Beyond Columbine

School Violence and the Virtual

by Julie A. Webber (Author)
Textbook X, 250 Pages

Table Of Content

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This book has been a long time coming. I’m glad it’s done. Thanks to my family and friends for support.

Added value was achieved by the brilliant suggestion of Marie Thorsten that we attend Timeline Theatre’s production of Harmless, a play about questionable creative writing at a small Midwestern university by a returning Iraq soldier. Thanks also goes out to Brett Neveu, the playwright, for making scripts to Harmless, as well as Eric LaRue, immediately available to me upon request.

Thanks to Jim Thomas for making time to reflect with me. Also, thanks to Tomi Kiilakoski and Atte Oksanen for their brilliant work on school violence in Finland. Nathalie Paton’s work on school violence and social media is invaluable.

I am motivated by reviews of my work and several reviewers of the first book on this theme, Failure to Hold: The Politics of School Violence, deserve mention since their careful criticism and their endorsement of certain themes in the book formed in my mind the great bulk of what the reader will find here. Thanks to Dennis Cooper for his selection of my book and use of the insight about equality as the drive to violence on his blog, where he examines school shootings in interesting detail. This project would not have been possible without the support of two summer university research grants provided by Illinois State University. Organization, proofing and bibliographic work was completed with the assistance of an undergraduate research assistant, Steve Reising. Thanks also to Courtney ← vii | viii → Johnson for assisting with preparing the manuscript for submission to my publisher, as well as critical discussion of the book with me.

Thanks to the Provost’s office staff at Illinois State University for helping me locate demographic data on student attendance at universities.

Thanks to Ali Riaz, Marie Thorsten, Diane Rubenstein, and John Weaver for providing feedback on final drafts of the project.

Thanks to Felix Ó Murchadha for feedback and support.

This book is for my dad.

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Most rampage shootings are a form of retaliatory violence; they are revenge for perceived past wrongs. Columbine gave new meaning to school rampage shootings, especially to disaffected outcast students not only in the United States, but throughout Western society. Rampage shootings were no longer the provenance of isolated, loner students who were psychologically deranged. Columbine raised rampage shootings in the public consciousness from mere revenge to a political act. Klebold and Harris were overtly political in their motivations to destroy their school (Larkin, 2007). In their own words, they wanted to “kick-start a revolution” among the dispossessed and despised students of the world (Gibbs & Roche, 1999). They understood that their pain and humiliation were shared by millions of others and conducted their assault in the name of a larger collectivity. Klebold and Harris identified the collectivity—outcast students—for which they were exacting revenge. That is what distinguishes Columbine from all previous rampage shootings (Larkin 2009, 132). ← 1 | 2 →


Sitting at a Coney Island restaurant in suburban Detroit preparing a dissertation prospectus on John Dewey’s Experience and Nature, I overheard the newscast about Kinkel’s shooting spree, and I began writing about school shootings. This event provoked my interest in what has become, over the past decade, a research program. It led me to wonder about the use of writing yet another dissertation on the history of political theory that would no doubt be shelved for decades without the binding so much as cracked in the Purdue University archives. What was so wrong, I asked myself, with schools and American society that students wanted to murder their classmates? As I delved deeper into my topic in the spring of 1999, Columbine occupied my television screen for nearly a week, proving to me that my choice had not been in vain. Indeed, in many ways the news media coverage of Columbine was so unbelievable to me because I had been spending so much time looking at school shootings that occurred prior to it in the nineties. For instance, it was clear to me that such a thing as a Trench Coat Mafia could not possibly have the social relevance at any American high school ascribed to it by the media that were no doubt searching for some kind of ideological source for Harris and Klebold’s evil act.1 I also knew from my examinations of the media coverage of Springfield that each and every interpretation for Kinkel’s motivations (antidepressants, guns, video games and South Park) made for interesting television but that no proof for them from the event itself ever materialized, and the media, done with that particular tragedy, moved on without a second thought, leaving each of those interpretations standing to be co-opted by reporters during the days-long coverage on 20 April 1999 (as Glenn Muschert points out, Columbine came in 2nd only to the O.J. Simpson trial in terms of media coverage during the nineties). Each of these explanations spent time as the “Columbine thesis” in ← 2 | 3 → the news. The most enduring one thus far has been about video games, no doubt because the political establishment is knee deep in both the gun lobby and big Pharma for support. The idea of a single thesis that explains school shootings, as well as other shootings in presumed to be spaces of civility (high schools, universities, cinemas, malls, parliament buildings, elementary schools) is seductive, but illusory. We must move outside these spaces to understand that the problem of civility is filtered through all of them by the corporation, which, as Deleuze once argued, “constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each” (Deleuze 1992, 5). This is the control society that characterizes the late twentieth and early twenty-first century that follows the disciplinary one of the late nineteenth and early twentieth. The crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries is that institutions of that disciplinary civil society still exist (family, school, hospital, military); the problem is that we confuse their constant need for “reform” as a democratic improvement, when in reality the reform happens in order to “[sic]deliver the school over to the corporation” (ibid.). Thus, we find well-meaning calls for perpetual training to deal with “bullying” alongside increasing modes of surveillance, wiretapping, Internet monitoring—especially cameras—that track movement and sociality within these spaces. As an example, what was the first reform measure called for after the two young Tsarnaev brothers detonated a pressure cooker bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in the spring of 2013? The city of Boston asked for more cameras.2 Isolating the problem to the school or even to a particular logic of security at a physical site, or contagion by terrorist ideologies on the Internet obscures the fact that the problem exceeds our disciplinary focus: we are in a control society. This means any attempt to formulate or rehabilitate a political civility to counter corporate inspired “rivalry” within this globalized milieu of social media and transnational capital (as we shall see in Chapter 3, of outsourced discipline) will have to confront the vicious conformity (Nietzsche might have called it a herd mentality) produced across all these spaces (the cinema, the mall, the school, the marathon, the military hospital, the parliament building, etc.) that, when confronted with an attack, blinks, and calls it “senseless.”

So, how does corporatism socialize? Even when we admit that there might be a multi-causal explanation for school violence, or rampage violence, or however we wish to limit or define it in order to explain it, we are still searching in the wrong place because we begin with the fact of the social as it existed for the disciplinary society: passing from one enclosure to another, as Deleuze says, “first, the family; then to the school (‘you are no longer in your family’); then the barracks (‘you are no longer at school’); then the factory” (ibid., 3). By contrast, ← 3 | 4 → corporatism urges us to, at every turn, depoliticize antagonisms that interrupt the flow of perpetually “reformed to extinction” institutions (welfare, unionization, tenure, pensions, universities, public schools) and instead see these as part of an inevitable flow of capital. These perpetrators are indeed our canaries, as Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally said in the wake of Columbine: it’s just that the coal mine is much broader than they had anticipated. Instead we should begin at the exit: suicide or psychotic break. The intention is to end one’s life, either through a bullet or separation from reality. The decision to stylize it can then be read as the suicide note or the ramblings of the psychotic. One of the major ideas for preventing random violence episodes is that somehow the plan will “leak” through into the community of peers who will then warn authorities about it. With the exception of Columbine, there has never been a successful conspiracy to commit homicide on the way to suicide. Columbine stands unique in this regard.

Alexander Galloway introduces the term methexis to understand how game play works in the control society. Galloway sees this methexis in its broader usage for video gaming and even playful socializing. For Galloway, methexis is self-conscious imitation with creative addition. I am using it here to discuss how it is used in ritual forms of violence like mass attacks. In contrast to the way the media and others use “copycatting” as a descriptive term, I use “citation,” meaning that these perpetrators self-consciously copy certain key aspects of the script, then add their own additions to it. So, it is not strictly mimetic but methectic. Columbine can be seen as a model for methectic violence as a way to stylize one’s exit from reality as the singular, existential act itself is not properly political. If we compare mimesis (what most critics allege about popular culture from film to video games is really critical, alongside the realist representations in them) to methexis, we see that the individuals who engage these acts, especially when they reference past acts, are in game play in the sense that they are a form of “group sharing” where the “the audience participates, creates and improvises the action of the ritual” (according to Merriam Webster, a theatrical ritual). However, Gadamer further complicates this notion through a reinterpretation of Plato’s deployment of the term in philosophy when he writes that it is different from but often confused with “mimesis” (or what people like to call “copycatting” in the media). Gadamer writes, “When the stars bring the numbers to representation through their paths, we call this representation ‘mimesis’ and take it to be an approximation of actual being. In contrast to this ‘methexis’ is a wholly formal relationship of participation, based on mutuality” (Gadamer 2007, 311). They are not copycatting each other; they are improvising the basic ritual established (mainly) at Columbine and also prior to that in the rampage aspect of the event established by Kip Kinkel in 1998 who failed to exit (he taped a bullet to his chest in case he ran out of ammunition at ← 4 | 5 → the scene, yet was tackled before he could end his own life).3 I borrow this term methectic from Alexander Galloway who, following Huizinga, uses it to describe games in general, and video games in particular, which are “realism in action” because, “being based on actions rather than images, games quite naturally would turn around a different problematic, something like message sending or ‘correspondences’ where the core issue is not about mimesis or realistic depiction but about the fidelity of action to image, of motion to outcome” (Galloway 2006a, 72; 133, f.n. 2). Consider the way Bastian Bosse, the perpetrator of the school shooting in Emstadden, Germany, put it in his blog:

I am not a copy of REB, VoDKa, Steini, Gill, Kinkel Weise or whoever else! Is a village priest just a ‘copycat’ of the Pope? No! Of course not! He believes the same thing as the Pope, but he’s not emulating him. He has the same take on things. He is, like the shite Pope, a part of the whole […] I want to do my bit for the revolution of the dispossessed. (qtd. in Böckler & Seeger 2012, translated from Böckler & Seeger 2012, 123–4)

This was in 2006. What is political is the way we relate to the spaces of civility in their role as object cause of the desire to commit suicide in this way. Nearly every one of the perpetrators of “the violence of extermination” (Balibar), where I take it to mean literally: “to deprive something of its own end” (Baudrillard 2005, 62), examined in this book have been over-modulated, as Deleuze writes, in societies of control: “one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation” (ibid., 5). Where did Seung-Hui Cho, the young man who attacked Norris Hall at Virginia Tech, find an end to his modulation? In the IEP (individualized educational program), college, separate tutoring, the 24-hour psych hold (which entrenched his reputation as “?”)? None of these institutions ever followed up in a meaningful way, pronounced him “cured” or even “diagnosed.” This is the nihilism of the control society: the Medusa face that cares so much it is completely indifferent after the threshold of coverage is reached. Yet we cannot blame these institutions individually—it is the modulation between them that seeks to deform existence ever more insistently. In the absence of civil society, and, as we shall see in Chapter 4, through the “failure of the middle-class social contract,” individuals already strained react violently to what they consider to be artificial systems of justice and therapeutic containment. What was the primary policy recommendation by the Justice Department’s report on the Virginia Tech shooting? Eliminate “information silos” between mental health, police and educational institutions.

I find it curious that so many sociologists are interested in school violence, yet forget both Marx and Durkheim’s warning that sometimes society produces strain on individuals who cannot withstand it. It would be an affront to our ← 5 | 6 → democratic, capitalist present to believe that someone might not want to take part in it. This is what is political, ideological even, and we invent all kinds of ways to avoid acknowledging it, from blaming video games to southern culture. What if, however, the problem is that all these shooters feel stuck in a present; that is, a time when things are not allowed to change according to the passage of time, or to provide a new milieu? As repugnant as it may seem to avow such an insight, wouldn’t admitting it give a starting point for truly understanding it? As Galloway says, “It is a central prohibition of capitalism: never to think the present as second best. As Jameson wrote recently (2006), it is “our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity” (4). What capitalism teaches us is that the present moment is the best of all possible worlds, that stasis is utopia” (Galloway 2006b). Think about that for a minute.

We are willing to admit that the perpetrators are “canaries in the coal mine” for all kinds of ready-made explanations: masculinity in crisis, violent masculinity, failure to intervene psychiatrically, a simple, unelaborate idea of bullying. One thing that I find truly frightening about this: if young men from relative affluence find no reason to live, what does that say for the rest of us? Certainly, we cannot say that women and other kinds of persons whose religion or race excludes them from full and meaningful participation in liberal democratic institutions have been emancipated, can we? How are we lying to ourselves about the crisis of the future we now face? What exactly do they “identify” with when they plan to participate in this ritual game? I will explore this through the concept of civility further in the next chapter using Étienne Balibar’s ideas. Briefly put, Balibar sees civility as a political problem. Civility “regulates the conflict of identifications” (both “total” and “free floating”) (Balibar 2002, 29). As we saw above, the current mode of civility is control itself which asks the subject to move from one identification to the next without the promise of an end or discrete starting point for a progressive and autonomous life path. We have one endless chain of diversions. …

An Attempt to Explain the “Senseless”

Étienne Balibar attempts to explain extreme forms of violence in recent work, calling it “ultra subjective” or “ultra objective” in that it is framed in a universalist logic, one that works much like contemporary forms of capital. His phrase above indicates two important points. First, that for something like ethnic cleansing to need to be theorized signifies that we are missing something in our politics (and perhaps also our journalism) in order to explain why these events are happening. Second, his use of the term “cruelty” signifies a kind of evolution of violence that moves away from rationalization, whether it’s justified in terms of fighting back against the state or other powerful institutions. School violence and by extension, most forms of mass violence that occur in spaces of civil society, resist rational interpretation. There is no obvious social or political movement behind them demonstrating that they are fighting against a higher power to achieve a significant goal. This is why so many theorists either resist labeling them political or do so with trepidation, and little by way of explanation. I too have experienced this problem.

