Hiding in Plain Sight

Are Columbine's remaining secrets too dangerous for the public to know -- or too embarrassing for officials to reveal?

Stone also gave a Timereporter full access to the basement tapes. Claiming to have been bushwhacked by the resulting cover story, the sheriff was then compelled to let local media types and victims' families view the tapes before locking them up for good ("Stonewalled," April 13, 2000).

Similarly, Stone's office had no qualms about sharing tidbits from Harris's journal -- "the Book of God," as Harris calls it in one video -- in presentations to select gatherings of school and law-enforcement officials. As long as the cops could control the information flow, there was no yammering about the dangers of copycats.

But it was a different story when Westword and then the Rocky Mountain Newspublished more extensive excerpts from Harris's writings. The excerpts showed that Harris had developed detailed plans to attack the school a year in advance, while he was in a juvenile diversion program and supposedly being investigated for building pipe bombs and making death threats ("I'm Full of Hate and I Love It," December 6, 2001). Now officials were outraged that their top-secret investigation had sprung yet another leak.

So was the Denver Post. Tired of getting its ass whupped in the leak department, the Postwent to court to demand the release of the rest of the materials seized from the killers' homes. Attorneys for the county and the killers' parents responded with a flurry of dire warnings about copycat effects, including one from David Shaffer, a psychiatrist and expert on adolescent suicide. In addition to a 27-page resumé, Shaffer submitted a four-page affidavit asserting the toxic nature of the basement tapes, which he hadn't seen.

Some judges involved in the Columbine litigation have uncritically embraced the copycat argument, saying the disclosure of the materials would have "a potential for harm" or, in fact, would be "immensely harmful" to the public. Judge Jackson, who ultimately may have to decide the matter, has been more skeptical. In one hearing on the basement tapes, he pointed out that there were plenty of Columbine imitators before the existence of the tapes was even disclosed. All the more reason, Oeffler responded, not to release them.

"What evidence do you have today that release of the documents is going to cause some calamity, or are we just speculating?" Jackson demanded.

"Unless you release the evidence and they actually cause the calamity, Your Honor, the question cannot be responded to," Oeffler shot back.

"Does that mean I can't, and no court can ever release them because maybe some additional copycat is going to be inspired?"

"I don't think it is a maybe, Your Honor," Oeffler responded gravely.

Yet Harris's web writings, several pages of his journals and detailed descriptions of the contents of the basement tapes have now circulated on the Internet for years, with no notable surge in copycat incidents. The problem with the copycat defense is that it isspeculative and thus largely unanswerable, much like forecasting suicide clusters based on suicide coverage in the media. (It's just as speculative, perhaps, as trying to quantify the number of shooting incidents that might have been prevented by frank discussion of the Columbine tragedy.) Some of the same experts who consider the Klebold and Harris materials too dangerous for public consumption also blame the massacre in part on "the gunmen's previous exposure to violent imagery and their study of notorious criminals and tyrants." Does that mean it's time to pull Mein Kampffrom the library shelves or Natural Born Killers from the video store, simply because Harris admired Hitler and Klebold took his style tips from Woody Harrelson?

In several cases, news reports of would-be school shooters note that the suspects had trenchcoats or otherwise sought to imitate Harris and Klebold -- but how many were actually "inspired" by them? It's true that the gunmen wanted their words to find as wide an audience as possible in order to attract followers; but then, they, like the sheriff's office, had an exaggerated notion of their own importance. The county's efforts to suppress the killers' writings and tapes have given them a cachet of consummate evil and menace; being taboo, they've become cool. Yet anyone who's actually seen the tapes or read the journal fragments soon recognizes that these fabled mass murderers are not gods but adolescents. Angry, scared, mocking, disturbed, bitter, pathological, deluded (fucking self-aware, mind you), emotionally stunted and deadly, but adolescents just the same. Behind the blather about being gods and kick-starting a revolution is a bottomless obsession with their own lack of status and sense of injury. Behind the bravado, a snivel.

"I don't like you," Klebold says in one of the videos, addressing two female classmates. "You're stuck-up little bitches. You're fucking little...Christian, godly little whores! What would Jesus do? What the fuck would I do?"

"I would shoot you in the motherfucking head!" Harris chimes in. "Go, Romans! Thank God they crucified that asshole."

"Go, Romans!" Klebold echoes, and the two start chanting like sophomores.

Far from adding to the hype, the leaks have helped to demythologize Harris and Klebold. Showing the tapes in their entirety could have some deterrent value, one victim's parent has suggested, removing whatever lingering mystique the killers still have.

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