Whose fault was the killings at Columbine High School? And how can we help our children resist bullies, not become bullies themselves and thrive after horrible killings? Next week will be the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School. A recent book by Peter Langman, "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters," analyzes the killers in this and other shootings. Already the media is gearing up for an analytic retrospective. There will be an orgy of hand-wringing and finger-pointing.
Seven of the most common targets of blame are:
- It was the bullies’ fault. Had they not pushed Harris and Klebolt over the edge, the boys would have remained good citizens.
- It was the fault of the parents of the bullies. They didn’t stop their children from abusing Harris and Klebolt.
- It was the school’s fault. Had the principal stopped the bullying of Harris and Klebolt, they would not have turned into killers.
- It was the fault of the parents of the killers. Had they raised their kids better, they wouldn’t have become killers. Had they seen what their children had become, they would have had them incarcerated or committed.
- It was the fault of Harris and Klebolt. They were psychopathic, psychotic killers who twisted and resisted every attempt to help or to stop them.
- It was the fault of a society that is violent and corrupt. Had the teenagers’ minds not been filled with violent images, they would have been peaceful.
- It was the fault of a society that has lost its connection with God. If our society was more God-fearing, the boys would have grown up with good morals and not have turned into killers.
Typically, we approach problems with the scientific method: determine what went wrong, fix the bad part and the system will run effectively. That method works well on purely physical material – billiard balls, cars, sending spaceships to the moon – but it is totally misleading when applied to the living world, especially to humans. I’m not the first to say this. Blaise Pascal said it 400 years ago. He was right.
Looking to blame and then fix one part of human life is the wrong way to go. It leads us to think that we can isolate one or a few causes and fix them. It leads us to think we can easily fix the school system or our society and then there will be no abuse or crazy killers and no massacres.
Of course, we don’t want kids to bully other kids. And we need laws to force principals to stop bullying at their schools and also to protect good principals from suits brought against them by parents wanting to protect their bullying children. And we want to recognize and rehabilitate kids with criminal tendencies sooner. And we want a society that is more clear and consistent about not massacring other citizens. And we want a society with more ethical and moral citizens.
Our efforts to change our school and legal system are necessary, useful and laudable, but they are not a solution that will prevent future massacres.
Face reality. Bullies, psychopaths and killers are like the weather – they’ve always been with us and always will be. We can’t change the weather any more than we can completely prevent massacres and tragedies. Assigning blame won’t 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 to prepare ourselves so we’re not caught off guard or helpless.
The useful question for us is how we prepare our children and teenagers for a world in which they will face crazy, violent people. One of our tasks is to teach our children not to use bullying tactics to make themselves feel good or to get what they want. Another task is to teach them to be resilient in the face of bullying and how to stop bullies in their tracks. Obviously, Harris and Klebolt never learned this.
The hardest task for parents is to recognize when our children have gone bad and to do something about it. It would be asking a lot to expect parents to say, “My kid is crazy and might go on a killing spree. Please lock him up.” It would also be asking a lot for school administrators to say the same. Yet that is exactly what we want to ask of Harris and Klebolt’s parents. And also what we must ask of ourselves.
Answering these difficult questions will help us teach our children better than hand wringing or assigning blame.