In 2003, I published my first book, Failure to Hold: The Politics of School Violence, and it was the polished version of the dissertation that I had struggled to write long before Columbine. In it, I devoted much time to detailing the media inconsistencies and related the Columbine event to a larger American cultural quest to securitize youth and public schools through a widespread denial of a hidden curriculum of schooling, the unsaid, unnoticed aspects of existence of students, schooling and American ideologies of so-called “progress.” I did not “read” Columbine in that book. I mistakenly hoped it (and 9/11) would signal the end of all such tragedies and left it as a “disaster” in the sense of the type of event that Maurice Blanchot warns us against memorializing. None of my cases in that book had successfully committed suicide. Moreover, at the time in 2003, the events of September 11, the subsequent U.S. and allied military forays into Afghanistan, and then Iraq all but eclipsed the problem of school violence for the American public. Newman’s book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings was published in 2004 and quickly its title became the meme for all future acts of mass attacks. Newman’s interpretations of the “roots” of shootings being social were problematic as she asserted that school shooters were “failed joiners.” Here is Newman’s synopsis of the process:

All of this seems true until you reach the part about “someone who has tried, time and again, to find a niche, a clique, a social group that will accept him,” and it really falls apart. Newman’s problematic assumption here is that the person believes a “damaged reputation” can be reversed. I do not believe that any of the shooters believe this; in fact, they have already found a “niche” in marginality. They know they are fated to be objects, and they exact their revenge. The only way that they can see to avoid the terrible outcome is to be given an opportunity to create a new identity in a different environment. In the case of Michael Carneal, Newman’s own research confirms this important existential part of the problem:

Newman would like us to believe that this only happens in small, rural towns. Her solution to this problem might be increased enlightenment for small towns, bring in diversity, expand capital to these spaces: make it so someone like Carneal might disappear into the dark recesses created by the reach of globalization. Yet, this is what has already happened. If it wasn’t a problem for the loners of Carneal’s grandfather’s generation, why is it a problem at present? Something has changed in these towns. They are not any less affected by corporatism than large cities with their Starbuck’s diversity; it’s just that the pre-existing social formations were different from one another prior to the influence of corporatism, so their transformation will not be identical. In these towns, the trend is toward social conformity with the most marketable aspects being celebrated as what Larkin calls the “moral elite,” usually those heavily invested in sports and some version of the Christian religion. The whole world is becoming homogeneous—a homogeneous social so that value can continue to be extracted from it. The truth is that it happens in every school that is treated as an island experiment in democracy, in all 98,000 of them in the U.S. The conformity bred in American schools is unrelenting and uninteresting; it is, as Arendt argued, a Rousseauian experiment in socialization. And it would be even worse if the standardized testing were removed.4

Administrators, teachers and parents (read: authorities) connected to the schools cannot admit that they see the peer group conformity because it disrupts a ← 8 | 9 → profound imaginary belief that we carry around identified by Hannah Arendt, that our children are liberated by education: “Children cannot throw off educational authority, for that would mean they were playing the role of the oppressed—though even this absurdity of treating children as an oppressed minority in need of liberation has actually been tried out in modern educational practice. Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children” (Arendt 1961, 190). This is primarily because children are “new” in the sense that they have no way to interpret the world they are inheriting without the guideposts provided by those who built it, the adults. Instead, in American schools (and perhaps elsewhere) authority is shunned and students are left to form their own forms of socialization, without any reference to culture or tradition or even authority. As a default, they form them according to the logic of corporatization, what Balibar calls in an updating of Hegelian/Nietzschean/Foucaultian phrasing, “the normality of morals” (Babibar 2009, 11). What Hegel referred to as the “morality of custom,” that is, the state’s way of legitimizing moral norms needed to produce civil society, was to make them consonant with (national) culture. Nietzsche, critical of this cultural phenomenon, likened it to creating a “herd mentality,” and Foucault, following Nietzsche, saw it as a normalizing tendency; that is, through science and clinical observation, we have come to produce civility no more through distinctive religious/national culture(s) but now reroute these through strategies of normalization that borrow their moral force from positivist science and clinical focus. Hence, the locus of action for civility becomes the “self.”

Balibar mentions how destructive the educational portion of normalization can be, “dismembering” even as part of the “crisis of the modern school system” in “both its ‘authoritarian’ and ‘libertarian’ forms”: “Sometimes the libertarian forms are the most violent, because they put the burden of dismembering and remembering upon the child him- or herself, thereby asking him or her to be his or her own surgeon and engineer and torturer, the heautontimoroumenos” (Balibar 2002, 140). Self-torture. In American schools, but also in others the purpose of education has been redefined to mean achieving a level of normality determined by corporatization (e.g., having the right attitude, being saved, citing the correct consumer fads, cheering the right team, etc.). It’s all relentless in its positivity.

Are Balibar and Arendt conservatives? By no means, they simply understand the violence of education in the socialization process. Arendt argues that children need a form of “security of concealment”; that is, to not be exposed to public forms of culture without at least some mediation by authorities. This is not because children are innocent (the current favorite term), but because they ← 9 | 10 → are “new,” and Arendt calls this condition “nativity.” This juxtaposition between authority and nativity can be elucidated by explaining Arendt’s view on ideologies of conservatism and liberalism, for she argues that it is not fruitful to be consistent ideologically and take on one position or another, but to use these ideologies in their appropriate contexts. Adults should be conservative when it comes to children; liberalism and the progressive social policies that may be formulated out of enlightenment thought, should only be active in relations between adults. As she further argues, not following this distinction leads to great problems with authority and with the preservation of civilization itself because adults are forgoing authority and tradition by having new people (children) “moving forward in a world unstructured by authority and not held together by tradition.” As a result, children inherit an old world that they can never fully understand. Thus, for Arendt, no matter how hard the progressives try to erase the past to begin anew with children as agents who will forge a progressive agenda for the world, the remnants of the old will be met with confusion and terror by them. Nativity is a force to be reckoned with, and Arendt does not do it the injustice of underestimating it. There are three main problems with progressive education that Arendt predicted would lead to the future crisis we now witness.

First, by abandoning authority over children, adults sever the relationship between themselves and children, abandoning them to self-government. This leaves children on their own, in an independent world, that abolishes the important relationships between generations that move history forward and makes adults impotent when guidance is necessary. Newman expands on this notion when she argues that Carneal found “friends” in the goth subculture who urged him to shoot at the prayer circle in order to become part of their marginal group. Furthermore, she notes that no one “knew” what was going on with him at school, at home or elsewhere. Even though there had been many signs, people were unable to put them together with a troubled existence. This kind of neglect is ruthlessly protected by inappropriately applied progressive philosophies of education and socialization. Frank DeAngelis, the principal at Columbine, had no idea who Harris and Klebold were before Columbine, yet he presided over a school where jocks got lesser sentences for acts of brutality while marginalized students were penalized with the full force of school policy and the law. Another set of students, those “saved” by Christ, were allowed to pass moral judgment on the marginalized without question (it might have violated their personal beliefs!) while they drank, smoked and had sex on the sly. What is behind this urge to leave the children to themselves is the desire or hope that they will change the world, instead of asking us to think about how to do it. This is ideological: the children are our future. ← 10 | 11 →

Second, in the profession of teaching the abandonment of authority also has disastrous consequences because progressive education, by combining insights from modern psychology and pragmatism, has made methods superior to expertise in subject matter. As a result, teachers in the classroom can only resort to method fetishes or brute dictatorial rule to gain students’ attention and make authoritative claims. Teachers are not individuals who possess high quality knowledge that students want to gain (making them respectable; authoritative; instead they are more like fast-food workers, executing their time on task, Taylorist models of information delivery anyone can do it, therefore it is devalued). The move on the moderate Right in the United States is to have education delivered by phone applications, and increasingly there are challenges to university policies about who owns the content of professorial lectures, online or otherwise. Professors may increasingly be referred to as “university content providers” under the new regime of MOOCs (massively open online courses). This also means the student herd, or homogeneous social that forms there, knows it has complete social power and that teachers are impotent.

Third, Arendt says Americans have a fetish for pragmatism in their educational philosophies which asserts that one can only truly understand through doing (experience) (Arendt 1961, 182–83). This has negative outcomes because it abolishes the important distinction between play and work. Doing school as a preparation for the adult world of work blurs the boundaries between playfulness and seriousness, making the experience of each less important and pleasurable on its own terms. Furthermore, abolishing the distinction makes it impossible to tell in which situations one is necessary over the other. Moreover, as will become clear later in my analysis of games and control, the blurring of work and play, indeed, the preference for play to become subsumed under work, creates the ideal conditions for forming the “flexible” subject so necessary under globalization. Galloway discusses how play has been co-opted by the new economy as well, arguing that we need a critical analysis of how this works with the flexibility demanded of workers by the market and makes them feel good about work becoming a space of never-ending but redefined kind of play.

All three of these negative outcomes grace our present educational horizon. What Arendt means by “progressive” should not be confused here or opposed to contemporary ideas of conservatism. Arendt indicts the entire enterprise of American education with this critique: no conservative attempt at reform has touched the core of this critique. Left and Right are in agreement on all three aspects above. Newman’s approach to being a “failed joiner” does not approach the structural problem outlined above. Therefore, her analysis can only take us so ← 11 | 12 → far. Her research (with a consortia of colleagues commissioned by the National Research Council) studied only West Paducah (Carneal) and Jonesboro, Arkansas (Johnson & Golden). Both of these shootings took place in rural, small towns (prior to widespread, quotidian use of the Internet), and in neither case did the shooters plan to commit suicide. They hoped these acts would bring them infamy and they were in both cases very young people (14, 11 and 13, respectively). Newman retains the thesis by December 2012, after Newtown, that these shootings only happen in small, rural communities, but this can only make sense if we take Blacksburg (the town itself) as the social milieu. Virginia Tech’s students (Seung-Hui Cho included, hereafter Cho) are mainly from urban D.C., while Newtown, Connecticut, is a short train ride (60 miles) from New York City. In order for this to continue to make sense, we must exclude most shootings outside the U.S. from our viewpoint (which is impossible to do after Columbine). To use this logic, practically the only places where we would not expect shootings to happen would be in large cities. Finally, the problem with the 2012 article that Newman wrote surrounding Newtown, Connecticut, and Adam Lanza is that none of these features are present: Lanza shot his mother beforehand, committed suicide, did not plan to see his infamy produce social inclusion, admired several prior shooters on the Internet, and was absolutely ruthless in his execution of the killings. We are not going to find, as Newman surmises, “a boy trying to find acceptance.” Lanza is the degree zero of school shooters. Later in 2014 his father he told The New Yorker, “With hindsight, I know Adam would have killed me in a heartbeat, if he’d had the chance.” “I don’t question that for a minute. The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for [his brother] Ryan; one for me” (Huffington Post 2014).

For those shooters following Columbine (with few exceptions), suicide is the trademark of the act. They no longer falsely believe that they will gain attention or infamy if they survive the attack. They are willing to die, with no hope for a future. In the control society, they would only move through to the next modulation, without any kind of acknowledgment that their suffering ever had any meaning. Harris and Klebold were the first to figure this out and make it into an action, to forge “the fidelity of action to image, of motion to outcome” (ibid. Galloway). It is not so much that Columbine was so huge or so “successful,” but that it repurposed rampage violence to become a game, an action that corresponded to their reality that is of these marginalized young men. The only interesting thing about Harris and Klebold doing it together is that they were able to transliterate it to the “symbolic” from the “imaginary.” That its message has not been received by the larger symbolic world (it is “senseless,” “meaningless” violence) does not mean it hasn’t ← 12 | 13 → been identified with by other (future) members of the marginalized, heterogeneous social. In fact, all those following Columbine have been solitary players, satisfied to stay within the non-diegetic script, even perfecting its elements to the exclusion of all others. Where Harris and Klebold left diaries and videos, subsequent actors would “add” or “enhance” the script as technology and insight allowed.5

