For a long time, I didn’t tell people that I was from Littleton. I didn’t go to Columbine–I went to Arapahoe–but whenever people learned I was from Littleton, they wanted to know if I went to Columbine, or even assumed I did. And I just didn’t want to deal. Surprisingly enough, repetitive and painful conversations about mass murders are not the sorts of things I want to engage in with strangers.
Just when I started telling people I was from Littleton again, in 2010 or so (it took ten years for people to stop talking about Columbine, and even then, depressingly, that was only because more horrific mass murders eclipsed it). And then James Holmes walked into a movie theater in Aurora, and I stopped again. Not at first–at first I thought to myself, fuck that guy. He doesn’t get ownership of my town. I’ll claim it for mine. And then a woman in a store in New York City ask me, looking all aghast, how I felt about “all these” mass murders that keep happening in Colorado. (If I hadn’t been so shocked and angry, I might’ve asked her how she feels about all these terrorist attacks that keep happening to New York, but I didn’t). And now–a year after Newtown, almost fifteen years after Columbine–guns have returned to Littleton. But it’s different, now. Fifteen years and who knows how many school shootings later. The kids are different, the country is different.
The biggest thing that sticks out for me is the growing refusal to name shooters in the media. Rachel Maddow no longer does it. The Arapahoe County Sheriff won’t do it either. The sense of horror that I remember so clearly after Columbine is shutting down and being replaced by impatience and psychological exhaustion. We still don’t know why these things keep happening, what goes wrong inside these kids’ heads, but our patience for learning why is waning. Once you bring out a gun and start shooting people, we no longer care to sympathize with you and whatever bad thing is going on in your life that’s destroyed your will to live (or to allow others to live). If you do this thing, we will no longer speak your name, or admit that you ever walked the earth. If you read accounts of Columbine, you will often see it said that thirteen people died that day. But it wasn’t thirteen–it was fifteen. Fifteen people did. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are so far beyond cursed that we don’t even count them among the dead anymore. And admitting this is hard, but here goes: I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, that kind of hard, bitter boundary can be a deterrent. Or at least, we hope that it is. But on the other hand, I don’t think anyone is beyond forgiveness, beyond grace, or whatever you want to call it. And I wish we could phrase ourselves in such a way so that even lonely strangers feel loved (in a non-creepy, non-boundary crossing way).
The problem is, when you’re depressed, and you feel yourself edging toward that hard boundary that you know is there, beyond which lies only exile, it doesn’t help to know that people feel that stony about people who do things like what’s inside your head. It doesn’t bring you back from the edge, it pushes you over it. It doesn’t make you feel more loved to know you haven’t done this thing. It makes you feel more alone. More like a monster. Because only monsters do this sort of thing, right? That your brain is even contemplating something like this makes you different than everyone else. Makes you special. Makes you a monster. Just the act of contemplation places you beyond redemption, so you might as well play chicken with the devil.
What I remember from Columbine, my first reaction when I learned about what the boys had done and why they’d done it, my first reaction–before the media started spinning its own stories–was that I knew those boys. I knew how they felt. If they’d been at Arapahoe between 1996-2000, I probably would have been their friend. We probably would have hung out.
There but for the grace of God, right?.
I didn’t know what made me different from them. I didn’t know why it happened at Columbine and not Arapahoe. I still don’t. And most people, when they think “There but for the grace of God,” are referring to not getting shot by a bullet, rather than not being the one who fired it. Now that I’m older, I know that I’m extremely unlikely to ever raise a weapon against another person (which is not to say I won’t ever raise one against myself). But when I was seventeen, I didn’t know that. Here’s what I knew:
We are all of us angels and devils.
All of us sinners and saints.
Equal parts Judas and Jesus, Nazi and Jew.
And maybe if we were better at admitting that, at articulating it, maybe–just maybe–the kids who start losing the battle with their internal monster wouldn’t feel so alone. Wouldn’t feel so damned. Wouldn’t feel so beyond redemption, when they haven’t even done anything yet to exile themselves. In Littleton, after 1999, a popular bumper sticker for a number of years read “We Are All Columbine.” If that’s true, then we are all of Columbine–Isaiah Shoels and Corey DePooter and Rachel Scott and Lance Kirklin and all the rest of them. Including Eric and Dylan. All of them are within all of us.
Because you don’t pull shit like Columbine, like Arapahoe, like Newtown, like Virginia Tech, if you think you can be redeemed. You pull that shit when you think you’re already beyond it. Already damned. When you believe the monster’s already eaten you–it’s after that that you get truly consumed, not before.
We are all in danger of being eaten by monsters, only they’re not the monsters that our parents warned us about. And I think about all this, and about my own dark inside corners, and I feel pity for these kids. These murderous kids. Jesus Christ, they’re just fucking kids.
And then I remember that they’re murderers. And that there’s a reason we don’t speak their names.
And you know what, Karl Pierson? Fuck you. What the fuck is wrong with you, you stupid, entitled little shit? How arrogant and selfish must you be, to think that walking into school with a shotgun because you had some kind of dispute with your debate is an appropriate course of action? I don’t care what he did, I don’t care if he hit you, I don’t care if he molested you, because instead of telling the cops who could have helped you, you shot an unarmed girl and then offed yourself when you realized that actual adults were about to get in on the action. When the actual reality of the shit you’d started came crashing down around your head. Who the fuck taught you problem-solving skills as a child? Who the fuck taught you how to screw up and then learn from it? Who the fuck taught you how to deal with anger, humiliation, and embarrassment?
Fucking nobody did any of those things. Clearly.
You self-righteous, selfish, immature, misguided little twit. You colossally stupid fuckwad.
I wish that you’d told somebody what you were thinking. Just so they could say it back to you, and you could hear how idiotic it sounded once it was outside of your own head. Just how far out of scale your reaction was to whatever the actual dispute entailed. I wish someone could have told you it was small and petty and insignificant and that nobody cared, and that neither would you, in six months, after you graduated and went to college and never saw that fucking teacher again. I wish someone had smacked you across the back of the head and called you an asshole.
Maybe then you’d be alive. And more importantly, maybe Claire Davis would be alive, too.