Ten years on: the enduring lessons of Columbine

Part one of a series

April 20, 2009: 11:19 am MDT

Ten years ago a co-worker turned to me and said something that I’ll never forget, no matter how long I live: “Hey, Sammy, there’s been a school shooting in Littleton.”

Since that day a great deal has been written and said about Columbine High School and the events of 4.20.99, and like a lot of other people I’ve tried my hardest to make sense of something that seemed (and still seems) inherently senseless. Tried and failed. Now, ten years on, the grief hasn’t fully dissipated here in the city that I have come to call home, and even if we manage to understand the whos, whats, and hows, there’s a part of us that’s doomed to wrestle forever with the whys.

We’ve learned a lot over the past decade, though, and as we mark the tenth anniversary of Columbine, let’s begin by recounting three important lessons.

1: The authorities cannot be relied on. From the emergency response through the investigation process, Columbine was a case study in how not to.

I hate to be overly critical of police because they really have to do a hellish job, but that day witnessed one of the worst failures by a law enforcement agency that we’ve ever seen.

Two officers exchanged fire with one of the teenage gunmen just outside the school door, then stopped — as they had been trained to do — to wait for a SWAT team. During the 45 minutes it took for the SWAT team to assemble and go in, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 10 of the 13 people they killed that day.

The killers committed suicide around the time the makeshift SWAT team finally entered. But the SWAT officers took several hours more to secure the place, moving methodically from room by room. One of the wounded, teacher Dave Sanders, slowly bled to death. [Source]

If this is the book on how to operate, explain to me exactly why you need a SWAT team in the first place. Events would have played out more or less identically if the SWAT budget had instead been allocated to Parks & Rec.

The good news, as the article goes on to explain, is that the meltdown at Columbine led to “active shooter” training, which is credited with making police officers across the country far more effective in these kinds of cases.

Sadly, there’s no indication at all that the longer, more mind-numbing process of investigating and reporting has been improved. “Quagmire,” “spin,” “cover-up,” “embarrassment,” “lost” and “hidden” reports – at every turn those charged with getting to the bottom of the worst school shooting in history acted like they were auditioning for roles on CSI Hooterville.

If the whole story – or at least most of it – is known today, it is despite these officials, not because of them.

2: Religious interests will colonize your grief for their own ends. As I walked the grounds of Columbine and Clement Park a few days after the massacre, I was absolutely staggered at the extent to which the tragedy had been transformed into an explicitly Christian extravaganza. Which was a little fascinating, since it wasn’t a Christian school and unless you were sucker enough to believe that there was a religious tint to the killings (there wasn’t – more on this in a minute) the tragedy had about as much to do with Jesus as it did Kubla Khan. Still, the impromptu memorials prayed, beseeched, questioned and promised in a distinctly evangelical way that had to make non-evangelicals a little uncomfortable. After all, this was their town, too, and I can say with absolute certainty that it didn’t matter what your religion was or wasn’t. Columbine was personal and the grief it engendered was profound.

It wasn’t just my imagination, either. One prominent local minister said he felt like he’d been “hit over the head with Jesus.”

To top it all off, Billy Graham’s lackwit boy Franklin parachuted in to preside over a nationally televised Mournapalooza service. No doubt some were comforted by the presence of a bona fide religious carpetbagger, but it’s hard to see, looking back, how the needs of the community were actually addressed by the self-serving machinations of a C-list opportunist.

To put it in Chaucerian terms, we could have done with a little less Summoner and a little more Parson.

3: The mainstream press values the narrative above the facts. They were goths! It was the Trenchcoat Mafia! They were targeting jocks, blacks and Christians! Cassie Bernall said yes!

Lie. Lie. Lie, lie, lie. And damnable, intentional lie. Local and national “reporters” could have been outperformed by monkeys with Ouija boards.

Not that the run-of-the-mill press bumbling came as any real surprise – journalistic malpractice is well-known in Colorado. But ineptitude is one thing. Outright, overt, premeditated lies are quite another, and that’s exactly what both of Denver’s mainstream papers – the Denver Post and the recently-defunct Rocky Mountain News – did when they ran the “Cassie Bernall said yes” story as fact. They knew, by their own admission, that it was false, so why did they lie? Well, the lie seemed to be providing comfort to a grieving city.

Take that as the foundational operating principle for a free press and see where it leads…

If some of us have sort of moved on, then, if we have somehow clawed our way to a modicum of closure, it has been against a backdrop of secrecy, deceit, ineptitude and a pervasive moral pathology born of evangelical self-righteousness. Whatever insights we have attained, whatever emotional peace we have found, it has all been accomplished without the help of our community’s central institutions. As a result, I suspect that many of us mark the tenth anniversary with a little anger, a little bitterness.

