Thursday, April 05, 2012

Complifying Columbine

Recently I read with some interest Death wish: How did America become the land of the high school massacre? and its conclusions. Besides an obvious (to me) fallacy, the article gets one basic fact wrong -- the venue for the shooting.

A lot of these shootings take place on college campuses. The article leaves out work place shootings. This problem is obviously not just about high school massacres. Hey, it's simpler though, to make the shooting seem to be just about one or two problems -- it makes the story easier to digest and it fits nicely on a page. What are a few deaths in a different country anyway? Regardless, I read the article and found myself agreeing with some of the points.

But this problem (Columbine-like shootings) has been making me think for years -- the Columbine massacre had a grave impact on me -- positive and negative. How it could have a positive impact I'll leave to the end of this post. It saddened me and immediately made me wonder just what had gone wrong with our society at the time.

Just like all of us remember where we were when important events went down, I clearly remember driving to work and hearing the story on the radio. I remember stopping my car in shock and listening to the story. I remember thinking that something was going gravely wrong with our society and culture.

Americans, like the author of this article, want simple answers to the questions that haunt them. Want to know how September 11 happened? It was Muslim terrorists who "hate our freedom". This has been further simplified: now it's just "Muslims".

Tragedies and the dead buried from them deserve better than these kind of simplified hack jobs. I'm sure this kind of journalism sells advertising and attracts valuable eyeballs. This article, like others, offers the reader the satisfying whiff of sanctimonious truth -- but like a lot of seductive copy, it has obvious logical fallacies.

Truly Honoring the Dead

The dead deserve the truth and often when something big happens and our news media gets engaged things get simplified. The truth is very complex, but it gets compressed, simplified and dumbed down for mass consumption on the cable and other news networks.

Right after the Columbine massacre, the media kicked into high gear, citing the perpetrators as being a part of something called the "trench coat mafia". This was a story that petered out later as it wasn't all that relevant. Then it was all about how they were outcasts and bullied. Then it was the fact that they played violent video games. Lot's of theories came and went as things progressed. Each simple explanation fell over like a weak straw man -- none of them could seemingly explain any of the brutality.

I myself wondered at the time how two kids could give up so much life -- theirs and that of their classmates -- for such a short trip to the end. Oh, and the joy of watching some pipe bombs explode (or not). They weren't all that good at making bombs it turns out.

Wat kind of community were they involved in? What kind of local support group was not functioning that they could get so far off track?

People at that time also pointed to our gun culture. For a great illustration of how far we've become desensitized to violence, check out Michale Moore's hack job on the event, Bowling for Columbine -- it's an entertaining piece that focuses on our propensity to violence as well -- just like the author of the reference article that starts this post. Unfortunately, despite a lot of witty observations, Bowling for Columbine offers very little in the way of conclusion. Or even plot, for that matter. It certainly doesn't do a good job of prescribing solutions.

I'd argue in deep retrospect, Bowling for Columbine makes Moore every bit as guilty of exploiting the tragic dead of Columbine as the rest of the media.

No, the dead deserve more than this. In my opinion the dead from events like Columbine and workplace shootings should suffer no simple answers.

Complify, Complify, Complify

You see, I don't believe this is a simple problem. I'm not getting paid to offer my opinion here -- and my opinion is neither simple or authoritative. The solutions I offer are not cheap. This opinion is just something that comes out of my grieving for the dead, and my careful observation at a distance of many of these events. I do not have the credentials to psychoanalyze the killers. I don't have the journalistic background to report on the events. I am not a sociologist.

Still, I've thought about this for a really long time, and I've been paying attention carefully every time one of these has gone down. I think events like Columbine are the result of a complex collision of vectors. They are events that prove Murphy's law -- they are the perfect storm of a complex cocktail of destruction.

Here are the vectors that I think contribute to a event like Columbine:

Gun Culture

America does have a gun culture -- it's had it for a long time. It had it back when I was in high school in the 70s, and that was a time of no events like Columbine. Some of my classmates brought their guns to school -- and left them in their cars. No, I don't think that it was a good idea -- but it's one ingredient. Without the rest of the ingredients, the fire of a shooting event didn't ignite.

Violent Guy Culture

Rambo, Arnold [Get Into Da Choppa] Schwarzenegger, James Bond -- the action hero flick where the guy with the gun solves the problem. Yeah, this has gotten more and more intense every year. Now TV is loaded with shows that glorify shooting. And yes, it's desensitizing.

I watch some of this crap myself. I love the FX show "Justified", it's great TV. The hero's gun is one of the stars of the show. Video games? I love first person shooters and I, as a guy, am not alone. Still, after all of this, I'm about as motivated to go to work packing a revolver as I am to own a new Country Music CD (sorry Country Music fans -- I just can't get into it).

Breakdown of Community

Somewhere along the way to leaving no child behind we've become a society where school is more about containment and making statisical quotas than it is about raising children to be functional adults. My observation is that kids today don't feel connected to their society and local community. I watched this in my own family and have talked to many victims here -- our schools are far less community places than they used to be.

There are exceptions -- some schools are better than others. A lot of schools simply don't deal with bullying the right way. Even the fact that we have this term on the tip of our tongues points to the fact that community is severely lacking in our classroom experiences. Kids don't feel connected to anything. Something at a crucial community level is simply falling apart and collapsing.

The kids are being ground through a process -- not connected at all along the way. The idea that they're a part of something is foreign. People somehow point out problem students like the issue is on the outside of their control space. Parents that should be a part of this same solution point to the school and their kids in the same fashion. Which brings me to the next vector.

