Published: March 1, 1999 By

[1] Close your eyes and imagine: There is a group of kids at school. They threaten other students, play war games on campus, revel in violent imagery, boast of multiple weapon ownership, respond to special phrases and symbols and all wear clothing of the same type and color. Now take this pop quiz: A crowd like that should be identified as — a) the French Club turned militant, b) a splinter group from the “Up With People” organization renamed “People Suck,” c) a gang.

[2] This is an elementary test administration, and security personnel at Littleton’s Columbine High School failed badly. That prompts me to close my eyes and try to imagine the same surly group, only this time I envision them as black or Hispanic. There is no way on earth they, like the so-called Trench Coat Mafia, would not have been considered a gang. Teachers and students wouldn’t have dismissed them as quirky individualists, unpleasant but harmless. In fact, dismissal would have taken place only in the form of their darker-skinned tails being dismissed right off that upscale suburban campus. But in this case a double standard boomeranged with horrific consequences.

[3] Devastating reports of children hunted and executed, many at random and at least one young man because he was black, turned watching the evening news into vicarious victimization. Kids who survived served as roughed-up reminders of those who didn’t. Sobs of grateful parents being re-united with traumatized children echoed the anticipated cries of mothers and fathers who would lose this hellish game of reverse musical chairs. For them, a chair would be empty at dinner as the dark day darkened with unidentified bodies still inside the school. By 10 p.m. having an unaccounted-for child had to mean their worst fears had risen up as flesh and reality.

[4] A night-shift technician friend said many of her Downtown co-workers, depressed, left early. “You can feel it in the streets,” she said. “People are just sick.”

[5] I woke up in my safe, quiet apartment the morning after feeling that I’d been emotionally manhandled. Perhaps we all were. What happened was catastrophic — but not inevitable.

[6] Columbine’s staff couldn’t see the trench coats for the trees. Logic appears to have gotten lost in a forest of stereotypes and complacency. The booby-trapped, danger-layered carcass of the high school as it stood in the tragedy ‘s aftermath could have stood for the layers of assumptions that tragically collapsed upon themselves Tuesday morning.

[7] Shock and disbelief in the early wave of exclamations from teachers and administrators seemed natural. However, later on as heads cleared, repeated declarations of “We thought it couldn’t happen here” seemed hazily irrational. The six high-profile school shootings preceding Columbine’s all involved quiet, non-urban campuses. So did the adults, who should have been more perceptive, think their own school was Disneyland? Did they think the Swastika-wearing guys lurking in the dark coats were just pretending to be Goofy and Mickey?

[8] Logically, anything is possible but not anything is probable. Carnage in the classroom is highly improbable on any given day in any given town. Yet mass murder, even on a scale far larger than that experienced in Littleton, has established itself as a distinct possiblity in America. I suspect that in the case of Columbine, the common idea that grave violence was impossible may have sadly increased its probability.

[9] When inexperienced kids ask “Why?” I can understand. However, the hapless whys of the grown-ups are troubling. An adult perspective should possess specificity. We should ask not just why, but why were teenagers allowed to stockpile weapons? Why would parents allow children to soak their young lives in hatred? Why in a place of learning were there no many unintelligent presumptions? And above all, why were two grandly violent, mean and twisted boys tolerated at school and cultivated at home?