There’s not much I can do about that except to suggest that what happened ten years ago today was not a one-off. It has happened since and it will almost certainly happen again, and my deep suspicion is that these kinds of events arise, in part, as a result of the dysfunctions noted here. That is, the governmental breakdown, the evangelical circus and the unforgivable duplicity of those who were granted particular 1st Amendment freedoms so that they could safely tell us the goddamned truth were not results of Columbine. Maybe I’m cynical, but it seems to me that these flaws in the fabric of our society existed well in advance of 4.20.99 and it’s hardly surprising that a sick system would spawn broken children capable of unspeakable barbarism. Nor is it surprising that the system would then cannibalize those children and their victims in order to slake its spiraling lust for ignorance and hatred.

Whatever was wrong ten years and one day ago is still wrong.

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20 thoughts on “Ten years on: the enduring lessons of Columbine”

  1. I also remember that day. I was on the 12th floor of the Tabor Center when I saw one of the admins (I had a glass-walled office) suddenly throw her hands up to her face in horror. Her daughter was a student at Columbine, and she had just gotten the news. Naturally, she left in a rush and most of the rest of us fired up the TV to watch the story unfold. I left to find a place to donate blood and listened to the radio. Like most fathers that day (I assume), I had trouble seeing the road on occasion because of salt-water-eye.

    I also remember the follow-up frenzy, the kids around the country who reported threats, beatings and other abuse because they were goths or wore trench coats, and the outpouring of phony emotion as every nutcase out there tried to horn in on others’ victim status. The worst had to be the Cassie Bernall crowd. Even the original reports contained no indication that Bernall thought she could have saved her life by denying her faith, or that she was killed because of her faith, but truth has never swayed the religulous (thank you Bill Maher for that term).

    Thanks for a great article, Sam.

  2. 1) Very large country;
    2) Widespread affluence; and
    3) Ease of access to weapons (2nd Amendment is sacred writ).

    Forget all your other silly explanations.

  3. I still argue point #1. A co-worker of mine at the time of the shootings was an Army ranger. He’d done a number of drills on securing buildings. He was horrified by how quickly the SWAT team had secured Columbine. Think about how many rooms are in a high school. Think about how many rooms have multiple entrances; doors in the halls; doors on balconies; doors between classrooms. Think about all the rows of lockers; the stands in the gymnasium; all the blind spots in a theatre; the often easy access to the A/C ducts.

    It’s tragic that Dave Sanders died as a result of slowly bleeding to death. But without telepathy or phones, there was no way to know that running quickly to his aid was safe to do so. For all the SWAT team knew at the time, Harris and Klebold could very well have been holding students hostage. One quick entrance into their room could have led to many more deaths. It was unfortunate, but unavoidable.

  4. As I understand it, the “active shooter” approach that has been adopted (and credited with some successes) argues just the opposite. I’m not arguing that we should train the police by having them watch Rambo movies, but if what we saw at Columbine was the best they could do, well, see my “Parks and Rec” remark. On that day the difference between having a trained SWAT unit and having no SWAT unit at all was what?

  5. 1) All violent episodes include a substantial element of ‘fog of war’. I think you expect more of the ‘authorities’ than can be accomplished under any circumstances;
    2) Most Americans find meaning in Christianity, whatever that means; and
    3) ‘Lie’ is a harsh word. What is it the tabloids like National Enquirer do? That.

    It stills seems the best analysis is expressed in Janet Napolitano’s phrase ‘man-made disaster’.

  6. ‘The good news, as the article goes on to explain, is that the meltdown at Columbine led to “active shooter” training, which is credited with making police officers across the country far more effective in these kinds of cases.’

    um…….April 3, 2009

    “Binghamton police arrived in minutes, heard no gunfire, and waited for about an hour before entering the building to make sure it was safe for officers…

    One receptionist survived, playing dead, before crawling under a desk and calling 911.

    Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said she stayed on the phone for 90 minutes, “feeding us information constantly,” despite a serious wound in the abdomen.”

  7. @Dr Slammy

    The polite hypocrisy of adulthood requires that we refrain from accusing other adults of lying. It’s the rancorous language of a family fight before somebody reaches for a gun.

    Stories about the shooting at Columbine appeal to a prurient appetite. The facts may not be an important consideration in the work of catering to that appetite.

  8. No noob:

    I disagree strongly about the word “lie.” I think we use it too little. If it were used more often, perhaps those who engage in it would be more likely to be shamed into stopping.

  9. this Columbine thing had more than ‘2’ shooters, and there was involvement of the investigating agent’s son in this shit.

    another cover-up. more F.B.I. bullshit and lies.

    more government spinning a tale that is not true, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

  10. FBI Agent etc.

    Don’t forget about the black helicopters. And what about the Masons? And the Trilateral Commission?

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