Who is to blame for the Columbine High School murders?
Whose fault was it for the murders at Columbine High School? And how can we help our children resist bullies, not become bullies themselves, and thrive after horrific murders?
Next week will be the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. A recent book by Peter Langman, “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters,” looks at the killers in this and other shootings. The media is already preparing for an analytical retrospective. There will be an orgy of handshakes and pointing.
Seven of the most common targets for guilt are:
- It was the bullies’ fault. If they hadn’t pushed Harris and Klebolt to the limit, the boys would have remained good citizens.
- It was the fault of the parents of the attackers. They did not stop their children from abusing Harris and Klebolt.
- It was the school’s fault. If the principal had stopped the harassment of Harris and Klebolt, they would not have become murderers.
- It was the fault of the killers’ parents. If they had raised their children better, they would not have become murderers. If they had seen what their children had become, they would have been imprisoned or confined.
- It was Harris and Klebolt’s fault. They were psychopaths, psychotic killers who squirmed and resisted any attempt to help or stop them.
- It was the fault of a violent and corrupt society. If the teenagers’ minds hadn’t been filled with violent images, they would have been at peace.
- It was the fault of a society that lost its connection with God. If our society were more God-fearing, children would have grown up with good manners and would not have become murderers.
We usually address problems with the scientific method: we determine what went wrong, we fix the faulty part, and the system will work effectively. That method works well with purely physical material (billiard balls, cars, sending spaceships to the moon), but it is totally misleading when applied to the living world, especially humans. I am not the first to say this. Blaise Pascal said it 400 years ago. He was correct.
Seeking blame and then fixing a part of human life is the wrong way to go. It leads us to think that we can isolate one or more causes and solve them. It leads us to think that we can easily fix the school system or our society and then there will be no abuse or crazy murderers or massacres.
Of course, we don’t want children to bully other children. And we need laws to force principals to stop bullying in their schools and also to protect good principals from lawsuits brought against them by parents who want to protect their bullying children. And we want to recognize and rehabilitate children with criminal tendencies before. And we want a clearer and more coherent society about not massacring other citizens. And we want a society with more ethical and moral citizens.
Our efforts to change our school and our legal system are necessary, useful, and laudable, but they are not a solution to prevent future massacres.
Face reality. Bullies, psychopaths and murderers are like the weather: they have always been with us and always will be. We cannot change the climate any more than we can completely prevent massacres and tragedies. Assigning blame will not change that. The way we deal with the inevitable changes in the weather or the next blizzard that will hit Denver in April or May is by preparing ourselves so that we are not caught off guard or helpless.
The useful question for us is how do we prepare our children and adolescents for a world in which they will face crazy and violent people. One of our tasks is to teach our children not to use bullying tactics to feel good or to get what they want. Another task is to teach them to be resistant to bullying and how to stop bullies in their tracks. Obviously Harris and Klebolt never learned this.
The most difficult task for parents is to recognize when our children have gone wrong and to do something about it. It would be asking a lot to expect parents to say, “My son is crazy and might have a murder spree. Please lock him up.” It would also be asking a lot of school administrators to say the same thing. Yet that is exactly what we want to ask Harris and Klebolt’s parents. And also what we should ask of ourselves.
Answering these tough questions will help us teach our children better than wringing hands or blaming.