A Look at Terror with My Daughter – discussing the Columbine High School massacre

A Look at Terror with My Daughter – discussing the Columbine High School massacre – Brief Article

Susan Douglas

My ten-year-old usually flees the living room as soon as Peter Jennings appears: “I hate the news! It’s so boring.”

But not on April 22. She stood away from the set as if it were emitting something lethal. Though her back was against the wall, her intense, probing eyes were locked on the screen. She was riveted, just like millions of other kids that night who were trying to make sense of the enormity of the tragedy at Columbine High School.

Once the news was over, she didn’t want to talk; she wanted to go off to her room to play and read. But I knew a talk was coming. And I knew the last thing she needed was some patently obvious “tell-them-violence-is-wrong” chat, as suggested by our President. She already knows this.

So I expected her to take us elsewhere, which she did. She and I lay in her bed with the lights out and talked for an hour about how these boys got the idea to do what they did. How could they want to do this, and then actually decide to do it? And like most of us–especially pundits and newscasters, it seems–she at first wanted a simple, single-cause explanation. But she was eager to consider various factors that might, together, have produced such a horror.

My daughter, like so many kids interviewed in the wake of the killings, thought it quite important that these boys had been made fun of in school–she understands the pain of ostracism, the enormous pressure to conform. She also thought their obsession with Hitler and war was telling.

What did I think made them do it, she wanted to know.

I didn’t have a complete answer. But I did talk about what it means to have a society where it’s very easy to get guns. I did mention the media, awash with violent movies, video games, and television shows. Computer and video games, in particular, that require you to enact murders with your own hands–yes, just a quick click, not unlike a trigger pull–may restructure some people’s individual psychology in quite powerful ways so it becomes easier to do unspeakable things in the real world when you’ve rehearsed them so many times in a simulated one.

I think I had a good talk with my daughter, the little gem I send off to school every day assuming she’ll be OK, hoping she won’t be afraid, and praying she won’t get hurt. When my daughter finally went to bed that night, she insisted on having the hall light left on. She never has the hall light left on.

But I failed to link her concerns about the importance of friends and the pain of being excluded to a discussion of sex roles and bigotry. Nor did I raise the complex issue of social stratification.

Some are now advocating school uniforms all around, others are bashing the NRA (which it richly deserves), and still others are bashing the entertainment industry (which it deserves, too).

But I think the most important thing adults can do is to help our kids, and others, to see this disaster in holistic terms: to see how the “culture of violence” is powerfully linked to our national religion, consumerism; how this fans an insatiable, almost pathological hunger for fame and celebrity; and how all of these are deeply sustained by a media culture that insists that winning the envy and even fear of others is the most important achievement there is.

It’s not just “loners” or troublemakers who struggle with these pressures–most kids do. Some, like the jocks and the cheerleaders, come out on top. But not without scars.

Cliques based on class–and the resentments that accompany them–have existed in schools for decades. But distinctions based on conspicuous consumption and brand names have become more finely honed and obsessively policed since the 1980s. The press referred to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as middle class, but they were hardly part of some allegedly homogeneous “middle” in high school. Kids learn very early now–with the help of intensified advertising geared just to them–that as they grow up, they are supposed to learn how to make others envy, even resent them, and Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Nike, and Tommy Hilfiger are there to do just that. Their parents, meanwhile, obsessed with what Barbara Ehrenreich brilliantly diagnosed as the “Fear of Falling,” help them understand the pecking order based on the fine gradations between a Toyota Camry, a Ford Expedition, and a Lexus. The ones lower down on the ladder get razzed for not having the brand-name signifiers of those higher up. Wasn’t this what we repudiated in the 1960s?

Wanting to be on top, while spitting on those beneath you, is a desire that gained new legitimacy in the 1980s.

Amid this class intolerance, there is social intolerance. Too many of our children–and boys in particular–are learning that words like “bitch,” “nigger,” and “faggot” are acceptable weapons to keep others in their place.

Yes, we need to monitor violent media fare, support gun control even more fervently, and so forth. But let’s also sit down with our kids and a copy of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, or the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and talk with them about conspicuous consumption, conformity, snobbery, and ostracism. Admit to our children that it’s not just violent kids who are affected by the media; we all are. We must help them understand that revenge fantasies and fantasies about preposterous levels of fortune and fame are all of a piece.

Our kids are thinking about that most censored of topics in America, class distinctions and how rigidly they are enforced. And if we overlook this effect in them, we will have missed a lot.

Susan Douglas teaches communication studies at the University of Michigan. Her latest book, “Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination,” was just published by Times Books.

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