Tuesday, March 22, 2005

It Happened Again

Yesterday morning, Red Lake, Minnesota, joined Littleton, Colorado, home of Columbine High School, as another example of one of the most sad, terrible phenomenons of America's violent history. Yesterday morning, a 16-year-old named Jeff Weise took the lives of his 58-year-old grandfather and his grandfather's 32-year-old girlfriend, then drove to school in his grandfather's police cruiser, wearing his grandfather's bulletproof vest, shot and killed an unarmed security guard at his high school, and then, as of this writing, shot and killed five students, aged between 14 and 15, before, upon being confronted by police, shooting himself in the head. Today's related news focused on Weise's proclivity towards and support of neo-nazism.

The cycle of violence in America isn't unique; what is is its frequency, magnitude and degree. Many critics point to violence portrayed on television, in movies and transmitted through angry music as being a large contributor to our increasingly violent culture. Without detracting from the validity of this theory, and having "received" the message behind Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" (which suggests rage, through constant visual and auditory bombardment, is infectious), there's a limit to the theory that violence on television breeds violence in everyday life. If it were true, we'd be witnessing these events on a regular basis in all communities, and not just simply in schools; there have been incidents like these in post offices, workplaces and elsewhere -- but that would entail that students, postal workers and office workers are the only ones absorbing violence on TV, in movies and in music. And that's sort of preposterous.

Even the most simple layperson can make the distinction that both school shootings, while tragic, took place in relatively peaceful surroundings. If violence breeds violence, it would follow that high schools in the South Bronx would be veritable jungles of murder, rape and mayhem. Ditto South-Central Los Angeles. So why did the two most notorious, tragic school shootings to date occur in the middle of such hotbeds of violence as (sic) Colorado and Minnesota? And if television and movies and music are catalysts thereof, it would follow that these types of episodes would be occurring randomly, yet predictably, throughout the nation, which is not the case; what is perhaps most disturbing is that, whereas the two perpetrators in the case of the Columbine shootings sought out gun shows to obtain weapons, the weapon used in yesterday's episode was the suspect's grandfather's service revolver. The relationship between the two, then, perhaps, is the availability (relatively speaking) of weapons.

Except the Columbine students made pipe bombs in the absence of available (purchaseable) products, ie hand grenades. Assuming that Mr. Weise had learned how to shoot a handgun by his grandfather (his ability to kill a variety of people demonstrated, in addition to a cold, unhuman disposition, a high measure of skill in operating a handgun), then an "overquantity" of available weapons was irrelevant; all he needed was one .22 calibre handgun and the lack of sanity and humanity and compassion to put it to its use.

So if neither visual/auditory stimuli nor the availability of weapons were the essential catalysts to these situations, another factor linking these situations was each incident was perpetrated by youths who had been taunted and picked on by their peers. However, while the students at Columbine had a list of people they had targeted, Mr. Weise appeared to randomly shoot whoever was in his path yesterday morning.

Being taunted by one's peers in high school is obviously something which can cause great angst, depression and isolation; and while different people react to this type of stress differently (John Hughes made a career out of writing/directing comedies based in large part on this phenomenon), it's safe to assume that these three individuals are not, and won't be, the only high school students verbally abused by their peers. And yet, these incidents aren't occurring on most sites of this taunting and abuse, which, presumably, happens at some point every day in every school across the country.

It seems to me that one of the essential ingredients to this recipe of tragedy, for the most part, is the absence of parental supervision in the lives of these students. A great amount of the post-Columbine fallout was the (shocking) revelation that those two young men were stockpiling weapons in their rooms (ie rooms in their parents' houses) without being questioned or with their parents even knowing -- not even having a clue -- what their children were planning. It's hard to imagine a caring, concerned, involved parent not knowing their children had pipe-bombs, shotguns and handguns scattered around their rooms. It's possible today's teenager has more autonomy than perhaps when I was that age, but it seems hard for me to imagine parents doing a poorer job at parenting than not noticing guns and bombs in their kids' rooms.

In the case of Mr. Weise, he lived with his grandfather, a 58-year-old who was dating a 32-year-old woman. Mr. Weise's father committed suicide approximately four years ago, and his mother was confined to a nursing home due to brain injuries sustained in a car accident. So that left the supervision of his daily activities to a career police officer, a grandfather dating a woman twice his grandson's age. When I first reviewed Mr. Weise's family history, it didn't surprise me that he had issues; in fact, it would have surprised me if he didn't act out in some sort of way. Having both parents removed (unhappily) from your life during your adolescence, and being (sic) supervised by someone who is preoccupied with both a busy career and an active social life, and knowing there was suicide in the family (especially that it was his father) virtually guaranteed something would happen.

The warning signs -- present in the two perpetrators of the massacre at Columbine -- were similarly evident in the months leading up to Mr. Weise's actions yesterday. Mr. Weise had once suggested to friends that "blowing up the school would be cool." His friends dismissed it as idle chatter to be disregarded, much like the warnings from Klebold and Harris, the students at Columbine, were ignored. It was also revealed that Weise posted pro-nazi opinion on various, anonymous online bulletin boards.

And all of it was ignored -- up until yesterday morning.

It seems to me that if we are to learn anything from these tragic, awful chapters of our modern history, it is that we can label things, we can invite government scrutiny and guideline, but at the end of the day, we need to be able to answer the question posed by those long-running public service announcements: "It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"

We, as a culture and a nation, need to start paying more attention; and we need to start realizing that, if we don't pay attention, we'll be doing a lot more wondering how these things happen rather than actively preventing them from happening. It's a toss-up, really: not knowing vs. not caring. In either case, it will produce the same terrible, tragic results.

And it will happen again. And again.

And again.

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