American Culture

Columbine's uncounted victims

Following the Columbine High School shootings of April 20, 1999, an Illinois carpenter by the name of Greg Zanis constructed a number of crosses and erected them atop the hill in Clement Park across the street from Columbine. He created one for every victim of the school shooting: Cassie Bernall, Steve Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matt Kechter, Dan Mauser, Daniel Rohrbough, Rachel Scott, Isiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Kyle Velasquez, and Coach Dave Sanders. And Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. columbine4 The inclusion of the two shooters provoked rage that ultimately ended up with their two crosses being torn down and burned. But Harris and Klebold were victims just as surely as they were murderers. As such, they too were deserving of a level of sympathy that, to the best of my knowledge, they never recivied. These two profoundly disturbed young men gave warning signs to a world that, for a number of reasons, wasn’t equipped to detect them or to act upon them. Harris and Klebold’s friends missed or ignored the signs. Their families missed or ignored the signs too. As did the Columbine staff. And the police. Everyone who was in a position to do something to stop the Columbine tragedy before it happened failed to do so, and fifteen people died as a result. Another two dozen were injured. 39 injured or dead. But that’s the complete list of victims of the Columbine tragedy. All of the families of the injured and dead are victims too. As were their friends. As was the entire faculty, staff, and student body of Columbine High School. As was a significant percentage of the Jefferson County School District, faculty, staff, administration, students, and all their families as well. As were the two men serving sentences for firearms violations, and their families and friends. We can count the dead and injured easily enough, but just as with the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the dead and injured represent but a small percentage of the true victims of the Columbine tragedy. It is perhaps a cold comfort to all the victims that schools are safer today than they have ever been, that the state of Colorado has implemented an anonymous tip line that has supposedly prevented another 27 school shootings, and that the organizational barriers that prevented law enforcement, social services, and schools from sharing information on troubled students have largely been knocked down, at least in Colorado. After all, their nightmares and pain and loss can never be relieved by actions designed to prevent more school shootings. Contrary to what was being said around Denver in late April and May of 1999, we are not all Columbine. We do not all grieve equally or in the same way or to the same deity(ies). But Zanis still had the right idea. He fought desperately to include Harris and Klebold because he understood that they, and their friends and families, were victims, too. Zanis ultimately failed, and I’m sure that there are those out there today who cannot bring themselves to consider the Harris and Klebold families with anything but derision and hatred. I would ask that this week, as we read and listen to all the anniversary stories and reminiscences from that tragic day, all of us try to include all the multitude of victims, not just those most directly affected, in our thoughts. All the victims. Image credit: AP, from

21 replies »

  1. You are absolutely right. We need to open our eyes and mind to more than mere statistics and numbers.

  2. Once. IIRC, Zanis made two more and brought them to Colorado and then fought a legal battle to keep them with the other 13, but ultimately lost.

  3. I wonder how you’d feel if K&H had shoved a shotgun in your daughter’s face, swore at her and blew her brains out as she cowered under a table at school. I have no sympathy for K&H. I guess that makes me a bad person.

  4. Fury, grief, terror, and hate for starters. With time, however, I think that it would morph to pity, given what I know about the workings (or lack thereof) of the adolescent mind and the dysfunctions of our society. I can’t be sure, of course, since such a thing has never happened and, I hope, never will. Similarly, you can’t be sure that your grief at such a situation wouldn’t burn away your hate. May neither of us ever have the opportunity to find out.

  5. Harris was mentally ill. I’ve seen quotes from psychologists that labeled him a “classic psychopath.” No one likes psychopaths (not even other psychopaths), of course, but they’re not responsible for their own diseases. Klebold was depressed, felt terribly isolated to the point of paranoia, and was the perfect patsy for Harris. Failure to recognize their symptoms and help them get treatment makes them victims, in a sense.

    But I see Mike’s point. We don’t put up an extra monument at Auschwitz to recognize the Nazi victims, there.

    Since these were kids, though, I make them victims, while understanding entirely those who don’t agree.

  6. I don’t agree that the shooters were victims. They planned and chose their fate. It’s one thing to have no intellectual awareness of right or wrong/ good or evil – someone who is developmentally delayed or having hallucinating psychosis, for example. It’s another thing to be fully aware that you’re committing an atrocity, methodically execute it, and then kill yourself so that you don’t have to face the consequences. I’ve never bought into the concept that NO mentally ill person (be they pschopath or depressed or whatever) can’t form intent. Some can and do – and I think those two are examples of that.

  7. Karla:

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. There can be no intellectual understanding of right and wrong, only intellectual understanding of lawful and unlawful. Right and wrong are felt issues, and cannot be subject to the intellect.

    • Part two in my series will be up later in the week, and one of the things it addresses is the “nature vs nurture” question as applied to Harris and Klebold. That is, to what extent were these actions shaped by social forces and to what extent were we dealing with kids that were just born wrong.

      As JS notes, that answer shades one way with Harris and the other with Klebold, and in any case we’re probably not talking about a perfect either/or. Instead, we’re talking about where each lies on a continuum.

  8. The parents of Klebold and Harris lost their two boys. That is what I have always felt that Zanis’ crosses for these two boys represented. Imagine being a parent knowing what your child has done, but also having to deal with the death of that child. It doesn’t make their grief any less than those whose children were killed by Klebold and Harris.

  9. I’m not sure how taking pain and anger out on Klebold and Harris is significantly different than Klebold and Harris taking pain and anger out on their classmates. It is certainly understandable, but i’m not sure that it does anyone any good…particularly insomuch as the crosses represent Christianity which is, theoretically, a religion of forgiveness.

