On April 20, 1999, two students by the name of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred 12 students and a teacher within 16 minutes. This was the Columbine high school shooting and one of the first of its kind. This shooting has ended up becoming a playbook for school shooters in the United States in the decades until now. What made the Columbine shooting so impactful, is that while it was not the first school shooting or even the second within the United States, but it was one of the first massacres to take place right as the digital world was taking off. And therefore, became forever immortalized – because of the way it was reported on.
What we know from Columbine is that contrary to how they are sometimes portrayed; these kids were not psychotic, or masterminds or bullied and driven to villainy. They were relatively popular and had good grades, had not been diagnosed with any mental illnesses beforehand – though it has been argued that one of them might have been mentally ill. But most importantly they didn’t have a breakdown out of anywhere; in fact, they had been showing signs for years and had been in trouble with law enforcement many times. And they had been writing in online forums about attacking people and researching how to build bombs. In a society where films like “Natural Born Killers” make box office hits it’s not very surprising either. What is surprising is that while they were dropping hints and emitting signs no one noticed.
It may not be out of place to mention that Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, and Tom Sizemore that dramatized killing of human beings as a sport was released in 1994 – five years before the sensational real-life tragedy at Columbine. Oliver Stone’s film is a celluloid narrative of two victims of traumatic childhoods – Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis – who become lovers and mass murderers and are irresponsibly glorified by the mass media. Robert Downey Jr is the parasitic tv reporter, supposedly our real villain, that follows them like a shadow to broadcast their crimes turning them into heroes. Though one wonders: heroes of whom? What kind of disturbed society can accept these “natural born killers” as heroes? While Oliver Stone pretends to condemn media sensationalism, movie is more of a rouse for youngsters and Oliver Stone to many minds is the real-life character of American society played by Robert Downey Jr in the movie.
Coming back to the macabre world of Columbine and its sequence. Studies over the past twenty years throw up a rough profile of a school shooter; he is or was a student at that school, has previously suffered from trauma, and is currently going through crisis. In most cases, these shooters have previously made suicidal attempts. But these students have and will always exist. It is easily one of the greatest failures of society that it places such pressure on vulnerable students already in a difficult phase of their lives causing them to bend to pressure. But what the media coverage of the Columbine massacre brought about was that it showed people there was another way of removing that frustration. Another way of getting back at the system – but isn’t this what “Natural Born Killers” portrayed in 1994?
Early on the media almost romanticized the idea of what happened at Columbine. It was painted out like these kids were outcasts and bullied, as if they were getting back at the school that wronged them. We know now they were troubled and ignored, but they weren’t driven to any point. But it was too late. The idea is now set in the minds of people creating a fantasy script for them to follow. And with every day that another shooting takes place, every day there’s another drill telling kids what to do in case it happens, they become increasingly desensitized to the actual trauma they are experiencing. Until they reach a point that even when they are aware that this is damaging their mental health, killing students and should not be the norm – it is from a faraway haze. And they may have reached that point from where it becomes easier to commit inhuman acts crimes like these shootings.
But the United States is not the only country to have troubled children, but it’s one of the few developed countries to have 129 mass shootings since the beginning of the year – 14 of these on school and college campuses. Reality is that such shootings don’t exist elsewhere – not even in the countries ravaged by civil wars like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia or Pakistan where guns are rampant. In Pakistan’s tribal belts, men – over age 14 – are supposedly married to their guns and sleep with them. But one never hears of kids barging into madrassas killing other kids! Perhaps that is the kind of “gun control” Republicans romanticize about!
Read more: School shootings: The American heartbreak
Culture vs gun laws
Let’s start with the guns. If you’ve not been sleeping under a rock, you’re probably aware of how controversial gun control is in the US. It’s one of the extreme examples of how politicians disagree with each other and tends to be one of those issues that also sways votes. But, in case you have been sleeping under a rock, the gist of the background is that the Democratic Party supports stronger gun control, while the Republican Party maintains that it would be sacrilege of their amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms. Those who argue against stronger gun control often use the argument that it’s not the guns killing people it’s people. Advertisements by the gun industry also frequently mention this fact. After all they’re not wrong. The gun is not pulling its own trigger. It’s just a tool.
