Culture's role in shootings

April 27, 1999|By Kenneth Lafave

"The sleep of reason produces monsters," -- Spanish painter Francisco de Goya

THE MONSTERS who slaughtered more than a dozen classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colo., a week ago were the products of a culture in which reason has been comatose for a very long time.

The killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were raised in a society in which rules and standards are in such constant flux as to be non-existent. Morals are a matter of spin, values a matter of choice, and violence is glorified in movies and music.

Yet we read things such as this in a news story: "Authorities may never know what sent two young men on a shooting spree at Columbine High School."

Maybe authorities will never know. But you do.

You know that guns did not send them in, though the tragedy brought an immediate cry for the banning of handguns.

Klebold and Harris used sawed-off shotguns and pipe bombs -- weapons that have long been illegal to possess. How the teen-agers got the guns is a pressing question, but simply calling for more weapon bans will not stop slaughters inflicted with banned weapons.

You know they were not sent in by virtue of feeling "different." The "different" charge was trotted out a lot in the hours after the tragic news hit. Klebold and Harris were part of a "shady group" -- the Trench Coat Mafia -- shunned by other students and even taunted by them. It's tempting to let this stand as adequate. How to explain, however, a widely published yearbook picture of the trench coat-wearing group in which the killers are not among the 13 youths pictured? Why didn't those 13 other "different" kids participate in the killings?

Certainly the killers had a gun obsession, and certainly they were different. But others love guns to distraction, find themselves outside the loop of class popularity and do nothing about it.

Just what sent these two into the creation of a hell on Earth?

A culture that underwrote their hatred as just another lifestyle choice.

Shock rocker Marilyn Manson, reportedly a favorite of Klebold and Harris, helped send them in, even if only indirectly.

"Hate every [expletive] that's in your way," goes one of his typical lyrics.

"Shoot, shoot, shoot, [expletive]," goes another.

So, Klebold and Harris shot, hating with racist venom the usual victims of American hatred but generously including jocks as well.

In reality, of course, the killers sent themselves in. They, and not countless other people who listen to shock rock and other forms of violent music, decided to murder. If moral action is going to have any meaning at all, people -- even teen-agers -- must take responsibility for their own actions.

And yet, it's not precisely that easy. Klebold and Harris chose evil, but the culture was at their ears whispering, "Why not?" A different moral and aesthetic environment, a different voice at their ears -- one of conscience and personal responsibility perhaps -- and 15 people might be alive who are today dead.

It's a curious society that holds cigarette manufacturers responsible for the deaths of people who choose to smoke but smiles at images of violence and at incompetently written songs that urge hatred and shooting.

What's missing here is Goya's Reason. We think of reason only as "being reasonable," or equate it with logic. But Reason was something much bigger, more needful. It was the obvious and natural link between feeling and act, between value and fact.

Reason was -- and still is, where it persists -- the capacity to see connections and distinctions. It doesn't put material things such as guns in one corner and feelings and art in another. It sees them as interconnected, interdependent. And it knows what you know: as a society believes, so will it act. It is not surprised by mass murders in a culture that glorifies and "artistically" encourages mass murder, any more than you are.

Could anything be more obvious? Yet pragmatic Americans will continue to pooh-pooh notions of cultural culpability. And that's too bad for the parents who have packed the last lunch, bought the last pair of jeans, forgot to say "I love you" for the last time.

Kenneth Lafave is an arts writer for the Arizona Republic.

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