There is also a catch here: they must be able to start over in an environment that is structured, so that they can heal the traumas inflicted in the past. This is nearly impossible for any of them to do anywhere in the developed world outside of the military. And often they are rejected by the military because of evidence of psychiatric assistance, usually a result of the trauma of bullying and social exclusion itself. This was certainly the case of Eric Harris, who was initially accepted into the Marines, then rejected because they found he had been prescribed Luvox, an antidepressant, following his enrollment in a diversion program after being arrested for vandalism.6 So too, with Steven Kazmierzcak, the successful criminology graduate of Northern Illinois University who returned to his alma mater, to the very classroom where he first attended a course that would decide his major, and shot 21 people, killing 6. Kazmierzcak was discharged from the Marines once they found out he had been institutionalized during and after high school in a psychiatric facility. This occurred on February 13, the day before the anniversary date of his shooting six years later. As Pekka-Erik Auvinen, the shooter in Jokela, Finland, said in his online writings, an “individual, who is going through his/her natural power process and trying to live naturally, but is being told that the way he acts or thinks is wrong and stupid, will usually have some reactions which might be considered as ‘psychological disorders’ by the establishment. In reality they are just natural reactions to the disruption of natural power processes. They will have some of the following (depending on individual’s personality): feelings of inferiority/superiority, hostility, aggression, frustration, depression, self-hatred/hatred towards other people, suicidal/homicidal thought, etc. … and it is completely normal” (Auvinen 2007). It is the constant judgment and the insistence that they be normalized7 that makes them realize they are never going to experience any kind of autonomy relative to the peer cultures in their schools, or the cultural environments they are expected to advance to in their futures. The environment makes them sick and then their sickness is further used against them in much the same way as before, only this time it is the authorities (e.g., parents, teachers, administrators, psychologists, criminal justice agents) who are using it against them, as a way to define and then normalize them, either through diversion programs and Prozac (Harris & Klebold), incarceration in mental institutions (Kazmierczak), an IEP (Cho), school withdrawal (Weise), and homeschooling (Lanza). Along the ← 13 | 14 → way, all of these students (or former students) have been institutionalized in some way; they have been interpellated by failed institutions that let them down: the family, the school, and the criminal justice/psychiatric community. The only place they find validation is in online communities that celebrate their views. Newman’s analysis is marred by its crisp linearity: they fail at school, fail in social settings, then they fail online. But they often don’t fail online. It is there that they find kindred spirits, especially after Columbine. They admire Harris and Klebold, who admired Timothy McVeigh’s acts, another lonely (and it must be said) “failed joiner.” Obviously, they all suffer from deep forms of depression and anxiety, but our problem is that dominant media accounts keep feeding the mistaken notion that depression and anxiety have no causes, other than internal ones. More specifically, that depression and anxiety are natural responses to toxic, predatory environments that the threatened person cannot flee (they are in or have been ejected from a compulsory environment). The perpetrators also don’t think they “failed” as this would imply that they took a social test that was fair, and due to their own lack of preparation or disfigured social skills “screwed up.” How can that be the case when they clearly identify the social structure itself as the problem when they target it, as Newman admits, randomly? If they thought they had failed, they wouldn’t have taken revenge. There is a reason why Harris wore a shirt extolling “natural selection,” Kazmierczak one that read “Terrorist” and Saari, the Finnish school shooter, chose the screen name “Naturalselektor.” If we try to avoid the usual mistake of identifying such choices with Hitler (inarguably the worst attempted natural selector in history) and reinterpret them with an evolutionary concept, we can see that they are not only interested in their own fate, but that of the larger society. They are making a political and social statement through their deaths. If they wanted to get back at targeted individuals, they could do that, or they could leave a note with a detailed explanation of why they did not. They do not do this (leave a personal note; Cho left a sociopolitical note) because they want their acts to incite public scrutiny: of the police, of the school, of their parents, of the psychiatric institutions and of their peers. They leave instead a media package. They foil the assumptions of the authorities through “diversions,” and they escape scrutiny. Auvinen was interviewed the day before his shooting by the police. The problem is that there is no willingness on the part of authorities to help them in a truly genuine way. They see very clearly the gap between their own perceptions of what has happened to them and how others view their role in it. So, while Newman and colleagues have provided a vivid conceptual term for a key feature of these episodes in “rampage,” there is little here in the way of a phenomenology of violence that can explain what these acts mean for us. ← 14 | 15 →

A Gap

We have another curious gap to explain, however. Why are there no rampage shootings between 1999 and 2005 that reached the scale of Columbine, or even came close? The ability to start over in a new setting is a compelling interpretation. Perhaps that explains why there weren’t any rampage shootings between those years, since any potentially alienated student would have been recruited (and finally accepted) by the U.S. military or its allies into the fight against the GWOT (Global War on Terror) thus making him, finally, a “successful joiner.” Eric Harris had been rejected. Who knows what would have happened if he had applied to the military under lessened post-9/11 standards? Or perhaps as Glenn Muschert argues, the media attention was redirected to terrorism:

Most analyses avoid the school shooting at the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota. I am including the 2005 incident at Red Lake. This incident was not covered intensely by the media, and whether this was because it occurred on the Red Lake Band of Chippewa (comprised of six tribes in the 1930s under the Objiwe language) reservation and they refused to let the media inside protected territory or because of the more salient issue of race is unclear (Leavy & Maloney, 2009). It is clear that this shooting fits the pattern following Columbine of second generation “school-related massacres” in that they are carefully planned over a period of time, attempt to be “successful” in their execution by achieving certain limits or diversions invented at Columbine (i.e., through improved copycatting/citation) and attempt to be newsworthy. Nearly all of them result in a successful suicide, brought on indirectly by cop (the gap between the time they get to the site and begin shooting and the arrival of the authorities to the scene depends on their planning) which is part of the game. Or they result in a successful psychotic break: Holmes and Breivik come to mind here. Harris, Klebold, Weise, Gill, Bosse, Cho, ← 15 | 16 → Auvinen, Kazmierzcak, Saari, Oliveira, Kretschmer, and Lanza all committed suicide as the authorities closed in on them. All of these shooters either referred to each other or to Columbine alone when referencing and posting claims about their intended acts. All of them have been reported to have been loners at some point, and most of them have been bullied. Whether or not they “failed” to join social communities at their respective schools is never confirmed. In order to write this phenomenology of violence that produces a specific kind of school-related massacre that I will, following Balibar, call “cruelty,” we need to describe the social dynamics of what has gone under the heading of “bullying,” and we need to analyze the politics of reporting and the academic work surrounding the deployment of this term. This has very real consequences for how we view solutions to this problem, who we see as the agents that can produce policy results and protect student and other civilian populations. This phenomenology has political implications.

The Bully Pulpit

If I can make one intervention in this book, it will be to let other academics who might read it know where the rot is located: in Dave Cullen’s Columbine. As we can see, there’s a lot of confusion about bullying among the American literati. As school violence became a growth industry for the media following Columbine, the reporting of it got much worse. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame “scholarship,” but Cullen is certainly right that sometimes an idea gets solidified in the press that then becomes the uninvestigated truth of the story. The idea that Harris and Klebold were not bullied is one of these “truths.” Cullen is now a reporter at the New York Times. When Columbine began, he was at Salon and produced two very important streams of articles for that online magazine, initially in 1999 and again in 2004, that were cited over and over again by academics and others as if they were the truth. One way that Cullen was able to succeed in this was by demystifying all the stories that initially rolled out of Columbine: the martyr story, the Trench Coat mafia, etc. He’s been a good foot soldier for clearing up media gossip. By 2009 and the book that was “ten years in the making,” Cullen was able to get away with his own truth stretching: a new “demystification” was produced: Harris and Klebold were not bullied, they had friends, etc. Larkin has addressed this hyperreal construction in his book directly in a section parodying Cullen’s thesis laid out in 2004, “The Depressive and the Psychopath?” (148–154). He thinks this is not quite the case and probably absolves the administration at the school of some responsibility. By contrast, Cullen and ← 16 | 17 → Det. Dwayne Fuselier’s theory about Harris’s psychopathology exonerates the entire administration at Columbine, the media, the jocks and the Christians, and wraps it up into a neat little package with Eric Harris’s face on it, and served to the American public as “evil.” Cullen, in true masculine fashion, is able to call both of them things like “losers” and get away with sounding professional, whereas Katherine Newman must take a different tack and sound understanding: they are failed joiners.

It is this failed joiner issue that is most troubling with Newman’s book, because it dovetails so nicely with the growing Columbine fantasy structure created by Cullen (also in 2004). For in “exposing” the myth of the Trench Coat Mafia on Salon.com, his book effectively gave legitimacy to Newman’s claim about failure to join, as Cullen also asserted that Harris and Klebold were in fact, not bullied (at least by his standards), but had friends and participated in activities at school. So they joined; they just weren’t popular (why do we believe they wanted to be popular? This is the unstated assumption of Cullen’s analysis). The media’s cognitive dissonance that allows a report to quote from Newman and Cullen at the same time is equally perplexing: Cullen claims they were not bullied, but that Harris was a psychopathic Pied Piper leading Klebold down a path of destruction and chaos (the very same thing he would argue about the Tsarnaev brothers); Newman proclaims them officially bullied, but her analysis does not condemn the social structure that reproduces and affirms the cruelty they experience. Together they perform a compromise formation for the American political imaginary: on the one hand, yes, they were bullied, but bullying isn’t so bad because you can still have friends (so they must be pathological individuals who do not respond to a normalized part of American civil society). In this, the audience never has to look at bullying in its raw and cruel form nor do they have to look at the schools as places where their children might not be protected.

Dewey Cornell, the forensic clinical psychologist who interviewed many of the first generation school violence perpetrators, is more honest about what we can know at this point: they represent a third category of shooter (behind the psychologically ill and antisocial youths, basic criminals who make up 2/3 of youth violence episodes) in that they “appear to be normal well-adjusted kids who suddenly shoot and kill for what appears to be no reason. However, these kids are actually emotionally disturbed, socially alienated, troubled and conflicted, angry and depressed. They may be very intelligent and capable of many things but they are not satisfied with their own achievements and they are often victimized or treated unfairly in some way by their peers. They could have a few friends but still feel alone and isolated from the rest of the world” (qtd. in Roach 2010). What is ← 17 | 18 → this world they feel isolated from, and why do they react so violently toward it? Why are they not capable of indifference?

One problem could be with the notion of joining altogether; to say that one fails at it presumes that one wants to join something, like a “social,” and has problems doing so. This may be the case with Klebold and Harris, although it may also be that they did not want to join: no one ever places under scrutiny the particular groups they had before them for membership, with the exception of Larkin (2007) whose actual sociological interviewing of Columbine survivors and friends of Harris and Klebold will structure our reading later in this chapter. As Murray Forman has written,

Earlier on in his analysis of the alternative “cool” that has been co-opted by television in the last decade through such shows as Freaks and Geeks, Forman gives voice to Gaines’s earlier insights about marginalized youth that are eerily forgotten in Cullen’s story about Columbine, Newman’s analysis of the “social roots” as well as FBI reports and profiles that focus on subsequent school shooters: “Gaines explains that ‘transgressive’ teens are often caught between the demands and expectations of adult authorities and the ‘hegemonic’ authority of the school jocks, and, furthermore, they are repeatedly labeled as ‘burnouts,’ ‘losers,’ and other pejorative terms. As she determines, what from the outside looks like indifferent self-exclusion or uncaring failure due to chronic social, athletic, and scholastic ineptitude may actually be a deliberate defensive strategy for subsistence” (Forman 2004, 67). Finally, Forman quotes Gaines, “The further away from the mainstream they could get, the greater their self-respect. Whether that meant nonparticipation, obliteration through drugs, or contemplating suicide, it was a matter of psychic survival” (Gaines 1992, 92, qtd. in Forman 2004, 67). Or, as Larkin has found from interviewing friends, classmates, and teachers of Dylan Klebold, in the ninth grade he “went from being a nobody to one who was recognized for ← 18 | 19 → his negativity” (Larkin 2007, 141). Even a teacher perceived him as “unattractive” (ibid.) With few exceptions, coverage of Columbine and subsequent shootings has been marked by its lack of interest in the shooter’s point of view or message. Part of the problem has been that any portrait of school violence perpetrators has been undertaken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or some other federal agency whose unit of analysis begins with the notion of an already committed criminal act. As a lead investigator for the Red Lake shooting wrote, “Jeffrey’s family dynamics are interesting. However, this was a criminal investigation and not a psychological autopsy” (O’Toole 2012, 178). The FBI is the security guard for the control society.8 Uninterested in looking at the symbolic evidence of what leads these young men to plan, document, mediate and brand events that use bombs, gasoline, tear gas, diversionary tactics and ends in a rampage event that culminates in suicide, whether by cop or by self, both the media and researchers have ignored the rampant social conformity in American schools (and elsewhere) that produces a “heterogeneous social” (Sumiala & Tikka 2011). While Newman’s notion of “rampage” is helpful in terms of describing a discrete part of the script that school violence perpetrators act out, it is by no means the whole part of the event. In the case of Columbine, especially Cullen, Kass and Larkin, many have shown it was really an event that was meant to be a bombing. The rampage part only inheres to the indiscriminant shooting, which lasts less than 10 or 20 minutes in each case. It wasn’t the main event in Harris and Klebold’s pilot.

Unfortunately, more shootings took place as the years went on, including the 2005 shootings in Red Lake, Minnesota, by Jeff Weise, the Virginia Tech shootings by Seung-Hui Cho in 2007 and the Northern Illinois shooting on Valentine’s Day in 2008. I prepared to publish a new book incorporating all of the new insights generated by these shootings, as well as the media coverage of them, especially in light of 9/11 and other terror events that generated public acceptance of the various Columbine theses that would substitute for one another on any given day. The three shootings are examined in detail at the end of Chapter 5 for the way they fit into this script.

First, however, I must examine an example of what I consider to be a productive disavowal generated by “critical journalism” of Columbine. In order to do this, I will have to (finally) do my own (partial) reading of the event. This initial reading will serve as the first instance in a series of shootings I will briefly mention in scattered places throughout the rest of the book, including shootings by military personnel as in the case of Ft. Hood, as well as the attempted attack on Ft. Dix, the case of John Walker Lindh and finally the case of Staff Sgt. Roger Bales, who was court marshaled in the shooting deaths of 17 Afghan citizens in March 2012. As well, I ← 19 | 20 → will backtrack into the series to look at the bombing and murder spree undertaken by Anders Breivik on 22 July 2011 and link it back to two shootings in Finland that took place in 2007 and 2008, in Jokela and Kauhajoki respectively, and their connection with post-Columbine events through listservs and web pages devoted to cultural fetish objects, like music and violent videos. Furthermore, I will discuss the role that YouTube may play in creating what Finnish researchers Kiilakoski and Oksanen have called a “brand” for “shootings to come” (Kiilakoski & Oksanen 2011, 247). There are also the mass shootings that took place in Germany in 2002, 2006 and 2009, but my analysis here will focus mainly on 2006 in Emsdetten and 2009 in Winnenden.9 In 2006 especially, the European media began to rethink its previous disavowal that school shootings were an American problem linked to violent culture and gun availability. It is also at this time that research has shown that American right-wing bloggers as well as their Australian-English counterpart Rupert Murdoch began fiercely defending Second Amendment rights. As DeFoster has argued, after Winnenden, European media “turned inward” (DeFoster 2010, 467). Also, in 2009, the U.S. witnessed a mass shooting on an American air force base, Ft. Hood, by none other than one of its own army military psychiatrists, Maj. Nidal Hasan. This shooting initially conjured up fear of a terrorist attack, but quickly turned out to be a case of increased psychological strain, possibly brought on by an impending deployment to Afghanistan, as well as anger that colleagues refused to prosecute several soldiers Hasan had discovered to have committed war crimes. Hasan is included here because many analysts close to the case believe this more closely resembles the shooting in Virginia Tech, and because Hasan “passed up several opportunities to shoot civilians, and instead targeted soldiers in uniform,” in other words, his peers (Zucchino 2010). One might also call this a new—democratic—form of fragging. Hasan was later indicted as a terrorist by the right-wing media and several U.S. senators. Hasan was a severely troubled American doctor and soldier working in a veteran’s hospital. Like the Tsarnaev brothers, he was Muslim, and like them, he was constantly interrogated for terrorist activities, unlike the other perpetrators we examine here, who were not.