TV (Observer) Culture

Our society lacks participants. It lacks people that truly are willing to dive in and solve problems. Teachers think that education just happens. You (as a teacher) go to school, learn a process, present the material like a PowerPoint slide deck, and somehow the result is people on the other side of the school desk learn something.

I had some extraordinary teachers. Some very fortunate people these days have this joy as well, but it's less common. I had Teachers that got involved. Teachers that sensed I was lagging or even soaring and could go higher. Teachers that got to know me.

I don't think this kind of involvement in student success is all that common anymore. I don't think it's being rewarded. I think in the haze of statistics and the idea that we're separated from the show (the TV show -- get it?), or in this case, the classroom experience, that idea has become so pervasive that it's part of our cultural disease.

How many times have you been amazed at the bad service you've gotten at a fast food restaurant? The person behind the counter is on auto-pilot. Their minds are not engaged -- they're hitting buttons and observing, when they should be interacting (but I'm cutting them some slack here, it's a job I've done, and it sucks, and it's mindless in its own right). No, the problem that I'm driving home here is that our teachers are doing something similar -- and that it's another vector in the complex mix of potentials that lead to a Columbine-like event.

Drug Culture

I'm not talking about the illegal stuff -- how about anti-depressants? Studies of some of these drugs show that a common side effect is "Thoughts of suicide".

It's this last ingredient that I truly suspect is one responsible for ignition.

Sure, all of the others are present -- they've been here in various states of attention abandonment for years. I've been suspicious of the drugs though from the start of this run. I remember listening to the story in my car and thinking "What the hell?, were these guys high on some new drug or something?", but quickly, like most adults, writing this thought off.

What if it wasn't that they were high? What if one of them was in a state of deep rage? A rage like the one experienced by Charles Whitman. This event took place long before Columbine and the broad application of anti-depressants. It was deadly as well. It too, was on a college campus.

Whitman had issues as well -- divorce in the family, failure at school and drug abuse (amphetamines). Charles even knew that the rage was wrong, but somehow was so beyond anger that all logic circuitry was disconnected. He was lucid enough to leave a not behind to the coroner to ask them to conduct an autopsy to determine how to prevent people like him from going off. As it turned out, he did have a brain tumor.

That kind of rage is hard for most of the rest of us to fathom. What's hard for me to understand is how he was able to be so functional while at the same time being so ruthless as to kill over a dozen people.

I'm starting to get suspicious that it's linked to the "Thoughts of Suicide" "side effect" of the anti-depressants our doctors so readily toss out like aspirin these days. These "Thoughts" which are likely connected to drugs that didn't used to be quite so common. Drugs that are now being passed out by doctors that are part of the TV generation -- and very much a part of our legalized drug culture. One that says there's a pill for everything that ails you. A culture that says these drugs are awesome at addressing our every symptom -- they just might have some minor "side effects".

If you go back over every one of the events in the reference article, and do some minor research, you will find a preponderance of drug prescription to go along with them. One of the two shooters at Columbine. The Virginia tech shooter. It will not surprise me one iota if the 43 year old guy in the recent event was on anti-depressants.

Closing down this thread -- I don't think it's just the legalized depression drugs that are the cause of the shootings.

It's the mix. Mix access to guns with powerful anti-depressants, a really lacking sense of community (so the person doesn't feel as connected to the people being shot), a sense of rage for [insert injustice here], a guy culture that worships the idea of shooting things as a solution -- all of these things put together are likely the true recipe for a school or workplace shooting event.

To fix this we'd need some sense of the gravity of this problem -- and this is always someone else's problem. We'd need our government to work properly -- yet Congress can't easily legislate the solution here. We would need our Medical establishment to work properly -- but the drug companies are going to fight the idea that their profitable anti-depressants are involved. We're talking about a huge a cash cow after all. Don't forget how many commercials they buy on our news networks.

To truly fix this we need to make going to school akin to being a part of something. Workplaces and schools would need to be turned into places where interactive and constructive dialog with students and employees is rewarded. We'd truly have to have a culture where no child (and employee) is left behind.

I think our violent culture doesn't have an easy fix. Feel free to suggest your own ideas in the comments here-- I'm happy to entertain the ideas.

Guns have been with us for quite some time -- while I think the idea of letting a teenager bring one to school is crazy, it went on in my high school years without incident. I think in this climate (with these vectors), it's obviously not a good idea. Any attempt to address the gun vector will be met by the NRA and news pundits that will make the problem out to be something simpler than it is and pander to the dumbest minds in the audience.

How Columbine Changed Me

As for myself, sitting there in the car, along the side of the road, I began to look inward. I had lived in a community for nearly 5 years and didn't know my neighbors. I hardly knew anyone except a couple of people from work in the area. That evening, I walked over to my (future buddy and unkown at the time neighbor) Dean's house. Dean had invited me over many times to hang out. That night, I got to know him and his family -- and I didn't stop there.

How could I criticize a culture that was isolationist when I myself wasn't becoming engaged in my own local community?

How can you, dear blog post reader, help this situation? It seems like an intractable problem, after all, and one we're helpless in changing.

I suspect that the first part of solving this complex issue is going to be in realizing that it's not something that can be contained in a 5 second sound byte.

I know that our dead deserve better than simplified sound bytes aimed at making people feel disconnected from this problem. Even more important, by distancing themselves from the issue, the writers of these pieces exploit (and dishonor) the dead by making you, the reader, feel disconnected as well. With this cheap sense of disconnection, you too can feel that it's "someone else's problem" and that it's surely not a part of anything you have control over.

Sure, it's that simple.