When I first moved to New York in 1996 to attend journalism school at Columbia University, I was assigned a beat in the Hunts Point area of the South Bronx, a neighborhood in the epicenter of what had been, for many years, the most visible symbol of American violence, urban decay and hopelessness. Although crime in the neighborhood had declined significantly since the early 1970s, I couldn't help but think of the South Bronx as a scary place. At the same time, it was thrilling: Here was a chance to write about a place where things happened, unlike the place I had come from--Littleton, Colo., where nothing had ever happened, and I assumed nothing ever would.
So when a friend called on the evening of Tuesday, April 20, to tell me that my old high school was making national news, I thought he was pulling my leg. A five-hour siege? Bombs strewn about the building? As many as 25 dead? (That number was later revised to 15.) As a graduate student, I had reported on schools that had metal detectors, permanent security guards, barricaded entrances. Did my friend mean to tell me that my alma mater--open-campus, come-and-go-as-you-like Columbine High--had just emblazoned itself in U.S. history with a horrifying attack and a death toll higher than any other recent U.S. school massacre?
In the hours after the killings, the cable television networks, fueled by the need for constant commentary, began rounding up the usual suspected causes of mass murder by teens--media violence, dysfunctional families, easy access to guns, lack of adequate moral fiber in our youth--while at the same time acknowledging that such explanations were not quite satisfactory. In the end, the moral handed up to the nation was as simple as it was pessimistic: Violence in this country is random, no one is completely safe, and Columbine High School proves it.
After my initial shock, it occurred to me that the attack--in its suddenness, its scale, its manner and its lack of understandable motive--in a strange way suited the suburbs southwest of Denver. Those suburbs include Littleton, the town nearest the high school, which is located in an uncorporated part of Jefferson County. That particular kind of insanity didn't occur in the Bronx, where schools were fought over as turf or students were shot in drug disputes. I don't pretend to know what motivated Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but murder as reenactment of action movies or video games . . . that was something that fit Littleton.
I started at Columbine High School in the 10th grade, and I still remember how eerie it was to walk into the building to register for classes. I had spent the year before at another Jefferson County high school 10 miles away in Lakewood, and as I entered the building I discovered that Columbine's floor plan was identical to that of the school I had left. The library, the gym, the cafeteria, the lockers, the classrooms--all were in exactly the same locations. I later found out that this was true of at least one other school in the county, which made sense from a budgetary point of view; why pay for three designs when one would do?
But that approach didn't do much for a sense of school individuality or identity, especially when the schools and their communities were so new. This interchangeability of place was not limited to school campuses. In many of the subdivisions around the high school, each third or fourth house is identical. More variety would have been an unnecessary expense for the developers.
The area where Columbine is located was empty prairie before 1970. When I graduated in 1990, much of it was still prairie, but the unrelenting growth of the metro Denver area has rapidly eaten away at that. Every time I return to visit my parents, it seems that there is another new strip mall or clump of tract housing going up. Wadsworth Boulevard, the major street near the high school, has become an endless series of chain stores that extends all the way to north Denver, some 30 miles away. Driving the whole road is unremitting deja vu; every so often the stores repeat themselves, and one discovers yet another Office Max, Best Buy or Red Lobster.
The absolute interchangeability of place is at times stretched to more absurd proportions. Not five minutes from Columbine is a closed Kmart that was converted into a church; the giant K was simply replaced with a neon cross.
Thousands of people move through this world every day without a trace of irony, unconscious of the underlying world view that produces such a culture, a literalism that marks the ultimate separation of form and content. The ideology of extreme utilitarianism permeates everything. In this automobile-centered world, everything is a vehicle, interchangeable with every other vehicle, and completely separate from what it carries or holds. I once attended a Sunday matinee in a movie theater that had obviously just been used as a place of worship; the parishioners had left tattered paperback Bibles on the seats.
When I first went to Columbine, I knew a fellow student whom I used to talk to every day during my free period. A couple of months after I met him, he disappeared for 10 days. I didn't know if he had changed his schedule, moved away or died. I didn't know his last name, so I couldn't call him. Finally, he reappeared. He had been sick with pneumonia. Despite our previous daily contact, we had failed to build a close enough connection for me to know even the most basic facts about his life.
