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The Columbine High School Shootings

Every major spectacle carries with it the potential of a new way of looking at the past and implications of a future. Usually within a brief period after the event, a consensual “explanation” is fashioned through the news media and by the political pundits who occupy much of the space and time dedicated by the media to the event. Political pundits seated in front of the camera become part of the event, often becoming a part of the process of transforming an event in time to a spectacle. In this case, the event was the murder of 13 and wounding of 23 persons at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

The event took place on April 22, 1999 and, because of the subsequent suicide of the two teenage perpetrators, observers could only speculate on their motivation. While students were still hiding from the gunmen and while the police were still plotting their strategy, the media coverage began. Perhaps two impulses led to the coverage. First of all, the victims were not the children of the Hutus or East Timorese or even the Kosovos. These were “our” children and the parents our “friends. ” Their grief could have been ours.

In fact, in a month plus a few days, five million dollars were donated to the survivors and the victim families even without there being a major fund-raising drive (Morning Edition, NPR, June 8, 1999). Secondly, the event had the earmarks of a media spectacle, that is, by transmogrifying the event to something beyond itself, the news media knew they would again be able to maximize their profit margins on the grief and graves of others. Events are news stories; spectacles are dollars. The old tv newsroom characterization of “if it bleeds, it leads” has been replaced in their business office ofrom graves to the gravy train.

In its societal context, the Columbine school shootings are not an obvious part of a discernible sociological pattern. We know that approximately 4,500 youngsters are killed every year in intentional shootings, with thirty per cent of that number probable suicides. That’s almost 13 a day, the same number as were killed in Littleton (The Washington Post, April 25, 1999). The data on school shootings, according to the Center for Communicable Diseases, indicate that only about 28 per cent actually occurred inside the school and that one-third of the victims were not students (The New York Times, May 9, 1999).

We have known, for quite some time, that homicide is the second leading cause of teenage deaths. Just the same, counting all deaths among children and teens, only one per cent are homicides. Perhaps our first lesson is that what went on at Columbine may have been horrible, but it was not unique. Almost immediately following this high school spectacle, an array of stories, many even more bizarre than the Columbine story surfaced. Here is a sampling: Costa Mesa, CA, May 4–The Associated Press reported that a man who wanted to “execute” children plowed into a day care center with his car killing two toddlers and injuring five adults.

Port Huron, MI, May 27–USA Today reported that four middle school students were arrested. They had planned to force their principal to call an assembly and then massacre those assembled. They had also planned to kill themselves. San Marcos, TX, April 25–The Baltimore Sun reported that four 14- year-olds were arrested for plotting to kill teachers and students in an attack similar to the Colorado shooting. They had a cache of gunpowder and explosive devices. Conyers, GA, May 20–Associated Press.

A 15-year-old student in a rural Georgia high school shot and wounded six students. It was believed that he deliberately aimed his salvo below the waist to avoid killing anyone. He was stopped from a suicide attempt by the assistant principal whom he embraced while repeating “I’m scared. I’m scared. ” Palm Harbor, FL, June 10, 1999–Baltimore Sun. One day after the Columbine event, a high school social studies teacher showed his class how to make a pipe bomb and where to place it in order to maximize its impact at the school.

The intent of the teacher, presumably, was to demysrtify the events of the preceding day. Transforming Events into Spectacles What gave these events in Littleton, Colorado national prominence was a combination of geography and technology. Take this as our second lesson. Changes in the social organization of the news media, especially the multiplicity of news channels, permit the focus on single events at a level of intensity that earlier forms of news media organization did not.

Widely dispersed events,despite their commonality, remain the province of local news channels and newspapers. Similarly, dramatic events which have a short duration and discrete ending oespecially if the events move faster than the news mediao receive token coverage. This is why trials and extended investigations have become the money machines of the media”they permit the transformation of a “routine” event to a spectacle. The singular focus on an event by highly skilled producers and newspeople is transformative.

The transformative aspect has two consequences; call these lessons three and four. Lesson three is that the level of attention dedicated to the event magnifies its importance. Like moths, Americans fluttered around their tv screens in record numbers. The Columbine shootings meant big audiences. With the story at an “end,” the audiences tuned out. CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Fox News Channel lost 30-42 per cent of their viewers in May (Washington Post, June 7, 1999). Lesson four is a lesson about “mainstreaming. ” In order for an event to be important, it must be mainstream.

Not everything mainstream is important, but the far out, the countercultural, the deviant, or the politically radical are not eligible for membership in the mainstream. Because newspeople believe that they can only attract a mass audience by staying within the mainstream, they narrow what falls within their frames of the acceptable. The result is that only a small segment of existing explanations are framed. Further, given the underlying anti-intellectualism of the media (if not American society in general), careful and deliberative analysis of complex issues is also not permitted within the frame.

A case in point was the appearance of Professor Jack Levin as a panelist on the evening national cable news-talk show hosted by Geraldo Rivera. Levin, a sociologist who has studied both mass murders and hate crimes, brings considerable expertness to the subject. His sociological analysis, however, was so alien to the host, whose program specializes in the spectacular event, that Rivera “respectfully” declared him “off base” and turned to the other guests whose analyses were considerably more mainstream.

There is another dimension of mainstreaming that relates to the definition of the problem. As events are transformed into spectacles, the problem takes on an urgency (also helped by the design of tv news programs) that does not permit the articulation of complex analyses. Lesson five. In American society, if something is broken, somebody broke it. In this event, as in other recent spectacular events, there was a rush to blame somebody. Although the perpetrators were known, they were not to be defined as part of an offending category.

Being white, male, violent, and middle class, were not categories in the media agenda of blame. There may have been a rush to blame somebody, but these somebodies had to be exceptions. If they weren’t, then clearly we would have to admit to some more basic defect. If there is intense pressure to find the cause or agent, there is also intense pressure to avoid responsibility. I am not part of the problem, you/they/it are. Further, your solution cannot extend into my backyard/my lifestyle/my life. That’s lesson six.

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