Warning: This is a pretty heavy topic, and contains details of shootings that could make people uncomfortable for one reason or another. Discretion is advised.
Last Friday, April 20th, marked the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine High Massacre. The world has changed a lot since then, particularly the world of technology, so what surprised me most about the events leading up to the 1999 shooting was that Eric Harris had an extremely active internet presence at a time when only about 3% of the global population was online (up to around 50% today).
If you recognize the name in the previous paragraph, that is what I would like to argue is inherently wrong with the way we have come to address school shootings as a society. For those who don’t know, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre. After the shooting, officials scrambled to find out everything they could about Harris and Klebold. Both fortunately and unfortunately, Harris could not have made their job easier. His plans were splattered across the internet for almost a year leading up to the shooting. He had left a trail of webpages, videos, and screen names that had spelled the plans out very clearly.
These webpages have created a very sharp double edged sword as these shootings continue to go on, and I would like to break down how the internet has impacted school shootings, from then to now.
The Internet: A Weapon of Evil
In the weeks after Columbine, Harris and Klebold were plastered across the media. Their manifestos were published across the country. Their names and faces were inescapable. That would come to be a major issue.
In 2007, sociologist Ralph Larkin published a book looking back at the eight years following Columbine. Of the twelve major school shootings in the US, eight showed cases where shooters explicitly referenced Harris and Klebold. Outside of the US, 6 of the 11 shootings were clearly versions of Columbine, and all 11 shootings derailed in that period were Columbine inspired. Time after time it was trench coats, the same guns, manifestos, videos, and websites. The shooters had ritualized what it meant to carry out a school shooting. The internet has played a major role in this.
Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone talks about the importance of human capital for mental well-being. The idea stems from research showing that although more people are bowling now then ever, membership for bowling leagues is at an all time low. The internet is a great tool for connecting people, but how real are our connections? One study found that 8th graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to be unhappy. The overwhelming evidence shows that the shooters in almost every incident were lonely and neglected, and in their twisted, mentally ill minds found solace in the idea of joining a club of people who were outcasts just like them. The publicity the shooters before them received on the internet passes to them as esteem, and they believe they will find fulfillment in the recognition. Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter in the Virginia Tech Massacre, referred to Harris and Klebold as “martyrs” and “brothers in arms”. Others have idolized them in their manifestos, and still to this day fan pages for Harris exist in which commenters often compare him to a God. Harris and Klebold have created the “cultural script” for school shootings, and as a bit of research has shown me all of their materials are still out there and can inspire anyone with a twisted mind to act as they did. But there is hope.
Disarming the Evil
The above information is certainly frightening and certainly makes the situation seem bleak. But I truly believe there is hope. One common theme in almost every shooting is that the perpetrator cries for help before the act. For example, German student Sebastian Bosse posted on an internet forum two years before his shooting:
“I am gorging on my entire rage, and one of these days I’m going to let it out and get revenge on all the assholes who made my life miserable…. For those of you who haven’t gotten it yet: yes, I’m going to go on a rampage! I don’t know what’s the matter with me, I don’t know what to do, please help me.”
He even emailed a scanned copy of his diary to students hours before the shooting. Similarly, Cho mailed materials to news websites before Virginia Tech. Almost every shooter regularly visits fan webpages for previous shooters before carrying out their act. The FBI has been criticized in the Major Stoneman Douglass shooting this year because the shooter had a ton of clues left online (and they had already been watching him). He once again showed many characteristics of those who acted before him.
We have not learned how to catch these individuals because we have not yet harnessed the power of collecting and sorting through data efficiently. One opinion article suggests the use of hashtags on social media to expedite the process. We’re not there yet, but I truly believe there is hope. You hear about the shootings that happen, not the ones that don’t. Although there are certainly fewer, there are cases of foiled plans thanks to monitoring blogs, podcasts, and social media. The point here is that there is a ton of information on the internet, and in today’s age, no such threat should be taken lightly. If we see something that could be considered harmful, it is on us to speak up.
The Internet: A Weapon for Good
So reporting the shootings is a solution, but it is not a perfect one. People will slip through the cracks. My hope for the future is that we are able to “re-weaponize” the internet for good, and stop the shootings at their source. The issue since Sandy Hook seems to be that nothing is changing. The script is almost too predictable.
But I happen to disagree with this Boston Globe headline. Something about the air around the Parkland shooting feels different. The students have a purpose. They are not going down quietly. They are taking to twitter, they are attending town hall meetings, and they are going to interviews. Whatever your stance on gun violence, you have to admit that it is refreshing to see that someone is finally doing more than offering “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting like this.
I hope that the authentic voices of these victims will not be drowned out by time or the masses of twitter, and that they are able to set the stage for reform so that shootings like this will never happen again.
Finally, I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my issue lies in us recognizing the name “Eric Harris”. I think both the media, and we as the people who consume it have a responsibility to keep the names of the shooters out of the news. Omitting the name of the Parkland shooter is my first step in that direction. Publishing the works of Harris and Klebold and playing them on loop on television after the shooting has created a shrine to them, and has made them unforgettable and inescapable. For some reason it is human nature to be fascinated with tragedies and the people who commit the atrocious acts that create them. I think the media has a responsibility to stop perpetuating shooter’s recognition, but equally it is our responsibility to stop consuming it. My hope is that we can prevent these things from happening in the first place, but if we can’t we need to celebrate the heroes and survivors of tragedy, and let the shooters’ names die with them, so that one day when we have children of our own, we won’t have to live in fear that when the school bus picks them up, it won’t drop them back off again at the end of the day.