The Columbine massacre was a startling wake up call. These are the conclusions that have been drawn in the subsequent years.
It’s fate that the 15th anniversary of the Columbine shootings fell on Easter Sunday, a day of remembrance. A day of resurrection. But with the commemoration of lives lost comes a painful reminder of the circumstances of their passing, the return of unresolved feelings their friends and families will never come to terms with. In the 15 years since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 fellow students, a teacher and wounded 23 others before committing suicide at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the world has changed. The motive for one of the deadliest mass shootings ever to take place in the country has been the subject of detailed analysis, but the bigger and more relevant question is what have we learned in the period between that pivotal, horrific day and now.
The motive for the attack has been the subject of detailed analysis, but the bigger and more relevant question is what have we learned in the period between that pivotal, horrific day and now
In the wake of the attack, the question on the tip of every tongue was why did Klebold and Harris take 13 lives, and, eventually, their own. A combination of panic, fear and confusion compelled some to incorrectly blame popular culture and subcultures. The recent release of The Matrix, the popularity of bands like Marilyn Manson and general unease with Goth culture led to the erroneous and overblown perpetuation of the "Trench Coat Mafia" myth. In a Slate article published on Columbine’s fifth anniversary in 2004, writer Dave Cullen noted that understanding what Klebold and Harris did unlocks why they did it:
School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as "collateral damage."
Many forget that the massacre was originally conceived as a bombing that would’ve killed hundreds, as Klebold and Harris aspired to outdo McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people on Apr. 19, 1995. As Cullen points out, their end game went far beyond infamy on a grand scale. They sought complete chaos, something made clear by journals and videos discovered after the shooting. Though their plan didn’t unfold as intended, they still achieved their goal, as Columbine was the landmark in a series of spree shootings across the U.S.
Of the many deadly school shootings since Columbine, two stand out: the incidents at Virginia Tech University and Sandy Hook Elementary School. On Apr. 16, 2007, 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 more before killing himself on the school's Blacksburg, Va. campus. It remains the deadliest single-gunman shooting incident in U.S. history, but also stood out because it happened during the week of Columbine’s anniversary. Cho—who was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder and previously displayed signs of erratic behavior—referred to Klebold and Harris as "martyrs" in his manifesto, citing their actions as inspirational.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. after killing his mother at their home. Just like Klebold, Harris and Cho, he then took his own life. The Sandy Hook massacre remains the deadliest shooting at a U.S. elementary or high school, and is second only to the Virginia Tech shooting as the deadliest by a lone shooter. Once again, everyone was left wondering why—specifically why anyone would brutally murder children. The look of grief on President Obama’s face as he fought back tears while addressing the tragedy represented how the entire nation felt. Investigation—and, later, the words of Lanza’s father—revealed that, like Klebold, Harris and Cho, Lanza was deeply disturbed. The shooting also sparked the same conversations about gun control that followed Columbine and Virginia Tech.
After Columbine, there was an immediate call for more stringent gun measures. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton pleaded with lawmakers to pass new gun legislation following the shooting, as well as the fatal shooting of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland at the hands of another 6-year-old, Dedrick Owens, at Theo J. Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, Mich. The Virginia Tech attack resulted in then-President George W. Bush signing the first major gun control law in over 13 years, empowering the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to stop anyone declared mentally unfit from purchasing handguns. Sandy Hook sparked new arguments, with President Obama vowing that a focus on tighter gun control would be central to his second term in office. The proposal that would have expanded background checks was ultimately rejected last April, a day after the sixth anniversary of Virginia Tech and three days before the 14th anniversary of Columbine.
Columbine, like the shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School, also showed that supposed safe havens—schools—sometimes are not. Perhaps that lingering revelation is the most frightening of all
One thing we’ve learned since Columbine is that the clues are always there. Klebold, Harris, Cho and Lanza all exhibited signs of unstable behavior, early hints of the atrocities they would later commit. Hopefully, the world has learned to pay closer attention to those indicators. Furthermore, while the need for reformed gun laws is the general consensus, an accord on what, exactly, needs to be done can't seem to be reached. A 2009 CNN article written on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings pointed out that it was the top news story of 1999. Its impact extends from "Columbine" entering the lexicon as a point of reference for tragedy, synonymous with something somber, to inspiring terrifyingly realistic portrayals in Gus Van Zant’s Elephant and an early episode of American Horror Story.
Columbine, like the shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School, also showed that supposed safe havens—schools—sometimes are not. Perhaps that lingering revelation is the most frightening of all.
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