It happened ten years ago today.
At 11:10 a.m. on Tuesday, April 20th, 1999, gunshots rang out from Columbine High School killing twelve students, a teacher, and both assailants. This act reverberated across the land like a mighty thunderclap. It sounded a terror-laden warning. It awakened in countless individuals, families, and communities a truth forgotten, a vulnerability denied, and an anguish concealed. Time stopped as hearts and minds resonated with the harsh moments of that mournful event.
No doubt. Columbine sent tremors of fear across the nation. Like a peaceful sunlit meadow suddenly overrun by a raging mountain storm, the tranquility of trust was replaced by the wrenching uncertainty of distrust. Existential angst seeped into our national consciousness. We asked with uncertain expectation what dreadful journey led Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to tear the social fabric and tear it so hideously. We became fearful of what was going on in our own neighborhoods, in our own families, and with our own children. We became suspicious of our children’s actions and our children’s friends. We became frightful of the tribute that might accompany their attendance at school. We wondered about our children’s exposure and our powerlessness to intercede on their behalf. We worried about the unknown and the brutal forces that range beyond our control. We asked “what next?” as we braced ourselves for another round of violence.
Eric Harris, left, and Dylan Klebold, carrying a TEC-9 semi-automatic pistol, are pictured in the cafeteria at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, during their shooting rampage. Both killed themselves later in the school library.
I - We Remain Clueless
And yet — despite the shock, despite the fears, despite the soul-searching, despite the speeches and reports, and despite the many years since – we as a nation remain clueless as to why so much violence continues to happen among our youth. We never seem to get close to the source of the problem. We never seem to comprehend it. We never seem to truly empathize. We seem unable to journey into unfamiliar territory. We remain concerned yet disengaged, hopeful yet fearful, acting yet standing still. For ten years, we have been “running to nowhere.”
Especially, we find ourselves at a loss to prevent it. To be sure, preventive action is hashed out every so often in our executive and legislative bodies, in the press, in speeches, at town meetings, and at the dinner table. It has become a staple of conversation. Occasionally, some sort of remedial action is implemented with much hoopla. But, as Nathaniel Hawthorne might say, all this discourse and activity reflects weak, nerveless suggestions devoid of energy and promptitude. We must do better — if we have ambition enough to succeed.
And succeed we must. For across the nation, there is a chronic awareness of sudden, unpredictable dangers intertwined in the common lives of youth. These dangers stem not from risks ordinarily associated with growing to maturity, risks such as illness and disease, injury and accidental death. Today’s foreboding is of a different nature. It stems from the awareness of an undercurrent of existential turbulence in the lives of anonymous individuals, an unseen convulsive force that can easily be provoked to wreak havoc. More than anything, the unmasked secret of Columbine is a preconscious, anxious-ridden, apprehension of the growing willingness of alienated individuals to rage against others and to visit upon them emotional trauma, injury, and even death.
Yes, a specter of violence hovers over America’s youth. It is real. So are our fears. But how do we reconcile a will to violence at once so menacing yet hidden in the shadows? How do we confront the vagaries of personal behavior and the ominous rumblings of uncertain danger concealed deeply in the darkest recesses of the soul. But most of all, what do we do with our fears? Should we allow indifference to make them languid and weak, like dull narcotics numbing pain? Or should we allow their energies to be transmuted into a caring spirit whose healing warmth can reconcile the deadly passions we fear. Can we make of our fears a vital force for good?
Numbing indifference or a dynamic of reconciliation. The choice is ours to make.
Tomorrow: II - The Critical Juncture: An Indifference to Spiritual Interiority