There is no school-related massacre or civil society mass killing that fits this model in 2010.

In April 2011, another mass shooting took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that more closely resembles the Newton massacres in that the shooter, Wellington de Oliveira, who was also 24-years-old and returned to his grade school to commit his rampage, he burned his hard drive, lined the students against the wall and shot them at point-blank range, and he admired the 9/11 attacks (Sibaja 2011). He is said to have been bullied and an outcast. After killing 12 students, he also committed ← 20 | 21 → suicide. By mid-2011, on the date of the onset of the Crusades, 22 July, Anders Bering Breivik detonated a bomb at the Norwegian parliament building in Oslo, killing eight, and then proceeded, dressed as a police officer, to hail a ferry out to Utøya Island (the site of a Labor Party youth camp) and commit a rampage shooting on the ferry, killing close to 60 more people. Unlike all the previous shooters, Breivik surrendered to the police and spent much of his time in court defending his actions. Breivik’s “Manifesto” and critical attention to it by scholars discusses the role of multiculturalism in fostering the takeover of Europe by Muslims.10 I will link Breivik to Columbine and other shootings and read it through his focus on “Eurabia”—in his paranoid mind—a real place where Muslims take over an authentically Christian Europe (e.g., Norway) through “multicultural relativism” and “feminism” in the next chapter. In March 2012, another military shooting took place, only this time it was by a sniper who killed Afghan civilians in Kandahar. Sgt. Robert Bales snuck out of his barracks in the middle of the night, unseen, and fatally shot several people in one nearby village before he quietly returned to his camp for an hour, only to leave for another village and shoot more civilians, 16 in all. Finally, James Eagan Holmes and his shooting spree in a Denver multiplex during the opening scenes of The Dark Night Rises, disguised as the Joker, follows and will be linked to Adam Lanza’s mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012 (these two specifically for the way they inspire conspiracy theories explored in Chapter 5). They are all linked to each other and trace back to Columbine and to Harris’s opening salvo, “We want to kick start a revolution, a revolution of the dispossessed” (Transcripts of The Basement Tapes, March 1999). Some are aware, some are not, of what they are doing: all are revealing important insights into the inner workings of a control society at war with itself.

Every single one of them glided under the radar of those around them; Holmes was as “anonymous as a glass of water” (Healy & Kovaleski 2012), Lanza was a shy, quiet boy who did not like to be touched (but we find out he took several trips outside his home to malls alone to scout for equipment for his spree), and in the cases of the Finnish and German school shooters, they were all described as “quiet,” often “generous and nice.” Or later, bystanders wondered why no one had ever tried to do anything to help them, as was the case with Cho, Breivik, Holmes and Hasan, all of them shuffled through psychiatric institutions, formal reviews, academic institutions and so on while they continued to “pass” unnoticed. Finally, Jahar Tsarnaev’s friends have provided evidence, and “what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs” (Reitman 2013). ← 21 | 22 →

If our shooters are “canaries in the coal mine,” then we must stop scrutinizing the canaries and begin to map how the coal mine operates in order to obscure our vision of what’s motivating the canaries to commit murder or suicide or psychotically break; that is, how they decide that reality is not really worth the trouble any longer. As I will argue, they plan these acts methodically (and still usually fail to enact most of their plans), so their acts fall somewhere between those of the impulsive patriarchal identified wife abuser (who takes his whole family with him to spare them the shame, or selfishly not allow them to live without him) and the calculating psychopath so adored by the FBI who has a really difficult time ending a cold, calculated and selfish life. They are produced by their environment, take on many of its aspects and plan to die in an infamous way. They need publicity; they do fetishize guns and bombs; they identify with hatred in its most popular (and available forms); they have to prepare to commit the acts (in most cases it’s not natural or enjoyable to them: Breivik took testosterone before his attack, Lanza studied gory images of children, etc.); they are mentally ill (in an as of yet undefined way); and they are suicidal. If we take all of these factors and put them up against previous “youth movements,” we can say that they lack a counterculture. If there was a space outside (an “outside”) they might still crave publicity but would be able to get it symbolically; they may resort to violence but only against an oppressive agent, like the state or bourgeois norms; they would probably use feelings of disgust and even hatred against the state as a source of agency or to formulate a strategy of civil disobedience; and they could act out this disobedience with a relatively clear conscience. With every available source of discontent explained away as an individual’s failure (the solution to which is available in the modular agencies) and shunted into another failed mediation, they realize there is no exit (not even an outside from which to complain).

Unfortunately, nearly every reading of school violence is on the side of the control society, because this is the only way one’s ideas can be allowed representation, especially in mass media. As Kiilakoski and Oksanen contend, riffing off of Newman et al.’s framework of the “cultural script of the school shooting,” which is a perfect example of theorizing from the side of social control as they reduce the overall analysis to the shooter’s intentions, they offer by contrast, “The cultural script, however, is the wider social background which makes school shootings appear as a meaningful act. It is the prescription for behavior. To use Wittgensteinian terms, the cultural script is meaningful in a life that views violence as a solution, combines manly behavior with violent acts and views school shootings as a way to reverse intra-generational power relations in schools” (Kiilakoski & Oksanen 2011, 250). While they add the important element of the ← 22 | 23 → “cultural products and discourses that affect a script” such as music, films and stylizations shared by shooters to an analysis of the script, this addition transforms the level of analysis significantly, making it possible to see in such mass attacks not just the result of a “failure to join” a school environment, but to reach beyond it to the society that informs such an environment, as well as providing responses to it. The school and the society are always connected; schools are not “black boxes” that we must penetrate to unearth their hidden workings, rather, schools are a reflection of the social dynamics within the society in which they are housed. Newman et al.’s analysis makes it possible to discuss all the obvious advancements made by Harris and Klebold over previous shootings, most importantly, “to conduct a school shooting and gain notoriety by using a precise media strategy” (ibid., 250), only to stop short of calling it a “movement,” that is, to deny that its social impact could resonate beyond the walls of Columbine High School or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s warped minds. The question remains, in spite of the horrors inflicted and the tragedies that ensued, what if they actually had something to say? As Kiilakoski and Oksanen argue, such shootings work on both interpersonal and intrapsychic levels while referencing previously available scripts, such as Columbine, which I would argue is the pilot for the second generation school shootings that follow. As they write, “The different levels of the script (cultural, interpersonal, intrapersonal) both form the background of the act—they deal with masculinity, revenge, acquiring power in public space—and give detailed guidelines on how to act in given situations” (ibid., 251). In the Jokela, Finland shooting in 2008, they offer, “the events of Columbine were emulated in an attempt to claim a large number of victims in trying to create destruction to the school building (pipe bombs in Columbine, trying to burn down the building with gasoline in Jokela) and to reach the public and describe the event as a political act” (ibid., 251).

While Muschert worries that school violence research suffers from a multidisciplinary approach that has obscured any “unified” approach or understanding of this social problem, I would argue that there is an important claim to be made that these are not only social problems (certainly they affect the local communities in which they occur more than any other actors in the event: the media, the public at large, e.g., the media viewer) but that they can be read as political statements of a new kind, which will be discussed in Chapter 4.11 This became clear with Columbine. The analytic separation between what have been called the “first wave” of school shooting sprees, occurring between 1996 and 1999, and the “second wave” is that the first school shootings are figured as social problems, i.e., they are committed by shooters emphasizing the script’s intrapsychic and interpersonal ← 23 | 24 → elements only. Thus, for Barry Loukaitis, it was an identification with Natural Born Killers and other forms of media, as he brandished the sawed off shotgun and trench coat; for Carneal, it was largely intraspychic, with an over-identification with the scene from The Basketball Diaries; or for Kinkel, it is an intense episode of psychosis laden with interpersonal tropes that switch between the school and the family dynamic, guns, and popular culture and for Johnson and Golden (both set free from juvenile detention in 2001) it was both, a chance to get back at “girls” through a dramatic form of revenge for romantic refusal and the lure of copying the rifle sniper script (they set up a rifle with a scope and pulled the fire alarm to get the students to leave the building). These events share similar traits and differ from the post-Columbine wave in fundamental ways. First, these early events may have all, as Dewey Cornell has argued, been preoccupied with getting the attention of peers by leaking information about the shooting beforehand, giving clues which were not connected to the shooters’ intentions. “All of these behaviors reflected the strong developmental need of adolescents for peer acknowledgment. Similarly, the decision to carry out an attack in the open, public setting of a school reflected the adolescent’s need to make a compelling statement to an audience of peers” (Cornell 2011, 45). This first wave is at school because the shooters are angry with some aspect of the school environment, but they do not intend to gain a media audience. These are also not suicides; the shooters may be suicidal (i.e., they idealize it), but they either cannot carry it out or refuse to (Golden and Johnson, 11- and 13-years-old, respectively, planned a “getaway”). This latter distinction is important because Harris and Klebold made sure they were able to commit suicide at the end of their rampage. Interested parties wonder what they were doing for 30 minutes between killing and suiciding themselves; they were making sure the time was right. Harris and Klebold were not interested in sticking around to find out if they “make a compelling statement to an audience of peers”; they enlisted a third party to do that for them, the media. This is where the politics happens, at what Galloway calls in video games the “moment of gamic death,” which is “the moment the controller stops accepting the user’s gameplay and essentially turns off”; further on “this moment usually coincides with the death of the player’s character inside the game environment” (ibid., 28). By emphasizing the spectacular nature of the event, complete with bombs (that failed) and diaries, videotaped interviews, even their clothing revealed the final message: “natural selection” and “wrath.” The key difference between the first wave and the second is that in the former the rage is unfocused, and the rampage and suicide largely fails in that both are interrupted; in the latter rage, rampage and suicide are harmonized—the gamic algorithm of school violence is established.

| 25 →

The Pilot

The script changes in Columbine. As Sumiala and Tikka maintain, it becomes “iconic,” and prefigures the advanced ritualized forms of sacred, heterogeneous communities that would later be built around it in 2005, after the debut of YouTube and the triumph of this form of communication through remediation (Sumiala & Tikka 2011, 150). But I want to add something to this idea of a heterogeneous social (indebted to Bataille in his reflections on Durkheim and Mauss), and that is that each new shooting that achieves mediated status adds to or improves upon the script created at Columbine; this is what I earlier referred to as their methectic quality, with each episode adding something new, a substitution, or bricolage1 (whether it be using gas instead of bombs, emailing or posting the media package directly to social media rather than relying on the professional mass media to air it). These are serial events. Columbine is the pilot for the next ← 25 | 26 → wave (which does not take off again until 2005)2 of shootings that are much different from those that preceded it. In fact, Harris and Klebold make reference to previous shootings, but not to admire them, rather to make fun of them:

They both wanted to commit the deadliest school massacre ever, and belittled shooters who only killed or maimed a few. And they did in fact ramp up the concept of the school massacre, adding bombs to the mix and reaching for the moment, unprecedented levels of planning and death. But they were followers even in Columbine, using the script of the other school shooters who showed them the art of the possible. (Kass 2009, 183)

How did Harris and Klebold euphemize their intended act? They called it NBK, or Natural Born Killers (a nod to Barry Loukaitis?).3 This heterogeneous social does not exist together in time or space; they fetishize the acts of the dead. They do intend to transgress the laws of the sacred, and they do follow (roughly speaking) Bataille’s notion of fascism. However, the extermination they carry out has no meaning for them. Following Balibar and a few other thinkers, my intention is to describe these events in a way that contributes to understanding the phenomenology of this extreme violence that flows out of a certain kind of cruelty. It is also literally self-sabotage, as in most cases they are suicides or end in psychotic breaks. Philosophically speaking, cruelty has a history. For Nietzsche, it is produced from below—it is democratic. However, most of the analysis thus far has been concentrated in sociology and criminal justice, two disciplines that often take the society of control as a given. Larkin (2007) begins this process and for this reason stands out as an exception because, as one reviewer put it, he “sets it into a context” that encompasses: “the culture of celebrity in post-modern America,” the “growth and popular enthusiasm for para-military culture in the mid-west,” “the deeply intolerant and self-satisfied evangelical Protestantism in the area and the school itself,” and finally, “the ethos of the school, in which elite male athletes were encouraged to behave like pampered white sons of plantation owners in the pre-civil war South visiting the slave quarters, and the leading crowd were left free to bully and harass everyone else in the school” (Delamont 2008, 166–167). Kass will corroborate most of this through his journalistic project. However, the first important step has been taken to remove the focus from the perpetrators and give some emphasis to the environment in which they operated. This means suspending the media’s fixation on psychological explanations that reside in the individual, and sociology’s explanations (at least many so far) which take the disciplinary society as a given and assume we function in a normalized civil society; it is assumed that it is only these few individuals who cannot adapt. Second, however, we must explain why there are no relevant cases until 2005,4 and still ← 26 | 27 → no more media-generating ones until Virginia Tech in 2007. Some scholars have made the connection between the availability of such scripts via YouTube, the likes of which first appeared in functional form in 2006.

