After the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado in July, I finally started reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which I finished just as word broke that a white supremacist had killed six people and wounded three at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin before committing suicide. There’s been a lot of conversation, particularly in the wake of The Dark Knight Rises massacre, about the desirability of denying the people who commit these crimes press and memory. At the request of victims’ families, President Obama declined to use the name of James Holmes, who is accused of the Aurora shootings. But reading Columbine, and then re-reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and then the recently-released forensic report on the mental health of Jared Lee Loughner, who recently plead guilty to killing six people and wounding 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I realized why that impulse to erase mass killers has never quite resonated with me.
I don’t really want to understand James Holmes, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or Jared Lee Loughner, or Seung-Hui Cho to understand them, or to come up with a policy solution that would prevent such killings from happening again, especially given the overwhelming obviousness of the role legal guns and ammunition play in making these death rates possible. But I want to read about them and their acts not to fathom the unfathomable, but to gain understanding of a more common humanity: what it means to parent a child gone badly wrong, how to value life in its normalcy rather than its extraordinariness, how men like these test our commitment to the due process of law.
One of the reasons that Columbine, in particular, is important, is that it dispels myths about both persons and policy that grew up in the wake of the shooting. Cullen’s reporting dismantled the idea that Harris and Klebold were social outcasts of some variety, or members of the Trenchcoat Mafia. The point ends up being, in this case as in others, not that schools should monitor social cliques more carefully or ban certain kinds of clothes from campus, but that officials and adults involved with the boys before their killings should have taken available warning signs seriously, and existing procedures should have been followed to their logical conclusions. If Detective Mike Guerra’s search warrant, based on evidence that suggested Harris might be constructing pipe bombs, had been authorized and executed, Harris and the writings on his website might have been recognized for the serious threats they were. If Wayne Harris, Eric’s father, who meticulously documented his son’s troubles, what he believed to be the roots of them, and the punishments he meted out to his son hadn’t believed that another boy was the problem, noting, “Brooks Brown is out to get Eric. Brooks had problems with other boys. Manipulative & Con Artist,” his serious approach to his seriously malevolent son, combined with functional law enforcement efforts, might have helped avert a disaster.
We like narratives that point to entirely unaddressed issues, often cultural ones, however useless they may be, because they give us something to do that doesn’t involve rectifying past mistakes. And it’s easier to institute a dress code than gun control laws—even if both infringe on personal freedom, gun owners have better lobbyists than teenagers. But we need to report on killers and their lives to avoid falling into easy, false narratives about causation, if only because it often proves more important to fix existing safeguards than to impose new ones.
And beyond policy, knowing the true stories of spree killings helps us value the lives of the people who were lost to random violence. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the people killed by Eva Katchadorian’s son at his school were:
a basketball player, a studious Hispanic, a film buff, a classical guitarist, an emotive thespian, a computer hacker, a gay ballet student, a homely political activist, a vain teen beauty, a part-time cafeteria worker, and a devoted English teacher…Every one of them enjoyed something. Never mind whether this passion was pursued with any flash; whatever his parents claim, I gather Soweto Washington hadn’t a chance at going pro; Denny was (forgive me,Thelma) an atrocious actor, and Greer Ulanov’s petitioning New York congressmen who were going to vote with Clinton anyway was a waste of time. No one is willing to admit as much now, but Joshua Lukronsky’s obsession with movies annoying to many more students than just our son…Be that as it may, Joshua did love movies, and even his outright irksomeness didn’t keep Kevin from coveting the infatuation itself. It didn’t seem to matter infatuation with what. Soweto Washington loved sport and at least the illusion of a future with the Knicks; Miguel Espinoza, learning (at any rate, Harvard); Jeff Reeves, Telemann; Denny Corbitt, Tennessee Williams; Mouse Ferguson, the Pentium III processor; Ziggy Randolph, West Side Story, not to mention other men; Laura Woolford loved herself; and Dana Rocco—the ultimate unforgivable—loved Kevin.
