school as vengeance, and definitely the first to launch the assault after driving to school in a BMW.

Why them? Why here? Were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold the first sick kids to watch "The Basketball Diaries" and its dream sequence of school violence? These are the tougher "why" questions. If the warning signs had been so clear -- Harris' hate-filled Web site, just as an example -- how many kids show similar signs and never go on to hurt anyone?

And this case of the Trench Coat Mafia doesn't explain, say, Jonesboro, Ark., or Pearl, Miss., parts of the country, by the way, where kids have always had access to guns. And yet there were no school-day massacres there before. And there's this irresistible note: One of the disaffected suspects not only was in to violent video games and the weird German band KMFDM, but he also played fantasy baseball.

Why here? Why now?

An out-of-town TV station puts the questions to a youngster who identifies himself only as a Columbine senior. He tries to ponder the imponderable.

"This is not America," he says. "This is not who we are. Look around and see all the people coming here to help each other. Those were two sick kids who hated people so much . . . I can't understand why. How are we supposed to know why?"

Late that night, the snow begins in earnest and would eventually blanket all the memorials. In James Joyce's story "The Dead," he writes of the snow "faintly falling . . . upon all the living and the dead." If only it weren't too late for signs.

Mike Littwin, a former Sun columnist, is a columnist for the Denver (Colo.) Rocky Mountain News.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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