UPDATE: CNN has the same story as USA Today, but with more reference to the academic discussion and the psychology of myth perpetuation. Evangelicals who are angry at me for posting this should just skip it.
“These are not ordinary kids who were bullied into retaliation,” psychologist Peter Langman writes in his new book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. “These are not ordinary kids who played too many video games. These are not ordinary kids who just wanted to be famous. These are simply not ordinary kids. These are kids with serious psychological problems.” -Peter Langman
The Columbine high school massacre has, unfortunately, been a professional interest for me. Part of my job involves doing risk assessments of high school students applying to our program, so understanding the dynamics of school violence is a necessary preparation.
As a Christian, I’ve had a different kind of interest in Columbine. The shootings have become part of conservative evangelical culture war mythology. Some of the dead are considered martyrs. Books have been written. Speaking tours traveled through churches and Christian media. The pundits and cultural critics have used Columbine as exhibit A for everything that was wrong with America. Here, we were told, was the results of America’s surrender to secularism and proof that we needed everything from the closure of public schools to the Ten Commandments in every classroom. (Think what a difference seeing “Thou Shalt Not Kill” would make.)
Because many of the Columbine victims were related to churches in the area, evangelicals took Columbine personally. Part of the mythology was that Christians were targeted. Churches struggled with how to respond. Here was the problem of evil on the big stage. What did the church have to say?
Ten years have passed, and USA Today does a retrospective on what we really know about Columbine. It’s essential reading for thoughtful evangelicals. (All of this information has been coming out through various books and sources, but this is a review of the total picture.)
Much of what we heard and much of what we as evangelicals told ourselves was simply not true.
Harris was a dangerously disturbed, brilliantly egomaniacal psych case. Klebold was a follower, depressed and suicidal.
Their families were normal. Where they were aware of problems, they tried to respond. They made mistakes, but the boys were exceptionally deceptive.
The only “targets” were kids who had already graduated.
The plan was to detonate a massive amount of bombs, collapsing the school and killing hundreds. None of the bombs worked.
No Christians were specially targeted for their faith. No one confessed belief in God and died as a result. The plan was to kill a whole school. The fantasy was terror on a large scale. Terror and legend were the motives.
The perceived snubs and mistreatment were minor. Harris and Klebold were, themselves, perpetrators of bullying and mistreatment of other students and were proud of it.
There is no video game connection, no occult connection, no atheism connection. Not even a particularly stereotypical pair of high school “troubled loners.”
It was a collision of two people whose particular issues and problems created the perfect chemistry for a mutual fantasy of violence.
There are issues for Christians in Columbine. Issues like acknowledging and admitting mental illness. Insisting on competent law enforcement. Secure schools. Professional assessment of at risk students. Gun control. Help for struggling families. Awareness of the dynamics and progression of violence.
Columbine is not about, and never was about, Christian persecution or any of the other culture war mythology we were told by leaders ready to use this tragedy to advance their own agendas and organizations.
Columbine is about living in the real world, not in the evangelical fantasy world. It is about being educated, aware and fully engaged in the real problems of our communities instead of distracted in our own versions of what’s wrong with the world. It is a call to do what we can, and to help families, teachers and public schools be the best they can be.
Columbine is about being compassionate, prayer and useful for Jesus, not being know-it-all opportunists. For us, it’s about doing a real assessment of how we as evangelicals accumulate and use information. Can we trust the headline-grabbing media, or even our own cultural critics, to tell us the truth? Can we be patient? (I’m the worst at this.) At a deeper level, do we want the real truth if it doesn’t fit into our pre-existing categories and answers?