Columbine: Hyperreality

In the summer of 2009, the only celebrated book of critical journalism covering the Columbine shootings was published by Dave Cullen, a decade after the event itself. This book, entitled Columbine, received many accolades and praise for being the definitive account of the Columbine shootings, an accurate portrait of the shooters, undertaken by a local journalist at the Denver Post, with a national outlet online at Salon.com. Columbine disputed all the media’s mistaken reporting: the Trench Coat Mafia, the idea and importance of “cliques” at Columbine, the bullying that Harris and Klebold experienced, their role in the Columbine pecking order as being grossly misinterpreted, the “unlikely martyrdom of Cassie Bernall” (which I had detailed in my own book 6 years before [Webber 2003a, 104], as had Watson in 2002), even Misty Bernal admits this in her book She Said Yes, which came out in 2000, and this is where I sourced the claim for my own argument. However, when I read the book, I couldn’t help but think that Cullen’s success and all the attention he was drawing were not based on how well his arguments matched the investigative facts he produced in the book through his connection to several key investigators in the case. Rather, Cullen’s arguments were not questioned, it seemed to me, for two main reasons. First, he was seen as a “local”; therefore, because of his proximity to the case, any doubt that unfamiliar readers may have had put toward his narrative were eradicated. After all, this was a national journalist who spent ten years studying this horrible tragedy, speaking to victims and family members, interviewing law enforcement, and hanging out with the FBI. It was as if being near Columbine made any claims one made about it more authentic. The problem was there was only this one account or, so most people thought (and still do). The problem is that even critical journalism now works like conventional media: shutting out alternative voices to the exclusion of one popular story. ← 27 | 28 →

Second, Cullen’s narrative exonerates the homogeneous social; that is, it defends Columbine, the school. Bataille’s depiction of how social homogeneity neutralizes “unruly elements” or “disruptions” like Columbine is apt:

Cullen’s book is a symptom of our own fetishistic disavowal of the cruelty that is pervasive in public schools and elsewhere in declining capitalist societies. What is unique now about the production of heterogeneity, which Bataille describes as a “split off” part of homogeneity, is that it is nearly impossible for it be relatively autonomous to the homogeneous social. In fact, as Žižek has argued that capitalism “detotalizes meaning,” we can now see the true force of the acronym TINA (There Is No Alternative) to the capitalist forms of social organization that follow from it. That is, there is no alternative to the homogeneous social. Market forces and apologists of all stripes for them (and for their apologists) find ways to capitalize on strategies for bringing heterogeneous elements back under the sway of “productive organization.” Furthermore, it does not matter if these strategies “work” as they have no objective other than keeping the subject within the modular framework; in this, they are consumerist because they ask the subject to submit himself to their regimes in order to be pronounced “well” interminably. For Harris and Klebold, “diversion” was such a program. We will investigate this toward the end of the chapter. First, it is important to outline the productive function of Cullen’s text; it is his mastery of “bringing unruly forces” under the “control of order” that makes his text so popular.

I have already mentioned the confusion between proximity and knowledge. My first queasy feeling came with Cullen’s too close for comfort relationship with FBI investigator Dwayne Fuselier, a psychologist (Cullen erroneously calls him a psychiatrist, a not insignificant form of misdirection), on whom he relies for most of his portrait of Eric Harris. I was familiar with the tactic being deployed in this discussion as with two person episodes (as in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1997) where there is a societal bias in favor of making one the “instigator” and the other a follower or flunkie (Webber 2003a, 51–53). The media exploit this bias whenever they insert the claim into a news analysis of a shooting that “police are looking for ← 28 | 29 → a second shooter.” In some ways, the police are doing this, but only because the shooters themselves plan their attacks very carefully to create illusions about the number and nature of the perpetrators in the opening scenes of their mass shooting scripts: for example, Klebold and Harris wore trench coats at the beginning and took them off (at different times), hence, competing eye witness accounts would indicate more than two shooters. Cho staged a domestic violence shooting at Ambler Johnston to allay fears of the campus police and community and avert necessary warnings, and so on. In Cullen’s case he labels Eric Harris a psychopath and Dylan Klebold his suicidal friend (and easily suggestible). This comes from the FBI, and we should be wary of this interpretation. Further scrutiny shows that the portrait of Eric Harris that Cullen provides is patchy at best. There is a great amount of dramatic effect presented when we hear “Eric’s” voice. Even reviewers pointed this out about Cullen’s book, but did not come to the conclusion that they should question its claims. Consider Jennifer Senior’s review of Cullen for the New York Times Book Review:

Cullen’s distinction between insanity and psychopathology offers little in the way of clarity, unless we are only looking at it through a juridical framework. As Margaret Price has argued, following Allen and Nairn’s work on media depictions of mental illness, omissions or poorly constructed texts “through a strategy of juxtaposition and omission” (precisely the way Cullen does with Harris and Klebold), “does not merely invite the reader to draw certain conclusions; it also implicates the reader in those conclusions, so that the reader becomes a cocreator of the association between violence and mental illness” (Price 2011, 147). This also happens when pieces of information are juxtaposed next to each other in a story and usually draws a timeline from one dramatic act to the next, as when Kazmierczak was in a story that she argues presented this actual content to the ← 29 | 30 → reader, “Kazmierczak, 27, Killer of 5 Students, Studied Mental Health Issues, Worked at Prison” (ibid.). The media is already framing how we view this problem of “Kazmierczak” from its own point of view. Anyone interested in understanding how this violence proceeds would need to abandon media as a source for information. If Cullen is weak when describing Harris, shouldn’t we worry that his analysis of the relationship between him and Klebold was more complicated than the one he presents? Cullen admits he had unequal access to both shooters’ parents; the Klebolds have always been more forthcoming, while the Harrises have all but disappeared.5 Just like in the prisoner’s dilemma, one gets the blame when the other snitches, only this time, Cullen’s journalism is superimposing this semblance of a confession onto Klebold. Reading this “nuanced dissection of the differences” between the two that leaves us “in the strange (and challenging) position of feeling pity, almost, for Klebold” is not unlike reading the media interpretation of what happened at Westboro Middle School between the “Hunter and the Choir Boy” (Labi 1998). Another book that debuted around the same time as Cullen’s, also called Columbine and also by a Denver native following the events very closely, was largely overlooked by popular media, even though it dispelled most of the ideas presented by Cullen. Jeff Kass’s book suggests (to me, anyway) that how we view Harris is more socially and politically important to us, as viewers and onlookers, than to the truth of things. Cullen saves us the difficult task of having to confront the more obscene aspects of American society that most are happy to ignore. Kass suggests that Harris and Klebold were in fact low on the pecking order at Columbine, but the problem was the threshold American culture places on achieving the status of “bullied” is rather too high. Furthermore, Kass presents an interesting thesis that it doesn’t matter “objectively” whether people liked or hated Harris and Klebold: they felt like outcasts; self-perception is important.6 Cullen also presents evidence that because Klebold went to the prom, he was popular and because, he claims, Eric Harris was successful with the ladies, he wasn’t an outcast. When I read these passages in Cullen’s book in 2009, I said aloud, “This is beside the point” because what Cullen seemed to be presenting to his readers affirmed their own bias as Americans: if you are bullied or feel downtrodden, you cannot have any trace of enjoyment at all in your life. If you do have evidence of enjoyment, then any claim to marginalization is discounted. As it turns out, Klebold’s prom date was a friend and the one who bought the three guns used in Columbine, and as Kass recounts a last scene of Klebold in The Basement Tapes7 for us, says he didn’t want to go to the prom but his parents are paying for it, “Since I’m going to be dying,” he adds, “I thought I might do something cool” (Kass 2009, 139). Eric Harris’s sex life was probably nonexistent. ← 30 | 31 → As Kass said in an interview shortly after his book debuted to little media attention, “I feel they were outcasts. I feel they were among the most unpopular kids in the school—and my evidence is their diaries. Pick up almost any page and all they talk about is how much they are outcasts, how they don’t feel part of the school or any community.” And on the connection between Harris and Klebold that seemingly exonerates Dylan in Cullen’s book, “Dylan’s writings show him to be pretty entranced by the plan. And their code word for the shootings—NBK, which stood for Natural Born Killers, one of their favorite movies—came from him. He was the first to mention doing an NBK, going NBK. That says to me that he wasn’t such a secondary participant” (Kass 2009). Kass also explores the backgrounds of both Harris and Klebold (going back to their grandparents) and gives a context for their class and socioeconomic background. Klebold’s family was wealthy enough to have a guest house, and Harris moved from town to town as his father worked as a transport pilot in the military.

Though Kass draws no conclusions for the reader, he offers the evidence and allows them to decide; he states his opinion but in a way that the reader can feel independent of it. Klebold was going to college, and Harris had just been rejected by the Marines. Klebold was, in Kass’s depiction, “passive aggressive” and depressed, whereas Harris might have been a malevolent psychopath. We fret at the words “psychopath” because that’s what the FBI would like us to do, but we blink at passive aggressive. By contrast, Kass notes that Dylan shared more features with more of the school shooters than Harris; “shy,” “wants to be part of the group but cannot” as he says of him. “Dylan was the deceiver in chief” (180). As a passive aggressive he “undermines or sabotages helpful acts at one level with passive aggressive behavior on another level,” and “it seems like when Dylan helps a person he’s hurting a person” (181). The observations come from examining Dylan’s apology letter to the diversion program officer (which both Cullen and Kass agree set them off), written in a bothersome, hard to read font, defacing someone’s locker who has offended him (rather than having a confrontation) and insulting people while appearing to praise them. Kass observes that it is ironic that Dylan shares more features with the other shooters (shy, unnoticed, etc.), yet, as he says, “he is the one to watch for” (180). What is very interesting about most of these cases is how the coverage always looks for evidence of any kind of overt violent past or behavior when in reality someone probably should have looked at someone like Klebold (or Cho, or Lanza or any of them) and said, “how is this person taking all this in without reacting?”

Larkin, by contrast, contextualizes the entire school and societal environment in Jefferson County in this way: “It was a fairly common fantasy, especially ← 31 | 32 → among outcast students for whom attendance at Columbine seemed to be an invitation to harassment, humiliation, and abuse. Given that nobody had ever bombed their high school before, such talk was dismissed as fantasy” (Larkin 2007, 130). More importantly, if we can accept that such acts are seductive for their possible infamy and a reinforcement of the shooter’s masculinity, then why do we assume they would reveal all the humiliations they experienced in their diaries for us to read? Isn’t it an anathema to hegemonic masculinity to reveal one’s vulnerabilities? Wouldn’t that ruin the effect of the infamous act itself? School shooters leave behind what they want the audience to read and destroy the rest, even creating “media packages” that can be cited in subsequent school shooting scripts. Larkin further complicates the single-minded focus on Eric Harris as a psychopath that has been produced by the media through Cullen’s book: “In my view, the evidence for Eric’s psychopathology is, at best, mixed” (Larkin 2007, 150), and further, “Clearly, Eric did not display empathy on April 20, 1999. But in talking with people who knew Eric, a quite different picture emerged: Eric had a pet dog that he loved and cared for. He was described as a good friend who could give emotional support to people he liked; he empathized with those like himself who were victimized by the jocks. I doubt whether the profilers talked to any of his friends” (Larkin 2007, 151). As he concludes, “Environmental influences give direction to psychopathology,” meaning that any motive that can be attributed to any shooter in these cases is not determined by the label “psychopath”; even psychopaths’ intentions are provided by the environment. While the form of the psychopath largely remains the same (cold, detached, lacking empathy), the content is variable (who or what do they feel cold, detached and lack empathy for?). Kass will give another outside expert’s opinion who adds the qualifier “malevolent” to psychopath. In such cases, he argues, they have “cold-blooded ruthlessness, an intense desire to gain revenge for the real or imagined mistreatment to which they were subjected in childhood” (qtd. in Kass 2009, 177).

