It's one of those phrases that gets tossed around after a school shooting, like how the shooter "seemed like a nice, quiet boy" and "didn't fit the profile" -- never mind that there is no profile for school shooters, other than seeming to be nice, quiet boys. From the moment news of the attack on Arapahoe High School went live on Friday, you could see the newscasters straining to get to one of their favorite platitudes, trying to find something upbeat to say about a horror that's fresh and pointless. Governor John Hickenlooper himself said it on Face the Nation this weekend.
"This could have been much, much worse," he said.
Well, sure. Any outburst of public violence that leaves any survivors at all could, in theory, be much worse. Karl Pierson's brief rampage could have been much, much worse for just about everyone at Arapahoe -- with the possible exception of seventeen-year-old Claire Davis, badly wounded when Pierson began firing, apparently at random. But that doesn't seem like much in the way of consolation for Davis or her family.
The shootings at Columbine could have been much worse, too. If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had managed to set off the propane bombs they planted in the cafeteria, the deaths might have numbered in the hundreds. Even Newtown could have been worse.
But focusing on the body count misses the point. What is striking about Friday's events is the rapid response by law enforcement. The school resource officer, Deputy James Englert, pursued the shooter into the school. A massive tactical response was on scene in minutes. Pierson was already dead by then; like many school shooters, he was essentially on a suicide mission, a private apocalypse with no second act. But the death was confirmed within minutes, even as the school was being safely evacuated.
That scenario is now routine -- and that's what makes it remarkable. The 1999 attack on Columbine exposed all the shortcomings of traditional SWAT procedures -- setting up a perimeter and command post, essentially ceding the school to an active shooter on the theory that to barge in would put more lives at risk -- and prompted a massive rethinking of how to handle such crisis situations.
Continue for more about the lessons from Columbine at Arapahoe High School. The Columbine kids were told, in effect, that officer safety trumped their own; they were expected to defend themselves with pencils while armed officers waited outside. Teacher Dave Sanders died from his wounds before the tedious, room-by-room extraction procedure could bring him out; the killers had committed suicide hours earlier, but the SWAT teams didn't know that yet because they didn't find the bodies until the very end of their search.
In the past fourteen years countless lives have been saved by armed, trained police heading right to the scene of the shooting. It's even possible that Pierson knew he had only minutes, if not seconds, to attempt his revenge on himself, his teacher, and the rest of the world. Short of armed troops at every entrance, there may be no perfect solution to a murderous assailant with legally purchased weaponry marching into a school. But it's reassuring, to some extent, to know that such attackers can no longer take for granted the kind of random, leisurely, let's-stop-and-reload homicidal stroll that Klebold and Harris were afforded.
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For those of us who remember the stonewalling and outright lying by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in the wake of Columbine, it was refreshing to see Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson holding press conferences and detailing his officers' actions within hours of Pierson's death.
The more uncomfortable questions at this point concern the alleged threats Pierson may have made leading up to the attack. Is it really possible, just a few miles down the road from Columbine -- a place where an impending mass killing was all but advertised for months before it went down -- to have a student spouting off about killing a teacher and no red flags being raised?
Response time is important, but preventing those nice-but-deranged boys like Pierson from going Columbine remains the greatest challenge of all. Yeah, it could have been worse, but maybe it didn't have to happen at all.