A Long Way From Columbine

The Longer View

Outside the realm of politics, there haven't been many media performances worse than the one that followed the Columbine tragedy in 1999. The press, in its rush to neatly explain the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, introduced the "trenchcoat mafia" to the American psyche, conjuring up a simplistic world in which bullying jocks terrorized lonely "Goths" until the outcasts sought their lasting revenge. The effect was to make the tragedy feel universal, so that Americans anywhere could and would imagine something similar happening in their own towns.

The reality, we now know, was far different. As Dave Cullen's excellent Slate article published last year showed, Harris was a flat-out psychopath, in the psychiatric sense, and Klebold a hotheaded and depressive sidekick; their intention was to wipe out hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a display of contempt for American values, not to get back at a few jocks. Cullen dispelled the myths, pointing out that contrary to popular belief, neither jocks, nor blacks, nor Christians were targeted. Indeed, no one on Harris' much-discussed "hit list" was killed. While there were Columbine students who dubbed themselves the trenchcoat mafia, they had nothing to do with the attack. Contrary to the rhetoric of culture warriors of the time, the killers hated Marilyn Manson. And, in the grand scheme of things, they were relatively popular, not brooding loners. This was a story of two boys, not of America. But the press told it differently.

Which brings us to the tragedy involving Jeff Weise, the 16-year-old who last week went on a shooting rampage at his school in Red Lake, Minnesota. The press, thankfully, has done a far better job with the Weise story than it did in Columbine. The primary reason is that the shooting itself has been far less of a cultural lighting rod than Columbine, and, as a result, there hasn't been the same pressure to rush to judge the killers' actions. But it also seems that reporters have learned a few lessons in the years since Columbine. If they're feeling the impulse to neatly explain away Weise's actions, they're doing their best to resist it. Even though Weise is being described in the same ways that Harris and Klebold were -- "he was a Goth" who "had no friends," said one 14-year-old -- for the most part, his actions have not been described as symptoms of greater societal ills. This surely has something to do with the fact that the tragedy involved a self-described "Native American National Socialist" -- not too many tribal Nazis around these days, at least not in most of our neighborhoods -- which makes it harder for the press or the public to draw larger (and erroneous) lessons from the situation.

By contrast, the Columbine killers were white, affluent, and fit neatly into a story about bullying and cliques, something anyone who's been to high school could relate to. Weise did, however, emulate the Columbine killers -- he often wore a black trench coat and combat boots to school, and included a still from the film "Elephant," about a Columbine-style shooting, on his MSN profile page. If they wanted to, reporters could have shoehorned Weise's story into the dominant school-shooting narrative, perhaps substituting Weise's interest in Nazism for the Columbine killers' supposed (and fictional) obsession with Marilyn Manson.

To their credit, reporters haven't gone quite that far. But they have overplayed the Nazi angle, just as they overplayed Harris and Klebold's interest in violent video games. As an excellent piece by Lorna Benson demonstrated, Weise often contradicted himself online, writing in one forum that he didn't approve of Hitler or the Third Reich and in another talking about how much he respected them. He wasn't always violently inclined, and exhibited a number of identities on the Internet in a possible quest for acceptance. "Would you please try to be a little bit more considerate?" he wrote on one message board after being ridiculed for attempting suicide, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He "had the revelation that this was not the path," and wrote that he was "trying to turn my life around, I'm trying really hard, the attitudes of people like you are what set me back." He sounds here more like a scared kid than a Nazi sympathizer. The reality, it seems, is that he could be both. But you wouldn't have known it from the breathless coverage that followed the shootings, which focused heavily on his Nazi-related postings.

And then there's the question of how much the press should focus on the community -- in this case, a relatively poor one, and an Indian reservation. While it's appropriate to focus on the environment in which Weise lived and breathed, it's fallacious to suggest that he's representative of Native American youth. Fortunately, the press for the most part hasn't done so. Consider Deborah Hastings' excellent Associated Press piece from Sunday, about the difficultly of reservation life for Indian youths. It uses the hook of the Weise case to explore the state of the community, without ever trying to neatly explain his personal motivations. Contrast that with the suggestions (both implicit and explicit) in the Columbine coverage that Harris and Klebold were stand-ins, symbols for any kid who wore black to school and ever felt alone, as opposed to actual individuals.

Now that the tribal chairman's son has been arrested, suspected of helping Weise plan the killings, we'll see if the media can continue its (generally) strong performance. The temptation will be to portray tribal life as so bad that the attacks were inevitable -- even the tribal chairman's son couldn't resist, after all. But these are individuals with unique stories, and this story should be used to explore Chippewa life, not oversimplify it.

We don't have any illusions here; circumstances have as much to do with the press' performance so far on this story as its sense of responsibility. Red Lake simply doesn't resonate for most Americans like Columbine did. If it were more culturally significant, there's little doubt the coverage would be much poorer.

But we're still heartened that the media has taken a sensational issue and, for the most part, tried to get at the truth instead of going off on a binge of pop sociology. The press may have a long way to go in reporting on this type of tragedy, but at the very least it seems to be moving in the right direction.

--Brian Montopoli

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