When the Columbine High School shooting happened in 1999, I was a high school student. I remember sitting at the computer station by the guidance counsellor’s office, with a bevy of plants making a strange paradise of that part of the school, and thinking the news was insane. Like many people that night, I watched the reporting on an endless loop; I still remember the story of a mother who learned her son was dead from the television, where she saw his unmoving body on the pavement outside of the school.
1999 was a long time ago, and the mass of school shootings that have occurred since then have stymied the shock that used to follow them. Instead of becoming obsolete or less common, of this kind of violence going back into the darkness, it has become a part of our cultural landscape. It’s no longer a surprise to hear about a kid going into a school and raining off bullets like it’s a Boomtown Rats kind of Monday. Though it’s easy to understand why people must attempt to measure the horror, it’s a bit of a stretch to think we are capable any longer of feeling a sadness that is commensurate with the devastation.
In June 1999, musician Marilyn Manson wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine titled “Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?” about the finger pointing that commenced after the massacre. While his commentary was particularly insightful among the haze of news that seemed there only to create sides, it proves even more profound today given the amount of information to sift through. As Manson said, “because of the Internet and all of the technology we have, there’s nowhere to run.” If there was nowhere to run to back in 1999, a landscape of social media and information saturation has solidified that; there are fewer exit strategies and opportunities for escape than ever before.
Unlike most teenagers today, I had the joy of living out my high school years largely unobserved. In those days, there was no Twitter, no Facebook and the Internet was a relatively new thing. While my survival could be part and parcel of my resolve, it could also be because I had time away from the moments I didn’t properly fit into and the people I didn’t really understand. I could disappear to read books, listen to music, contemplate the person I was and come to the realization that the opinions of a bunch of small-town high school students didn’t really matter. It was something – even on bad days – I thoroughly knew. But now how strong must an individual’s resolve be to retain their sense of self, and to effectively understand where the coordinates of the real world lie?
Nowadays, authenticity has become a very hard thing to find and a more difficult thing to live out. There are people who create veneers of their personality on Facebook and measure out their life in Tweets so each simple, daily act can be validated. The culture of instant fame – a system based on money, power and often indignity – has created a muddled value system where what is held up in front of us as an example is not necessarily real at all. Where a real self has not been developed there can be no internalized value system, so how can any ill matter? Furthermore, in such a context, what true gravity does the act of going into a school and shooting it up have?
I think a lot of people wake up hoping tragedies like Newtown and Virginia Tech will go away, but like Manson said, things are ending every day. We live in a surreal world where you can watch “Donut Showdown” on Food Network while barrelling through the sky in a glorified sardine can or have 400 Facebook friends when you only have 3 real ones. It should be no surprise that a surreal life can give way to surreal acts, and that the most confused or extreme among us might crave the authenticity of an act that, while horrific, might seem at least real – a finite and comprehensible end.