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The Dangerous Myths of Columbine

Today is the 19 year anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Students across America are walking out of their schools as a way of protesting gun violence.

Growing up, I’d heard of Columbine and its two shooters. I was seven when it happened. I was told that they were outcasts, part of the “trenchcoat mafia” who were going after jocks. I watched the movie Bowling for Columbine in high school which presented the situation as though it was this hyper-conservative society that mistreated these boys for listening to Marilyn Manson. I remember the interview with Manson when he was asked what he would have said to the Columbine shooters. Manson replies, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them; I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”

The documentary cemented my images of these two men for years and it wasn’t until I listened to the podcast “Last Podcast on the Left” and their episode on the Columbine shooting that I heard, oh all the stuff you’ve been told–that’s bullshit.

That bullshit is important because it is the mythology behind the Columbine shooters that has trickled down into every aspect of how we cover school shootings today. The rush to victimize the shooter, the framing them as put upon or mentally ill, and making them, intentionally or otherwise, the heroes of these stories.

If you are looking for a source to learn about the shooting I highly recommend Columbine by Dave Cullen. Cullen breaks down the mythology and how it happened. It did not start maliciously or intentionally, but from a rush to understand what happened.

The beginning of it, like many things, starts with inaccurate media reports. Students were watching and hearing the news reports of what was going on that said the shooters were “outcasts” and therefore when those same students were later interviewed they were regurgitating what they had heard. Suddenly, the shooters also became victims of another kind. Members of an outcast group called The Trench Coat Mafia where they were bullied.

Trench Coat Mafia, which became synonymous with anti-social behavior, was actually a group of kids who liked playing D&D and other video games. A group that the shooters were not even a part of, but because framing the shooters as “outcasts” and “Goth” made both a more exciting news story, but also fed into a pre-established narrative the media wanted to promote about kids who were into alternative lifestyles and music.

For the Columbine shooters, their goal and their motivation was to use the tools of terrorism to leave their mark on the world. They wanted to be famous, to leave behind a legacy, which is what they succeeded in doing. And the media helped. But participating in the mythology of the Columbine shooters, American media helped create this breed of shooters that exists almost exclusively in the states.

Massive shootings happen in other places, but even the most extreme cases, like Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in Norway in 2011 was not done for fame, it was a political killing, motivated by hatred, xenophobia, and politics. Breivik was not lionized. His name is not well known in the same way of the Columbine shooters are.

This was most recently criticized after Rolling Stone’s cover of the Boston Bomber made him look more like a member of One Direction than someone responsible for the deaths of five people and the injuring of almost 300 people.

Embed from Getty Images

Just recently with the Austin bomber, the police initially called him”a challenged young man” and talked about his intelligence, before eventually addressing that he was a terrorist.

Sadly, we as a society have turned all these cult leaders, murders, and school shooters into subjects of fascination. As I write this article Wild Wild Country on Netflix is playing in the background and I am bitterly aware of how I also play into that. I love true crime, I am fascinated by the narratives surrounding men like Jim Jones and others, but at the same time, I’ve also had to come to terms with how we’ve raised up these men.

The hero worship and fascination around men like Charles Manson goes beyond people on the fringe. It is mainstream, pop culture fascination. We don’t spend that same amount of time on female murders or serial killers, and of those there are plenty. The sad thing is that we enjoy the stories of broken men, especially when we can craft something tragic and almost cathartic about their experiences.

As someone who grew up in the long shadow that Columbine created, both the fact and the fictional, it astounds me that something that has impacted my life so prevalently, I knew so little about. I didn’t even realize that the song “Cassie” by Flyleaf, a band I grew up loving, was about one of the victims of Columbine.

Cassie Barnall was one of the 13 victims of Columbine. The “story” went that she was asked whether or not she believed in God by one of the shooters, said yes, and then was killed. Further examination of the testimony, according to Dave Cullen,  given proved that Cassie Barnall was not asked anything before she died and the person who was asked that question was another victim, Valeen Schnurr.

As in many things concerning Columbine, the truth was not what mattered. The fictionalized part of Barnall’s story got grabbed up by some members of the evangelical church. Rick Santorum even referenced this story in 2016 when he was defending Kim Davis, even though the story had been debunked for years at this point.

What I take from the narrative around Columbine is the importance of not turning these mostly white, male perpetrators into heroes. I avoided using the names of the shooters in this post for that reason. They wanted to be famous and we gave that to them. We spend more time trying to break down the psychology of these teenagers who wanted to not just commit a school shooting but also bomb their school. The only reason the bombing didn’t happen was that it was a faulty bomb.

They were not bullied. They were not outcasts.

We need to remember the victims more. We need to know their names, not only when they can provide us with a story, but because their lives were cut short because of these warped people.

These men aren’t victims, they aren’t geniuses. They are terrorists and instead of celebrating their “intellect” we need to remember that they are murders, predators, and manipulators.

(via, image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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