Cullen’s book, at least when it characterizes Harris and Klebold (the lump sum of the problem of Columbine), gives truth to the lie of American culture as identified by Slavoj Žižek in his analysis of the “obscene underside” of American forms of belonging. Žižek argues that it is ritual forms of humiliation that accompany our acts of community building or “joining.” More important is the way that we protect these ritual forms from criticism by failing to point out that they produce and sustain our most celebrated categories of citizenship: democracy, freedom, and civility. As an example, Žižek discusses the way he encountered the Abu Ghraib photos; initially, he thought they were performance art ← 32 | 33 → from the West Village. As he says, the difference in Abu Ghraib is not that the soldiers were terrorizing the Muslim captives, but that they were initiating them into American forms of belonging, e.g., degrading sexual acts and torture. Žižek does not mention this, but one could add that all the protests against the soldiers that took the form of cultural relativism (you can’t treat Muslims like that, they have religious convictions about sexuality and women, etc.) were really saying: we Americans don’t have any convictions when it comes to our rituals of initiation other than that the victim remain silent about it in exchange for his membership in our “community.” This is the obscene underside that accompanies nearly every personal case of school shooters but must be ignored because it might disturb our collective protection of such practices as our “way of life.” As Žižek writes,

And when Žižek considers Christopher Hitchens’s weird suggestion that since the soldiers were not acting under direct orders, they were the acts of “mutineers, deserters or traitors in the field and they should be taken out and shot,” Žižek replies that “they were legitimized by a specific version of the obscene Code Red” that Americans consistently disavow. To return to Cullen’s portrait of Harris, what if this obsession with producing him as a “deserter” to the human race (a “psychopath”) ignores the obscene practices at Columbine High School that might disturb our collective belief in education and democratic socialization as the institution that produces (and reproduces) the very “civility” we value? Furthermore, why does Klebold evoke “pity” when he participated in the mass killings as joyously as Harris did? The acceptance of such schizo-affected presentations of Columbine should tell us something about what the public is hiding from itself and from the world. As I said, in all these cases, we can only speculate as to the humiliation each perpetrator experienced. We do know from Kass, Larkin, and others that they were pushed, shoved, called “faggot” repeatedly, forced to bus other kids’ trays during lunch, had tampons saturated with ketchup thrown at them, etc. Cullen, relying exclusively on interviews with survivors and the FBI and school authorities, comes to the conclusion (again, from the review of Klein’s book): ← 33 | 34 →

To reiterate, why would they write about being bullied? If Harris and Klebold wrote about these experiences and any others that may even be more gruesome, would they inspire the fear that most adults felt after Columbine? No. Furthermore, explaining the humiliation only serves to further underscore and legitimate it, especially in American culture, where blame is always shunted back onto the victim: Why can’t you just get over it? Did you do something to provoke the humiliation? Why are you so weird anyway? That is, in a culture where passive aggressive behavior is not only overlooked, it is rewarded (what else is there in the control society, where all decisions about social relations and politics have been decided in advance by the market and its morals?). Finally, another important point is that no one is ever going to admit that they bullied these school violence perpetrators. So when investigators like Cullen find that there is no bullying, it’s because he’s asked the correct people the wrong question.8 Who in their right mind would admit to the FBI or a journalist that they bullied the two most famous school shooters in the history of school violence, inadvertently producing the deaths of 17 people and harming many others? No one in their right mind would, and what is interesting is that we keep telling ourselves and letting Dave Cullen tell us that if it were true, there would be evidence! Besides any level of humiliation was never going to match up with the damage Harris and Klebold inflicted on Columbine, and that was the point: they did want to be seen as more powerful, more sovereign at the end than any of the victims they created. As Balibar maintains, “the essence of extreme violence lies not so much, perhaps, in destroying peace or making it impossible, but in annihilating the conflict itself, imposing on it a disproportionality that deprives it of any history and any uncertainty” (Balibar 2009, 28).

There is blood on the walls, blood on the chairs. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like something in the United States.

—first responder to the elementary school where Wellington Oliveria committed a mass shooting in 2011 (Esposti 2011) ← 34 | 35 →

A Culture of Honor?

Many of the school violence observers in the United States have argued that there is a definite pattern to the rage. Since most of the shootings (they argue) take place in the South or West or rural areas, then it must be something peculiar to these areas that produce the mass school attack response to humiliation and rejection. Kass, in particular, is drawn to this thesis. There are several problems with it. First, there have been many shootings outside the South and West, and even the outside the U.S., that fit this pattern. Second, when political scientists discuss how authority works in regions in the United States, they tend to use a formula described by Daniel Elazar. There are three regions: traditional, moral and individualistic. What matters is how people view politics in these cultures. In traditional political culture, “government is primarily understood to maintain the status quo,” that is, it is managed by elite culture. The south is mostly traditional. Colorado, however, is “dominated” by moralistic political culture where “Serving the community is the core of the political relationship even at the expense of individual loyalties and political friendships. In practice this often results in more amateur participation in politics than in the other political cultures. Upper New England, the Upper Middle West and portions of the west are the central areas for this culture type.” In a moralistic political culture, politics (and therefore authority and leadership) is derived from a moral framework, not from the status quo, not from the honor of elites, especially if it violates the community’s standards. What is acceptable is to legislate as if one’s views should dominate all others because they are morally correct (Elazar 1970, 1972). I do not see Columbine, or any shooting that comes after it, as a case of wounded “honor.” If there was an honor culture in Littleton, Colorado, and that is what was violated in Harris and Klebold’s symbolic universes, then wouldn’t they have used one of the acceptable (established) means of restoring one’s honor in that context? School shootings are not bar fights writ large. They are not corporate battles. We tend to think of dueling as an obscene (outmoded) practice when it in fact served a rational, ethical purpose in aristocratic cultures (LaVaque-Manty 2006).

School violence perpetrators want to annihilate the conflict altogether; if they do not accept the terms of the culture in which they live, why then would they act it out? Why do we make the curious slippage between dueling (based on trial combat) and bombing to kill an entire contained population? Elazar’s mapping is much better because it syncs better with Larkin’s observations about the culture ← 35 | 36 → of Columbine being overtaken by “Deep Christian” students (1/3), a force in American society, but especially in Colorado (where many evangelicals and others made their homes in the past decade), as it is where Focus on the Family is headquartered (70 miles away in Colorado Springs), as well as other new age spiritual groups. They worked in tandem with what he identifies as the celebrity jock culture who acted with impunity and established a kind of normality surrounding football; that is, as we shall see, it is only normal (read: moral) if you are a fan of football or a player. Kass says that areas like Columbine are unlike the “sober Puritans, Quakers and Dutch farmer-artisans” from the Northeast; in Colorado, they promote a “culture of self-defense” where “everyone is a newcomer.” “Public spaces are few and far between. Where there are sidewalks they are desolate. Where people do live together it is a kingdom of private residences, tract home next to tract home, with cars as fiefdoms on wheels” (Kass 2009, 186). I really agree with Kass on many points, but I would like to finally welcome him to the United States, indeed the globalized world of the twenty-first century. For many interpreters, it is as if these places are untouched by globalization; it’s the same for Newman et al. It may be a disciplinary focus problem. One review I read of Larkin’s book was particularly revealing for the way that people fantasize about the south and the West:

Wow, eh? Focus on the Family and evangelical movements arrived in Colorado in 1984, just in time to usher in Reagan’s second inauguration. They entered politics in the late 1970s to defeat Carter. They are a product of what Hofstadter has called “the paranoid style” of American politics that has existed since the country’s founding, but they are not exclusive to these areas as they have existed in the fetishized Northeast as well (Lyman Beecher worried about the soul of the West, but he stayed in New York). Those who cling to the stereotypes about the West (but also the South) have to bracket the impact of the past decade of economic restructuring.9 What I cannot understand are the arguments that add to ← 36 | 37 → Kimmel’s notion that the South and West are cultures of “honor” and therefore bullying in these places tends to produce school shooters because they cannot take it, it doesn’t match up with their self-assessment as “proud.” Are, then, the Midwest and Northeast not cultures of honor? Do they have no honor? How do young men in De Kalb, Illinois (65 miles from the center of Chicago), like Steven Kazmierzcak, deal with humiliation? Do they just reassure themselves that they are “still a man” when people call them “Strange Steve”? When Douglas Kellner writes about “multiplying forms of domestic terrorism” he is clear to distinguish it from ideological forms like Al-Qaeda inspired acts and compares them as the “dark side of the spectacle” in the British riots of 2011 and the Norway spree killings committed by Breivik. Can we be satisfied with the determination only that they are “common crises of masculinity and male rage exploding into acts of violence that create a media spectacle in which the individual agents, through acts of societal violence that give them an illusion of power and hypermale macho tough guy identity,” allowing them to “become part of a greater story than their often failed lives” (Kellner 2012, 24)? To be sure, he admits that all these acts are “overdetermined” and need close sociological analysis in each case, but how can they all feed from hegemonic masculinity? And if they do, how does their overdetermination then allow anything to be said of masculinity that is useful? I believe we need to stop analyzing these cases from the perspective of masculine domination. These are not dominant males and they do not (often) seek to witness the aftermath of their rage (as dominant men do). Instead, they judge an environment, often one that spans beyond the school, but they also want to impress each other: the other members of the heterogeneous social produced by the ever increasing homogeneity of our societies. There is a critical distinction to be made between the leaders of what Sumiala and Tikka identify as the “homogeneous” culture of the sacred and the production, mediation and ongoing serial drama that is the heterogeneous culture of school shooters.

As to Harris and Klebold’s “enjoyment” during their last year of life (after they decided to attack the school, nearly 8 months before), it is curious that Cullen assumes that spending so much time disproving the media’s fascination with their unhappiness should change a critical observer’s view. Most people are happy (or at least relieved) when they decide to commit suicide. In fact, this happiness often acts to deceive those around them (e.g., the parents of Klebold and Harris), usually making their attempt successful. I am not surprised they that they may have tried very hard to get laid, or go to prom, or get along with those around them by going to bowling class (Michael Moore). Kass’s depiction of Harris disputes all of this enjoyment and suspects they were both virgins (a close analysis of one’s own high ← 37 | 38 → school experience and male bravado that attended it, might prove Kass correct). Details about the shooter’s forays into Adultfriendfinder.com or Match.com to seek “shenanigans” (Holmes) or to call a prostitute to a hotel in the last days (Cho) or to watch sadomasochistic pornography (Steinhäuser), or to be unsure whether one ticks male or female on their community college application (Lanza), or to seek out illicit bisexual encounters (Kazmierzcak) do not tell us anything other than that they all knew it was coming to an end and wanted to enjoy sex, the way most people imagine they would at the announcement of the end of the world, that is, of their existence.

Cullen’s book is evidence of an ideological move because it protects American cruelty, the obscene underside of its “civility” from criticism; it is a journalistic form of inoculation, where deeper questions about the nature of social relations within schools and other American institutions will remain buried under the surface. And all this happens, sadly, under the mantle of “critical journalism.” It allows the audience to “sleep.” Cullen’s portrait is the half-time show for the control society, leaving the established order within schools unquestioned, even, to some extent, leaving the impression that Columbine really only suffered at the hands of the “lone wolf terrorist” that was Eric Harris. That’s the kind of interpretation one gets from taking so much stock in an analysis from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and their fetish for “profiling” potential school shooters. As Geert Lovink argues:

This quote adds some sense to the contemporary discussion around gaming. By the end of this chapter, we will review Galloway’s interpretation of gaming and how it relates to social realism, that is, for gaming to translate into reality, the meaning of the actions performed in it must assume some “fidelity of context.” As the quote surmises, there’s not much in the way of similarities between the mindsets of gamers, particularly those like Harris and Klebold, and the military. And yet, these kinds of arguments make a gruesome kind of sense to many thinkers. Cullen’s book would provide a template for any theoretical interpretation to “fill in” the blanks of the Columbine thesis around their preferred variables (be they games, violent music, guns, or even bombs). This is because Cullen’s book ← 38 | 39 → pronounces Harris’s problem to be that he was a psychopath, and therefore, any and all means of reinforcing his already cold-calculating tendencies could now be normalized as explanations for how the act was passed into reality. In Chapter 3, we will explore these episodes of violence as passages à l’acte where the executor connects directly with the real and bypasses the symbolic. For now, we must attend to the readings of Columbine that still (by tiny strings) cling to the notion that elements of popular culture play a stimulating role, even if combined with mental instability. Cullen became popular, indeed widely cited, not only because he was handsomely placed within the corporate media structure to promote his book widely, but because the way he structures his argument (and ventriloquizes Harris in particular) allows researchers to breathe new life into all the old Columbine theses and present them as if they are something new. Cullen’s text neutralizes arguments that focus on bullying and systemic violence at the school site. As Price has argued, it takes the “social” out of “psychosocial” and further on in such representations, “madness is generally assumed to be the cause of the shooters’ actions,” when, upon close reading one finds, “madness operates in the representations as a mechanism through which the shooters are placed in a space of unrecoverable deviance” (Price 2011, 144–5).

The inoculation that Cullen’s book performs on Columbine will color the way that subsequent shootings would be interpreted (even retrospectively, for Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, as the book did not come out until 2009). But, in a more insidious fashion, it derails the political interpretations of important academic work. Seen as the “definitive” account of the Columbine event, rather than the “only” one, it has become something of a reflex action for critical readings of school violence to offer their thanks and reliance upon Cullen’s “excellent reporting,” even as his readings skew their own (Protevi 2009, 141). I give as a primary example, John Protevi’s case study of Columbine in his widely acclaimed book Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. While I cannot do justice to Protevi’s entire argument concerning “political affect” here, I will focus on the sources he uses to make major theoretical claims. It’s not that the theory is bad but perhaps misapplied. There are many contradictions to expose in Protevi’s analysis. Before getting into those, I would like to offer some critiques of the foundations of his knowledge of the case. My problem is with the sources that Protevi’s relies on for his reading of both Columbine and “thresholds.” One, is of course Cullen’s book. It relies specifically on the portrait of Eric Harris as a “psychopath” in order to read the “how” that allowed Harris (and Klebold) to commit his act through another problematic text, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing, and his subsequent and unsubstantiated claims that videogames made the Jonesboro, ← 39 | 40 → Arkansas shooters do it. In my last book, I looked at Grossman’s work, which may be relevant for understanding military combat violence, where there is fidelity of context, but is wholly inadequate for understanding episodes of mass violence by young people in schools and other spaces of civility within contemporary societies. Grossman was regularly featured as an expert on the Columbine Thesis concerning video games. He argued that their degree of realism made them primary catalysts in school violence because they erode the subject’s natural aversion to killing. This is the standard thesis outlined by Galloway as unconvincing: “games plus gore equals psychotic behavior, and around and around” (Galloway 2006a, 71).

