Explaining Littleton: a will to fight back

In the wake of the shootings in Littleton, everyone seems to be blaming someone for the shootings. I don’t even know if I can give a complete list, but guns, TV, movies, video games, media coverage of massacres, the war in Kosovo, the spectre of Hitler and parental neglect or abuse have all made more than a few appearances as the cause for the incident. These explanations vary in both plausibility and coherence, and more than a few mobilize the sense of tragedy to boost their political causes. And perhaps some of these explanations are at least partially right and we should all join to ban guns (although advocates of that course should note that it would take a constitutional amendment to do so), or stop showing all non-Disney movies. I don’t claim to know that anyone’s explanation is false, or that we should dismiss explanations simply because they are politically motivated.

But it’s really curious that not one story in either the major media sources or the Record even gives a passing mention to the possibility that free will had any role in the incident. It seems as though Harris and Klebold cannot be conceived by anyone as anything other than puppets created by circumstance and moved by forces beyond their control. Now they very well might have been, but it’s curious that as citizens of a democracy founded on liberal principles, among which is the idea that we are capable of making free choices when we’re, say, voting, we cannot envision a pair of young men (one of whom was of voting age) making a choice to give up their painful and miserable lives for one day of what they saw as triumph.

Now the last thing that I would want to say is that it was a good choice, or a choice that I would make. As it happened, in my own time of schoolyard misery, I found solace in the illusion that intelligence would eventually triumph over brute force and my oppressors would be shining my shoes one day. But I can understand the actions that the shooters took as a choice. All sorts of evidence seems to point to that – it was not a crime of passion, having been planned for over a year, and the note that the suspects left said that they acted alone, had no accomplices and wanted no one else to be blamed. “This is the way we want to go out,” the note reportedly said. Yet curiously enough, no one wants to believe that. Why?

One reason for this popular skepticism might be the belief, which dates back to ancient Greek philosophy, that no one ever intends to be evil, but misguidedly supposes that they are doing good when they commit evil acts.

Another reason is that we cannot seem to be content with leaving any event unexplained, even when it requires no explanation. The overriding cause in this case is that we’re all part of a social and moral system, and it’s a system that is careful to delimit the sphere of possible choices. You can steal, lie and even murder and be within our system, so long as you hide your actions and masquerade as a normal cog in the machine. The sense of shame unites us regardless of whether we need to experience it or not.

But someone who stands up and boldly says “I am above the law, above morality, above all the rules that are put on individuals!” is incomprehensible, irrational and immediately hated. And I grant you that had the shooters been taken alive, I would join the horde of people demanding that they get the chair, because I am as much a part of the system as every other law-abiding, ‘sane’ member of society, and I cannot abide to see anyone stand proud above the norms to which I bow. But since Harris and Klebold chose death rather than a return to the domination of society, they stand as a living affront to our sense of rationality, morality and everything else that guides us. No one can have so much pride that they would seek to make their own rules against impossible odds, because if they do, then our own obedience becomes shameful.

Thus, we cannot admit of the possibility that the shooters freely chose to do what they did, because it would reveal to us just how much we can accomplish at the mere cost of our lives, and correspondingly how much we don’t accomplish out of our fear for losing those lives. I too have trouble saying that I’m a slave and a coward because I let injustice go unchecked more than once in my life. But it must be said, because otherwise we will lose sight of the fact that Harris and Klebold might have well died for a cause, and that cause might have been noble even by our standards.

This brings me to the second constant in news reports: the description of the Littleton shootings as a “tragedy” or “something that we can never allow to happen again.” Now I’m not saying that deaths are ever good by themselves, but it’s a little hypocritical to condone deaths in World War II, the Civil War or in Kosovo right now, because they’re for a noble cause, while ignoring all possible noble motives of the shooters in this case. Yes, it’s possible it was pure revenge, petty personal vendettas that we can understand and explain away. But it’s also possible that this is a signal to us as a society that schoolyard oppression has gone too far, and that the shooters gave up their lives to change the society that kicked them in the face every day of their lives. I have disagreements on this with my friends, but I think that if one bully in every school in America gets scared enough to avoid beating up weaklings, the sacrifice of 15 lives might have well been worth it.

And indeed, as Jamin Morrison noted in his piece, some people are getting second thoughts about restructuring their attitudes towards others and being more considerate. For some, it’s fear, and for some realization that nerds are people too, but the massacre made a lot of us better people, in action if not in thought. So why do we keep condemning the authors of this incident, or trying to explain them away as products of our society? Simply because we are too afraid to sacrifice ourselves for something we believe in, and we find security in the fact that no one else has courage enough to do so.

It’s true, the shooters didn’t have much to lose – they traded in a lifetime of slavery for a burst of glory, years of being called faggots, being bashed into lockers and having rocks thrown at them, for one day when they could decide who lives and who dies. But nevertheless, a lot of their actions point to a greater will than mine or anybody else’s, so I can see them as people that I would both hate and admire, the noble beasts that we haven’t seen on this earth since the foundation of our moral society. And even if my account is not true, well at least it’s a good story, and something that we could all benefit from thinking about.