I later made a few more friends, and we went out at night once we could drive. We made a beeline north for downtown Denver, which had a couple of cafes with character (mostly populated by "Goth" types). We were underage, so we weren't even allowed to set foot in a bar; any drinking happened off the record, at parents' homes.
When I was a senior, a fellow student died in a drunk driving accident. We all attended a tearful school assembly in which a friend who had survived the accident joined the administrators in admonishing us not to drink and drive. In the class immediately after, we spent a somber hour discussing the incident. A classmate posed a question: "What are we supposed to do? There's no place for us to go out at night. We aren't allowed into bars. You have to drive to get anywhere." Even in the wake of a friend's death, she was utterly unable to conceive of the possibility of abstinence, or to think of any other fun activity in which she could participate that did not involve drinking and driving. It took me a few years to realize it, but that day I was staring in the face of suburban alienation.
In the aftermath of last month's shooting, there has been much talk of how it has devastated "the community" and how "the community" would pull together. While true, it also sounds strange to me, as I always pictured community as something that happened anywhere but in a place like the Littleton area. We never knew our neighbors, except in passing; we certainly never had a social connection to them. Children rarely played outside on the street, as I had in elementary school in Lakewood. As far as I know, no one in my family ever joined a "neighborhood community" anything in the area. There was no pool, no ice rink, no town square in the area around Columbine. Neighbors moved into homes and then moved out, and it was often some time before you realized the people next door were new. There were several nice parks, and even a little stream nearby, but there never seemed to be many people outside; and if you did run into someone, he or she was as likely to be as much a stranger as the person I sat next to this morning in a crowded subway car.
The media describe Littleton as "anytown" but it could just as easily be called "notown." The Columbine area is technically not a part of any city: Littleton, which is in the next county, is just a mailing address for the vast area that includes the school. Several years ago, there was a ballot initiative to collect several of the neighborhoods into a township; because it would have raised property taxes, it went nowhere. My neighborhood was the apotheosis of a bedroom community, where shiny new automobiles slipped quietly in and out of their automatic-door garages and there was never any need to step past your mailbox.
Against the backdrop of this interchangeable world, with minimal connections to others, it's not difficult to imagine a student so dissociated from his environment and himself that prefabricated, reductive fantasy replaces reality. Many of my high school classmates--particularly those who had few social connections--devoted enormous amounts of time to video games. Suburban alienation breeds a kind of solipsism that is reinforced by the intense solitude of games such as Doom or Quake, which have as their singular goal blowing away as many bad guys as possible. Since then, the widespread use of the Internet has added yet another vehicle for conflating fantasy and reality, encouraging the creation of a persona totally separate from a person's day-to-day life. The extreme ease with which kids can get powerful guns only exacerbates the fantasy/reality blur.
Since the Columbine tragedy, commentators have also pointed generally to the role of Hollywood violence, but haven't yet looked deeply at the specific kinds of media violence favored by the two student killers, whose favorite film, Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994), depicts an extreme, semiconscious reaction against suburban conformity, hypocrisy and alienation. We should be asking not just if media violence has an effect on kids, but why Harris and Klebold related particularly to a film like that.
We are unlikely to hear much of that kind of analysis, because it would indict something much deeper than action movies or the gun culture. It would blame suburban society and the inherent alienation in places like Littleton, where culture and community are either a function of monotonous consumption or dispensable altogether. Without a more nuanced critique of the kinds of choices people make about communities in late 20th-century America--where we live and how those places develop--we are unlikely to accurately account for the behavior of individuals whose actions are, after all, perhaps an extreme manifestation of something that's widely felt but rarely acted upon.
For the victims of horrific violence, understanding the perpetrators' motives provides little comfort. But if, as a society, we succumb to the temptation to believe that the specific causes that produce tragedies like the one at Columbine are either indecipherable or random, we risk missing the opportunity to diagnose a deeper malaise.
Lakis Polycarpou, a 1990 graduate of Columbine High School, is a writer living in New York.