Protevi claims that the interesting question about Columbine is not “why?” but “how?” I share his concern, but would note that they cannot be separated no matter how intensely an analytic approach is applied because the sources we must rely upon for our content our “data” are largely focused on the why question. Furthermore, feigning to bracket the “why” is a depoliticizing move. By the time we get to the story, as academics, journalism has so thoroughly polluted the facts with its own will to power that we cannot do anything except read sources against one another in an effort to expose contradictions. It is very difficult, especially in light of the fact that there were so many errors and so much data withheld from the public, to have a clear indication of what happened, how they could and did do it, and so on. Most of it relies on videos but also on eye witness accounts which have been notoriously contradictory. Cullen’s book emerged from this disaster scenario as the most promoted, therefore it became in the public’s eye the most reliable. So, this leads Protevi to ignore several problems with the research and journalism that he is drawing upon to build his case study of Columbine. The first problem is Grossman’s research which may be appropriate for understanding military violence but is wholly inadequate for understanding mass school shootings, or even other mass shootings that happen in concentrated areas in liberal societies. Grossman begins with the assumption of a chain of command, a hierarchy. This chain is respected because a soldier takes on and embraces the military code of conduct. Among other things, Grossman’s preferences for a law and order society, really a standard Hobbesian reading of society, is a stand-in for the military hierarchy he so longs to see present when he looks at school violence in particular. This is problematic because it is this very Hobbesian focus that allows Grossman to make his claims about operant conditioning: if the soldier is not held in check by his code, he is held in check by an implicit hierarchy in society. But we live in a liberal, market-based society. What authority could video games be undermining that wasn’t already secondary to marketing, developmental educational programs (our Rousseauian school system), the script pad, mental health experts, the Internet, ← 40 | 41 → etc. Video games might undermine some forms of military hierarchy; excessive violence undermines the authority of those above us or provides more colorful contexts in which to engage the “enemy.” But, as Galloway points out, where is the fidelity of context between a military themed video game and an American teenager? More specifically, for Grossman, video games undermine parental authority. But one could argue the same social services, free birth control, organized religion, a laissez-faire attitude about sex, government-funded abstinence programs, and commercialism. Grossman is a parents’ rights fan, which, in American culture means a social conservative. Grossman’s politics generate his answers to school violence, not the other way around. The assumption of hierarchical authority does not hold in the control society. As Protevi, a scholar of Deleuze himself, offers, “Affect is inherently political” (Protevi 2009, 50). That is, there is more give and take among populations than a hierarchical analysis of society is willing to allow. Then, Protevi brackets two kinds of power: “pouvoir” and “puissance.”

In spite of the fact that folks like James Der Derian and others have been describing the “infotainment of war” for over a decade, most scholars have tended to ignore the effect of this blurring on the military itself, which has become “flexible,” so the authority of the command structure in the battlefield has waned as well in favor of “lateral zones of flexibility” (Fountain 2001). The contemporary military does not rely on the traditional authority both Protevi and Grossman assume is necessary in military cultures (at least not in combat); rather, it relies on the same flexibility that is promoted in our schools, on the “protocol” that Galloway theorizes follows on the heels of the control society.

Protevi even says that there has been “seepage” from the military into common life through video games and violent music (here’s where he drops his hat). He tries to regroup and claims the relationship is not a matter of linear causality but rather how these aspects of popular culture become distributed throughout a “population.” Meaning, some people constituted in a certain way will use these technologies to increase the “threshold” of intensity at which the act of killing becomes permissible. As a deliberate strategy, they know they need to overcome ← 41 | 42 → their “protoempathetic identification” with others, humans, which is “‘emotional contagion,’ or shared affective state: you feel what another person is feeling” (Steuber 2006; Protevi 2009, 29). Protevi discusses the role of the “gut” in luring us away from the act of killing, and using Grossman’s work on military studies about non-firing rates in the military and the techniques used their to overcome the soldier’s natural inhibitions to interspecies killing (Grossman compares military techniques to video games which train the soldier to overcome this protoempathetic resistance to killing in the precise work they do on the nervous system; it is not cognitive but neurochemical). In these cases, the subject (of reason, of agency) drops out of the equation. Protevi must explain how it is that Harris and Klebold were able to interact with their victims, to taunt them, and to belittle them rather than “drop” out. Therefore, unlike “berserker” rages or “blind” rages where the subject drops out of the killing agent, in Columbine, Protevi sees Harris and Klebold “complementing” each other to produce an agent capable of raising the threshold at which killing becomes possible. He writes, “That their killing machine finally broke down, that the bodies of Klebold and Harris could not sustain the intensity, indicates that they weren’t really cold-blooded, but hyperintense: they did not lower the intensity of the act of killing; rather they increased the threshold at which a nonsubjective rage agent would have kicked in” (161). It’s not cognitive. It’s not that Harris convinced Klebold to do it (the implication left by Cullen’s analysis, who says that had Klebold been convinced otherwise or interrupted he might have lived a relatively normal life) but that the combination of their affects (“cold-blooded” Eric and “rage-filled depressive” Dylan) produced a killing machine that based itself on “superiority” over fellow humans at school. Borrowing from the control society analysis, Protevi gives some weight to the thesis that they might have felt judged and then turned that judgment around to all the students they taunted during the act: this is, he says, modular, not molar, based on a feeling of superiority rather than a reaction to established political and social identities (for example, race or gender). However, he also urges the reader “to remember high school” defaulting to a common stereotype, universal and unchanging, as if the disciplinary high school is like the control society one.

Therefore, it is not the schools or social environment that has shifted (since he went to high school) but that Harris and Klebold (messed up affectively) combined together (first order body politic focused on mass murder), using “guns and bombs” and videogames and violent music to lower the threshold at which killing would be (not merely unthinkable but undoable) possible. Again, like Newman and Cullen, Protevi reifies the school site and the larger milieu of the society. I would argue, in light of our earlier analysis of Deleuze, that the schools are still ← 42 | 43 → operating according to the logic of some combination of the disciplinary society (hierarchies of social groupings; punishments for official infractions, etc.) with control aspects superimposed on top of the old architecture. That is why they are widely perceived to be a failure. Politicians and citizens would like them to function more like a purely control-oriented culture, promoting flexibility while producing profit.

To sum up, the analysis of a predator/prey relationship based on combat violence is inappropriate to understand a rampage shooting. Protevi focuses on this by making Harris and Klebold into a killing machine (much like a Deleuzian desiring machine), a first order “bodies politic” that is motivated by thanatography, which, like pornography, needs ever increasing images and levels of violence (thresholds that must be crossed) to maintain excitation. He defines it in this way: “representations of violence provoking physiological changes, analogous to the provocation of physiological change with pornography”. The analysis of thanatography needs to be differential and population based: there are no simple linear functions here: rather, there are patterns, thresholds, and triggers distributed in a population” (159). We could just say along with Balibar that they “idealized hatred” and turned to commonly recognized “paranoid styles of American politics” (Hofstadter 2008) like Waco and Oklahoma City to express their angst, and this led them to what we will later describe as an offshoot of violence, cruelty. But Protevi must get the video games in there. He is content to ignore the fact that there is no evidence for the “thanatography thesis,” since “details of their own training are lost in the morass of fantasy writings they left behind” (141). It’s pretty clear that most shooters have to get themselves whipped into a certain kind of state in order to carry out these acts: as mentioned earlier, Breivik took testosterone, Lanza gazed at pictures, and the rest get written off as “crazy” as if mental illness is somehow an understandable trigger for homicide. As Wayne LaPierre said in the wake of the Newtown shootings, “Isn’t fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?” This was in relation to a host of ten-year-old video games that he listed as being primarily responsible for the violence epidemic in American society. As the Atlantic noted, “Okay, that’s one opinion, from one of the most powerful lobbyists in America” (Abad-Santos 2012). And, as game defenders like to point out, violent crime is at an all-time low and has been falling steadily for nearly two decades. What stands out are these violent, shocking episodes. Explaining them will necessarily demand not a population based approach (looking at numbers and influence) but a detailed, biographic phenomenological reading of these violent events. ← 43 | 44 →

A second problem is that Protevi categorizes the Columbine shootings as “mass murders” and parenthetically defines this as “when the motives are private,” and this is defined through a binary logic where he opposes it to terrorism, which is killing “for political motivation”; however, it is not yet clear how this is not for political motivation; look at the shooters they’ve influenced over the past decade who admired their work. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: he then makes a move two pages later to say that Harris and Klebold form a “bodies politic,” after he had made the claim these (bodies politic) are personal (that he does not follow up anywhere in the chapter). Furthermore, beyond standard American juridical ways of determining responsibility (i.e., based on age and maturity), Protevi has violated one of his axioms from the second chapter, where he outlines the difference between adults and children:

Are these children or adults he’s analyzing in Columbine? He never says. Does this make a difference? The Supreme Court has said that it does. In the case of Columbine, Protevi’s reading is misleading because it too provides a semblance of truth for all the lies produced by the media during that event: that violent video games and music, guns, are all to blame for “why” Harris and Klebold did it when he says he is looking at the more important “how” of the event. Yet, such an ahistorical and apolitical construction of “how” is largely unhelpful and only serves to make Cullen’s and Grossman’s irresponsible forays into mass media consumption look more legitimate, even while study after study demonstrates that violent video games do not cause violent behavior, at least not in such a direct, causal manner and not in a uniform fashion across populations (i.e., some people who are already weakened emotionally may be influenced).10 The chances of both Harris and Klebold being influenced in this way is impossible; all commentators agree they are different people whose emotional pathways differed significantly; however, the target of their rage is uniform and documented: Columbine High School. While Protevi is clear that he is not making the causality argument Dave Grossman, whose work he refers to as “fine,” is making, the causality argument is about an under-theorized yet highly cathexible term to the American public: psychopathology. ← 44 | 45 →

Protevi characterizes the pair as “an emergent killing machine (Klebold-plus-Harris-plus-bombs-plus-guns) and distributed nonsubjective reflexes, rage agents, or awareness threshold decisions” (Protevi 2009, 159). As to the question was it “cold-bloodedness” or “raising the threshold of intensity,” Protevi opts for the latter, following with: “Cullen (2004) cites the conclusion of a psychiatrist and the FBI agent in charge of the Columbine case that Harris was a psychopath (hence, low-intensity, cold-blooded, stimulus hungry) and Klebold a rage-filled depressive” (158). Thus, begins our foray into the Pied-piper narrative that so often follows these conspiracy shootings around. In point of fact, the psychiatrist on the case only read the case file, and if one takes the time to read the case files of these events, they are always poorly constructed FBI narratives filled with claims about a shooter that lack evidence and are of more of a qualitative nature.11 We have already heard from Kass that NBK was Dylan’s idea. Furthermore, Kass recounts another theory about psychopaths: they tend not to be suicidal nor seek fame (177). Strike One. Also, they do tend to lie for enjoyment or “duper’s delight,” as Kass cites evidence from Eric’s journal where he recounts having to lie to “save his own ass,” and he does not appear to find it particularly enjoyable. Protevi’s chain of events is also curious. He notes that Cullen pulled a “Gotcha!” on the guns charge when he (or rather the FBI) revealed that they intended to bomb the school and then shoot people as they fled the building (Johnson and Golden, fire alarm, anyone?). If this is the case, then how can they have been using thanatography (video games and violent music) to prepare for the rampage part (Grossman’s work is not about bombing, it is about hand-to-hand combat, and he is very specific about this as these techniques were developed to aid in Vietnam in guerilla warfare)12 when they were hoping the bombs would do most of the awful (rationally planned, predetermined) work they put into them? I would venture to say that they used target practice at the gun range for the event they originally planned (that’s what the home videos show, them at a gun range—long range), not in front of DOOM. Most of the shell casings were found outside the building (they entered shooting along the sidewalk after the bombs did not go off inside the cafeteria). One presumes they had guns to shoot at survivors from the bombs’ explosions as they fled the building. This would mean the “rampage” was never planned as such, unlike our earlier cases in the nineties when no bombs were set. Also, we recall that Harris let Brooks Brown go home, in fact, told him to go home. In a few instances Harris and Klebold spared their friends during the act. “Subjects they were,” he writes, “but trained subjects working in tandem with technological extensions,” whose “training” induced “reflexes in them” (158).They are even truer subjects than Protevi is willing to allow. He argues that they ← 45 | 46 → stopped shooting after only 19 minutes when there were still targets left in the building. Has Protevi seen Columbine? Has he been there? It would not be that easy (except in the library and the cafeteria, where most of the carnage took place) to have open targets; it is the same reason why Cho locked the doors to Norris Hall or why several of the shooters chose schools with security guards (they are lulled into a sense of internal security within the building). They exchanged fire and killed a security officer at the beginning (e.g., Weise and Oliveria). They saw the police outside the building and made claims they were going to “Go and kill some cops,” according to eyewitnesses. Finally, Protevi ponders the 40 minutes it took for them to kill themselves and what they might have been doing during that time. According to Kass, it wasn’t 40 minutes; it looked more like at most 15 during which they took shots through windows of the library at police and paramedics and set off a Molotov cocktail. As he writes, “A tiny blaze triggers a library fire alarm above their bodies at 12:08 p.m. Harris and Klebold are already dead” (Kass 2009, 18). The spree began outside at 11:19. According to Kass’s timeline, at one point Harris asks Klebold, “Dude, you still with me? We still doing this?” This is not the wearing off of an affective state nor the onset of a depression too great to bear, nor the awareness that one would no longer like to live without these thresholds of intensity. This is called sticking to the plan, even after the bombs did not go off. They left suicide videos, explaining to their parents why they did it and whom to blame. As Joan Tronto put it in her review of Political Affect, “To some extent, the way that Protevi has framed these cases leads to the outcomes that he reaches. But could we not have arrived at some of these same insights without going through his arduous method? Conversely, might not a less skilled interpreter have produced less interesting results?’” (Tronto 2011, 798). Cullen certainly did.