  10. Re: “Right and wrong are felt issues, and cannot be subject to the intellect.” So as long as I “feel” I’m in the right, then I am? C’mon.

  11. Karla

    That is not what I said. Clearly, you are one of those people who likes to “win” arguments by erecting straw men for your own purposes. I will respond this once, but will not respond to further rhetorically dishonest discourse. If you wish to have an honest discussion, on the other hand, I’m your huckleberry.

    Emotions are the precursors to most behavior. Generally, human beings act upon what they feel to be the right or necessary action at a given moment. Those whose emotions work on different criteria from most of the rest of us will act differently from the rest of us.

    The concept of “right” and “wrong” are ones that have no meaning other than the emotional responses the terms evoke (yes, symbols — and words are symbols — become directly tied to our emotions as in the term, “knee-jerk liberal” or “knee-jerk reactionary,” as research into semantics has shown). There is certainly “lawful” and “unlawful,” but those are not proxies for “right” and “wrong,” unless you believe the Jewish laws of Nazi Germany, or the Jim Crow laws of the US, were “right” because they were lawful.

    Those who cannot attach emotions to the concepts of right and wrong cannot be said to know what right and wrong are. They can know the words and that those words have meaning for other people. They can know lawful and unlawful. They can know “sanctioned by society” and “not sanctioned by society.” But they cannot understand the concept of right and wrong in any meaningful, emotional way that has any effect, whatsoever, on their behavior.

    Because of this, there can be no purely intellectual understanding of right and wrong, since the terms are absolutely entwined with an emotional response to the words. “I just didn’t feel it was right” is a very different statement from, “It was against the law.” One demands emotion. The other does not.

    In addition, there is no calibration of right and wrong, even if, by some strange, miraculous quirk, a psychopath were to accept the terms as being meaningful. The concepts we think of as being right and wrong are almost always tied to societal norms and the way those norms bolster or erode those societies. So, to a white Southern American in 1960, the concept of “right” usually included segregation and limited economic and voting opportunities for non-whites. Integration, good jobs, and enfranchisement for Southern African Americans would have eroded the structure of Southern society as these whites saw it. Therefore, they felt AA rebellion was “wrong.”

    Others felt differently, but it was always a feeling and still is. Without benchmarks, right and wrong are slippery and nebulous concepts tied only to the human emotional responses that cause some of us to adhere to them, whatever we think they may be.

    Harris was unable to understand right and wrong on the level at which they must be understood to have an effect on behavior. He was mentally ill.

  12. I’ve never bought into the concept that NO mentally ill person (be they psychopath or depressed or whatever) can’t form intent.

    Good, because that’s not an applicable concept anywhere in American law… and even the real forms of the inaccurately labeled “insanity defense” are far more rare than television would have you believe. The corollary, of course, is that if everyone diagnosed with a mental illness, including myself, were determined to be incapable of understanding consequences and making rational decisions, they would not be able to marry, buy a car, enter into contracts of any kind.

    Mental illness is far more often a mitigating factor than a defense strategy, and even extremely disturbed people can be prosecuted as long as they meet the judicial criteria – which have nothing to do with clinical diagnoses.

  13. In addition, there is no calibration of right and wrong, even if, by some strange, miraculous quirk, a psychopath were to accept the terms as being meaningful.

    True philosophically, but not judicially. “Psychopaths” are prosecuted successfully every day because they meet the legal standard of sanity. Their understanding of morality is not the issue; their awareness of societal standards is.

  14. Ann,

    I don’t disagree, and please take a moment and reread what I said about the difference between right and wrong and lawful and unlawful.

    To the best of my recollection, this thread isn’t about being prosecuted, but about erecting crosses or not erecting crosses. I would maintain that the issue of erecting crosses is not the same as finding guilt or innocence in a court of law, but your mileage may vary. Had Harris lived, he certainly would have been successfully prosecuted for his crimes because he was able to tell the difference between lawful and unlawful. I am not making a legal argument, but a rational one about crosses.

  15. JS, I was using your statement to further clarify my point to Karla; I was not correcting you or arguing with you, so the animus seems a little silly, as does the thread police pose.

    I’m sure you recall the original topic correctly; I’m sure you’re also aware that discussions evolve as they progress… and since no one here appears to be deranged, furiously irrational or making personal attacks (yet), perhaps you could let the other participants in this conversation decide their direction for themselves.

  16. Ann,

    I wasn’t trying to keep the thread about one thing or another, or police it in any way. I was simply trying to point out the context of what I said so that the meaning wouldn’t be obscured, and it seems to me that your quote of my words, and your comments on them, obscured my meaning.

    That’s all.

    Animus? Didn’t notice any.

  17. An example of your animus: :Clearly, you are one of those people who likes to “win” arguments by erecting straw men for your own purposes.” If that’s not animosity, it’s at the very least overly judgemental. Whatever. I think you make some baseless assumptions about the motivations of human behavior, but, like you, I’m also not interested in conversing with someone who engages in “rhetorically dishonest discourse.”

  18. Karla:

    I was talking to Ann. Clearly, I feel great animosity toward you.

    As for “baseless assumptions,” I have built a 23+-year career on the field of behavioral psychology, working as an organizational behavior consultant. I have done a great deal of intensive study on the effect of cognitions on behavior, and have conducted research in the real-world laboratories of some of the world’s largest organizations. I think I can more than adequately back up anything I have said about human behavior.

    I doubt you can.

  19. Grrrr. JS, I think you pushed a little too hard too fast. And now it’s overheating. I may not agree fully with what Karla said in her first 3 posts, but she wasn’t being all that harsh. I suggest pulling back a bit.