It’s one of the novel’s crucial psychological insights that the need to turn someone into a saint or genius or martyr after their death devalues and obscures who they actually were, suggesting that it isn’t enough to have been a budding film nerd, or politically engaged—or as happened at Columbine, a troubled girl who’d found new purpose through rededicating herself to faith. Cullen reported out the widely-believed story that Cassie Bernall had professed her faith before being killed at Columbine, chronicling both its untruth, and the impact that martyrizing their daughter had on Cassie’s parents: “Brad had struggled mightily in the early days, but as time wore on friends said he came to terms with Cassie’s death. Misty smoldered. Nearly a decade later, friends described her as getting angry and frustrated at the mention of the martyr controversy. Misty felt she had been robbed, twice. Eric and Dylan took her daughter; journalists and detectives snatched away the miracle.” Whether she was killed for saying she believed in God wasn’t the determining factor in weighing her death a tragedy. Cullen’s careful reporting and recreation of the scene are an important reminder of the value of Cassie’s life independent of whether or not she was a martyr.
And as much as we may desire to place blame, reading killers’ lives also allows us to be more thoughtful and nuanced about the people who live in terrible contradictions in the wake of mass shootings: the killers’ parents. “They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray,” Cullen writes in Columbine. “Wayne and Kathy and Tom and Sue were the chief suspects. They dwarfed all other causes, blamed by 85 percent of the population in a Gallup poll. They had the additional advantage of being alive, to be pursued.” In the wake of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho’s family released a statement, saying, “We are humbled by this darkness. We feel hopeless, helpless and lost. This is someone that I grew up with and loved. Now I feel like I didn’t know this person.”
The inexplicability of these killings increases rather than diminishing with proximity to the killers themselves, an idea we reject, and the reason why not just ABC News, but those of us reading at home, jumped on the idea that James Holmes’ mother’s declaration that “you have the right person” was an admission of guilt rather than the simple act of identifying herself to a reporter on the phone. We don’t want to face the sentiments Eva gives voice to, the conclusion she reaches at the end of We Need To Talk About Kevin when she admits, “after three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son. He has five grim years left to serve in an adult penitentiary, and I cannot vouch for what will walk out the other side. But in the meantime, there is a second bedroom in my serviceable apartment. The bedspread is plain. A copy of Robin Hood lies on the bookshelf. And the sheets are clean.”
And there are people beyond the victims and the killers and their families and friends, too, the people who put their backs against the wall to reinforce the architecture of civil society in cases like these. Mass killings tend to test the commitment of those of us who oppose the death penalty, in part because they so grievously violate parts of our social compact, the idea that children should be safe at school, or adults of any age should be able to approach their elected representatives without fear of violence. Reading through Loughner’s competency report, I was struck by a section towards the end, recounting Loughner’s contact with his attorneys. “When Mr. Loughner first arrived to this facility, (March 2011), he was allowed to attend his attorney visits unrestrained. In other words, once he arrived to the visiting room, all of the full escorting restraints i.e., bely chain, handcuffs, and leg irons were removed. However, after he spat on his attorney and lunged at her, this practice was discontinued; he was required to wear full escorting restraints for all attorney visits. In February 2012, correctional staff slowly began removing the escorting restraints…By the writing of this report, Mr. Loughner was attending all of his attorney visits without any form of restraints.” The “her” in this case is presumably Judy Clarke, a criminal defense attorney who frequently represents the people accused of some of the most heinous crimes committed in America. What’s interesting about this report is not how Loughner treated the woman who worked to save him from the death penalty, but the reminder of Clarke’s physical courage and her commitment to making sure her clients receive the fair trials it is difficult to provide for them. If she can confront people who have done deep harm and represent them in person, it’s a brace to our further-away convictions, untested by personal confrontation with people whose acts are revolting to us.
To me, all of this makes it worth continuing to examine and interrogate the lives of people who do our communities such great harm, to continue our inquiries even in a wave of overwhelming violence—as I write this, reporting continues on a shooting that has left three people dead near Texas A&M University. I understand the fear that the prospect of infamy will provide an incentive to angry men looking to be remembered, like Seung-Hui Cho, who predicted his death would make him a figure with the same influence as Jesus Christ. But for those killers who survive their terrible acts, I wonder if We Need To Talk About Kevin got it right in on of Eva’s visits to her incarcerated son:
He said, “Tell you what, I’m fucking tired of telling that same fucking story”—from which I could infer that, rather, his fellow inmates were tired of hearing it. Over a year and a half is a long time for teenagers, and Kevin is already yesterday’s news. He’s getting old enough to appreciate, too, that one of the differences between a “perp,” as they say in cop shows, and your average newspaper reader is that onlookers are allowed the luxury of getting “fucking tired of the same fucking story” and are free to move on. Culprits are stuck in what must be a tyrannical rehearsal of the same old tale. Kevin will be climbing the stairs to the aerobic-conditioning alcove of the Gladstone High gym for the rest of his life.