The school shooting at Columbine High School happened little over a decade ago, and the momentous nature of the massacre has earned it a spot on the list of mankind’s greatest disasters. Lives were lost, but the lives that weren’t lost, were changed. Never before Columine had anyone heard of something like a school shooting. A TIME Magazine article on the subject mentioned that before Columbine, students would often forget to leave their gun racks at home following a weekend of targeting practice or hunting with Dad. What would happen if you “forgot” to leave your gun rack at home today? You’d be considered a situation, you’d be expelled from school, you’d be checked out by a doctor.
I’m not going to narrate the events at Columbine – it’s a story repeated too often. I’m instead going to discuss something worse – the possibility that Columbine could’ve been avoided. An old 60 Minutes presentation on the Tragedy of Columbine decided to focus, not on why Columbine happened, when, what, how. But instead, on that which didn’t happen. That which could’ve been vital factors in preventing the massacre from happening. According to the presentation, the first police team to enter the school once 911 calls had rung and the news of the shooting had been dispatched to police did so after two hours after the shooting began. Two hours! There was been local police surrounding the school within five minutes of the first shot fired (and the first life lost), but it would only be two hours later that police deemed entering the school to be “safe”. After a massive amount of policemen, SWAT team members, police vehicles, and vans had assembled outside and in the vicinity of the school, all waiting around for orders from the local police authority while innocent kids were being shot inside the school by the two adolescent perpetrators. How could this have happened? An interviewee on the show who had knowledge of the police commands and operational orders given during the massacre spoke with the host of the presentation, but when asked why the SWAT team, why the police, why anyone didn’t go in as soon as possible, as soon as shots were fired – she conspicuously denied and essentially pleaded the fifth to, everything. It’s terrible! How could this have happened? Why were lives lost that could’ve been saved?
I can do nothing but mourn the lives lost. I cannot criticize the actions of the Columbine police department beyond the concepts of common sense. It’s unfair to think that policemen are all daring heroes ready to lose their lives by diving headfirst into a massacre. They didn’t know how many shooters were inside. It could’ve been two teenagers, it could’ve been a terrorist army. Could they have known? Did they know? Nobody knows. We cannot criticize that which we have little to no knowledge of. That’s a principle of life. We’re only left with questions. Not about why the police didn’t go in. Not about why the response was so slow. But instead why the criminals responsible for the massacre did what they did. Believe it or not, the Columbine shooters were both friendly, socially competent, good-looking teenage boys, with happy parents at home, lots of friends at school. Their personalities weren’t the warning signs – there were more conspicuous ones available, that no one cared to look at. The boys had created a website where they listed the schematics for the pipe bombs they would use, a hit list of the people they would kill, a schedule outlining in what order they would carry out their deed. People knew about these boys’ activities and desires too – they’d told some of their friends what they planned to do, but everyone dismissed it as being a joke, or simply as being a lie. If today you hear someone telling you, “hey, look at this list of the people I’m gonna kill.” What would you do? Would you tell someone? Would you stay quiet out of fear? It depends. What you would do is think that there’s something bad going on. The concept of a school shooting was not one that existed at the time Columbine happened – it had never happened before! People did not think that someone with such a good personality and such a high degree of social competence would be seriously planning a school shootout; that they would kill their own classmates. Now, when we see these warning signs, we have that thought, that possibility, in our mental repository.
Thinking that the same mindset was present back in 1999, is called having hindsight bias – that past events were more predictable than they really were at the time. It’s unfair … what we can solidly take away from Columbine is a lesson on the complexity of the human mind. Could there be something wrong in my sociable best friend? Could they be plotting a school shootout? I can only hope not. Let’s remain optimistic – it’s the best thing we can do.