So, what about the American people makes them so violence-prone that over a 100 Americans die each day die to gun violence specifically? After all, this the most developed country in the world; a nation that leads in all matters of research and development; atomic bomb is pre-historic, now America lives by virtual reality, internet of things, ChatGPT and what not – why not also lead their way in having the highest minimum standards of living, and the lowest wealth gap – instead of dropping ranks yearly since 2016 among the world’s most peaceful countries according to the Global peace index. Of course, just because the gun isn’t causing the problem doesn’t mean you hand them out. You don’t give a suicidal person a rope to hang themselves with, do you?
So, we know it’s not lax gun regulations directly, maybe it has more to do with the culture. The culture tends to be very individualistic and competitive and has developed this way because of immigrants that entered the country, fending for themselves, and how the constitution emphasizes – or perhaps over-emphasizes – on personal liberty and freedom. This has been encouraged and intertwined with the American identity because of the economic success it brought about. And while a highly competitive market has many advantages, which helps explain how the United States was leading in research, but it doesn’t do much for cultivating an empathetic society. And when people cannot empathize and care about one another, they are less likely to care about the violence committed against them and more likely to commit said violence. Without the support system that comes with a collectivist society, individuals are more likely to suffer from worsening mental health. A study from the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology found, with a sample of 46 countries, that individualistic societies highly correlate to positive suicide rates.
Read more: Student killed in US school shooting near Columbine
Hollywood glamorizing violence
And now to the final possible factor that comes to my mind, is desensitization. American media has always glorified violence – Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is a classic example. But while studies have shown no great direct link between the quantum of violent media consumed and the rates of violence, we can use it to discuss the fascination held within society about violence and how it glorifies the American military. Owning and knowing how to use a gun is equated with masculinity – more than any other society in the west. It’s a never-ending cycle. The fascination started with the movies, the movies encouraged the fascination and gave people fantasies to act out, and then more movies were made about it. Guns and aggression, portrayed specifically with men further encourage the stereotype and help out the idea into the minds of people and growing children.
And then later when Hollywood decided it wanted to add feminism into its movies, it fell into the usual easy trap of assuming that feminism means that women want to be more like men trait-wise – because male aggression equals strength, apparently. Since they had already associated violence with male strength, they then started creating female characters who could fight like men and carry multiple guns on their body. This then further added another layer of glamorization to guns and violence. Because now not only is it associated with how men show strength it has become how to show strength overall and is shown as how women should become equal to men. But if desensitization comes from movies, what about the news?
Gun violence: America’s festering wound
There is constantly violence happening within the country and that is reflected on the news, but the more people get used to something, the less they view it as important or immediately at the front of their minds. You can take the example of how people treated the idea of getting COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic but by the end they had become so desensitized that most people didn’t care. Over 300,000 children have been impacted by school shootings since Columbine. Most if not all school students have accepted that a shooter could come in at any point, and they might not see another day. They’ve become used to it and stopped viewing it as horrific but as part of life. And things like this make it easier for people to jump to committing violence, especially when examples have been set before.
There is an organic analogy for structural functionalism that explains how we can look at society. Essentially, it is assumed that society is a complex system with interconnected sub systems. The analogy uses the human body to explain how the system is interconnected. All the organs are necessary to play their part and when something stops working the symptoms often manifest elsewhere. Such as hunger causing a headache for example. In the same way within society rising crime rates can be linked to a cause such as more school dropouts elsewhere in society which could be caused by something else. The point of this is that gun violence and school shootings are caused by other factors within society. This problem needs to be solved, but it won’t be easy. Catching cancer in the earlier stages makes it easier to prevent it’s spread and disaster and has a higher success rate than treating advanced-stage cancer. This wound of school shootings has festered for a long time spiraling out of control, and it will keep getting further out of hand – unless society gets united to meet this challenge. Till that happens, innocent primary school children will keep on dying.
Read more: Texas school shooting survivors step up calls for gun reform
Maya Nitasha Pirzada is deeply interested in the history, law, sociology, and politics of South Asia and has traveled extensively across Pakistan. She is currently pursuing her studies in Biology and Chemistry in Maryland, United States.
An earlier version of this piece was published before under the name ‘School Shootings: The American Heartbreak’. The views expressed in the articles are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.