And yet there is one last problem here, but it is significant, and Protevi’s research on Columbine will help us later when we look at military assaults in Chapter 5 where it can be helpful to contrast with the episodes that we are looking at here and so far have labeled “school-related,” following Muschert. First, the main issue with Protevi’s analysis is that in looking for a correlation between violence and technologies like guns, bombs and video games, he focuses only on the violence in them as objects. In constructing the Columbine killing machine, Protevi focuses on two main aspects: Harris and Klebold’s affective cocktail and technological extensions like guns and video games (thanatography). He labels this combination “machinic.” However, one sentence in particular stuck out at me: “Subjects they were, but trained subjects working in tandem with technological extensions” (ibid., 158). Protevi separates Harris and Klebold from ← 46 | 47 → technology, whereas it would be more helpful to see them as completely merged. To be clear: I mean that Harris and Klebold were merged with the technology through their vision, that is gamic vision, and yes, it is “machinic.” It is not the violence in these extensions (there are certainly nonviolent video games, as well as films, etc. that use the same action-based techniques, such as point of view, hereafter, POV) that they mimic. It is rather that shooter games “have expanded the definitional bounds of the subjective shot” (Galloway 2006a, 63). What this means is that certainly Harris and Klebold have a fetish for violence, but it does not come from the game, the gun or the bombs; it comes from the school and their interactions in it, its seeming injustices, their relative inadequacy to dominant groups within it, and their inability to see a future for themselves in such a society. So, Protevi adds “school” to the end of the emergent killing machine he names, but it is an afterthought, nowhere examined in the discussion. They use the gamic vision supplied by certain FPS (first-person shooter) video games to stylize the experience of their violence. As Galloway argues, in order for something like a “violent video games cause violent behavior thesis” to work, there would have to be a “fidelity of context” between the happenings in the game (in this case DOOM or Quake, early FPS games that Harris and Klebold obviously played) and Columbine High School. Even though Harris tried to reprogram his game in certain trivial ways, as Larkin pointed out, it could not come near to the true experience they craved: a video game, an unfolding three-dimensional space in front of them that resembled Columbine High School. Make no mistake, there is no “cultural lag” here behind our technologies and the people we suppose should use them. As Galloway argues, we are all already hooked into our “machinic” vision when we turn on a desktop and look into cyberspace. Another important element about video games, or more specifically, FPS games, is that they use a subjective shot that eliminates the need for montage, a feature of the cinema that in American films often collapses space and time to show the evolution of a character or set of characters into a new form. To give an example, the most popular one has been the athletic montage, as showcased in Rocky to demonstrate as he trains for the big fight, often accompanied by popular soft rock music. When Eric Harris said—reportedly—in The Basement Tapes that the massacre was going to be like DOOM and a host of other events, including Oklahoma City, the L.A. riots, and so on, and he kissed his shotgun saying, “that fucking shotgun” (he kisses his gun) “straight out of DOOM. Go ahead and change gun laws—how do you think we got ours?” (2005, 4–20). If we recall Galloway’s arguments about FPS games being an extended version of the subjective shot in film, basically, that FPS games rely on a three-dimensional, ← 47 | 48 → unfolding universe that relieves us (in film, viewers, in the game, players; note the difference) of the need for montage. We can now see that the violence isn’t the attraction of the games (they already have that down), it’s the unfolding action that Galloway outlines as attractive. The emotional release provided by montage, literally catharsis, was important in film because it allowed the audience to identify with the character’s quest (in spite of the fact that it’s a device that allows filmmakers to keep the story moving along quickly). The active seeing in FPS video games does the same thing only better and in a more realistic way. But while Galloway cautions that such games not only “require the player to avoid violence as much as confront it,” such violence is common in other non-FPS games (Galloway 2006a, 69). In fact, in Galloway’s reading the games do not have “violent vision.” As he writes, “Unlike film before it, in gaming there is no simple connection to be made between the first person perspective and violent vision.” What was predatory in cinema is now simply “active” vision. It is “the affective, active, mobile quality of the first-person perspective that is key for gaming, not its violence” (ibid., 69). Ultimately, what video games privilege is “action.”

What about training, then? There’s also the assumption, made implicitly by Protevi but also ubiquitous in the media, that these FPS games “train” civilians to be military grade soldiers. For this, we might have to get a bit morbid. First, I would say that if we look at (and will later detail) the number of rounds fired versus the number of actual hits, most of these perpetrators are not trained very well. In fact, once the shells were recovered from Columbine, there was a difference in firing rates between both shooters, as well as whether they were inside or outside the school. Harris seems to have fired the most inaccurate shots outside. Inside at close range, they were more accurate, yet still far below the bar they had set for themselves. Remember they had originally planned for the bombs to complete most of the violent (indirect) murder for them. As we see going forward in other cases, the very same problem presents itself. Finally, what does characterize the shootings beyond Columbine is that they add diversions or subtle changes to the script that allow them to increase their numbers, not through skill, but through close up interaction. This was certainly the case with Virginia Tech as well as in Norway. While most of them go to target practice before the event, they don’t have the years of training and experience that it would take to reach the levels they set for themselves, and they take into account the emotional factor of their own biological doubt at the time. As Protevi says, the “gut” does become a factor at some point, no matter how they pump themselves up for the event, and subsequent shooters would become aware of this and take it into account. Finally, ← 48 | 49 → there’s the very real consideration that we’ve mentioned from the start, “fidelity of context.” Where is the violence located that Harris and Klebold identify with and find meaningful? Is it, as one defender of DOOM said following Columbine:

What does it mean to say “free proliferation and general acceptance of violence?” Is it the kind that goes on without remark? Is it because of our “imaginary relationship to our ideological existence” that we do not notice it? Is it a problem of civility?

Civility: Columbine II

Balibar might agree. What emerges later on in years after Columbine is that they did not choose Hitler’s birthday. They chose the anniversary of the end of a government raid of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas (known as “Waco”), which occurred on April 19, 1993. The raid resulted in the deaths of 76 men, women and children (including David Koresh, their designated leader) after the FBI stormed the building and it caught fire. This was after a 51-day standoff. Timothy McVeigh was put to death for planting the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 19, 1995, in retaliation for Waco. Apparently, Harris chose the 19th of April, but one of the ingredients they needed for the event was delayed by one day, so they were unable to carry out the attack on the 19th and settled for the 20th. The Columbine ← 49 | 50 → shooters were not led by Hitler to commit this act. Harris and Klebold were mad about being enrolled in the diversion program in Jefferson County.

In reading the detailed accounts of Larkin, as well as the evidence provided by Kass from interviews and other archived material, it is clear that both Harris and Klebold felt they were being singled out by the justice system at Columbine, as well as the one in Jefferson County. They had been caught breaking into a van and had stolen equipment out of it. I can’t help but recall here Galtung’s curious footnote in the famous structural violence essay where he notes that violence against things is seen as a kind of “foreboding,” and that in particular, “This is a recurrent theme in much of the analysis in the U.S. violence against property is seen as training, the first window-pane crushed to pieces is also a blow against the bourgeois in oneself, a liberation of former constraints, an act of communication signaling to either camp a new belongingness and above all a tacit rejection of the rules of the game. ‘If they can do that to property, what can they do to persons’” (Galtung 1969, 170; 187, respectively). The van break-in was treated very seriously by everyone involved. They were charged with felonies but allowed to enter a diversion program, which offers that if they are able to follow the program guidelines of community service and constant monitoring (including urinalysis, grades and other training programs; mainly designed for the criminal justice system’s idea of the poorly socialized and unhygenic individual, in other words, the poor), that the charge would eventually be expunged. The probationary period was not less than two years in this case, and they entered the program in March of 1998, and they were of the 15 ever discharged early (out of 500 up to that point) in February 1999. Yet, they had begun planning a month or so after entering the diversion program. As we shall see in Chapter 3, following Stanley Aronowitz, one way to interpret their “exit” from middle-class life is to see it as an indictment of what stands in for civil society.

While both were willing participants (except for Klebold’s passive aggressive fonts, lateness and lying), they seethed to each other and in their diaries about this indignity. In contemporary masculinity studies, these two might be called “marginalized” except for the fact that they meet none of the formal criteria: they are not disabled, gay or working class (Coston & Kimmel 2012). They are white, middle-class (possibly upper class in American cultural terms), and straight (well, Larkin gestures at Klebold’s latent homosexuality as a reason for his going along with Eric’s plan, as well as the romantic notion of it all, 2007, 146–149) young men. Larkin does not address them as “marginalized” within the literature of masculinity studies. Instead, he puts them in the category of “fringe masculinity” that develops in response to what Hofstadter defined as the “paranoid style” of ← 50 | 51 → American politics: “The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent” (77). Hofstadter cites Lyman Beecher’s worries over the settlement of the West, anti-Mason conspiracy theories, and the long-time suspicion with the Catholic Church, etc. Larkin sees a new phase of this beginning with the rise of the Reaganite movement and the corresponding movement of the evangelicals into politics following the election of Carter. From this, Rambo came, with his obsession with the “good” Vietnam and the lost veterans, as well as the rise of the Neo-Nazi movement and Timothy McVeigh. However, what these subjects like about these paranoid styles is not their intention (as Galloway reminded me, which is to negate knowing reality as symbolically mediated) but “The paranoiac perceives the unknown in every miniscule detail of life. Every little thing is a clue into an intricate conspiracy against the paranoid individual” (Galloway 2006b, 4). Harris and Klebold at least find these episodes interesting for their effect, not the interpretation of the world they filter through the eyes of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. It is the effect of the bomb at Oklahoma City, not the narrative of revenge that sutures it to McVeigh, Nichols or any other militant fringe masculinity. They did not obsess that everyone was out to get them; they clearly felt marginalized, like nothing. If one reads the passages cited by Kass from Klebold’s diaries, he felt like he made nary an impression on anyone, same for Harris, who regretted having to start over at each new school. Larkin puts Harris and Klebold into a genealogy that begins by noting that American culture doesn’t readily mark as political the acts of students and youth. In a familiar leftist move, we begin our narrative at lunch counters in North Carolina and end it with “the revolt of the angry white male, 1992–1996.” While I confess to finding this historical trajectory compelling in terms of civil rights and the influence of the political right to untie those important developments over the last three decades, I cannot make the passage from there to “angry white teenagers” (Larkin 2007, 167). Larkin mentions video games and makes a different kind of fidelity of context argument, that in video games like DOOM and Quake, combat is glorified but there is no “military discipline,” and this makes them more like paramilitary cultures which are “based upon revenge for past wrongs,” the “mythos of the warrior, who is not subject to military discipline,” and the “hypermasculine,” hence, the revenge is for the humiliation by dominant males, and finally, the fundamental ethic of paramilitary culture is “death before dishonor,” combined with “dying in a blaze of glory” (Larkin 2009, 171). At least Larkin is sensitive to the idea that video games must be communicating something that is meaningful to the players (high praise for that), but I can’t quite get behind this paramilitary argument for several ← 51 | 52 → reasons: I believe that many of the stylizations in these events are stagings, in the sense that Harris and Klebold want the audience to think it’s about the Trench Coat Mafia (so they wear trench coats; this is not paramilitary, by the way, this is Basketball Diaries, a citation), and they wear baseball caps, etc. Besides the paramilitary culture argument has now been readily accepted by the media and law enforcement: it is the “Lone Wolf terrorist” we will visit in Chapter 3. There are now plenty of video games that feature this character and allow any number of angry white teenagers to imagine themselves in his stead.

There is also the problem of the internal dynamics at Columbine High school. Matching his own interviews against the report commissioned by the governor of Colorado, the 2009 Heurter Report, Larkin gives a description of the Predators and concludes that they bullied with the tacit agreement of administration (Larkin 2007, 85). The two main sport teams making up the Predators were the football and wrestling teams. One student, a stalker whose name repeatedly came up in various interviews with Columbine students, achieved an untouchable status. Known as “RH” in Larkin’s interviews, this particular football player was well-known and harassed most students. He also had a restraining order against him by a fellow (female) student, which he routinely violated at school, and the administration refused to enforce (they suggested the family pay someone to follow their daughter around school). This student missed school on the day of the shooting because of harassment, and RH followed her to her home that day. He later spread rumors about her when she did not return to the new school after the shootings (Larkin 2007, 109). As he writes:

Connected to the sporting teams were the “Deep Christians” who became well-known after Columbine as they took over most of the memorializing of the event in the press and on television. Together these groups formed the dominant social formation of the homogeneous social at Columbine. What is jarring is how both groups (whose members often had dual allegiances, the coach was also the “Young Life” director at the school) evinced a kind of “moral elitism” that was known to be fake: “several young women who were former Columbine students complained about members of Young Life claiming piety, but who were heavy ← 52 | 53 → partiers, drinkers, dope-smokers and sexual players. The fact that the worst predators on campus also identified themselves as deep Christians, who were also abetted by the coach who was the sponsor of Young Life, tended to make many Columbine students cynical about the religious commitment of their peers” (Larkin 2007, 105).


X, 250
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2017 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Julie A. Webber (Author)

Julie A. Webber is Professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University. She has published several books and essays. Among them are Failure to Hold: The Politics of School Violence and The Cultural Set Up of Comedy: Affective Politics in the U.S. Post 9/11.


Title: Beyond Columbine