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.