Opportunism Knocks

A week after the massacre at Columbine High School, everybody has an agenda. Some are noble, some are not. Some seek the truth, others spin it.

But everybody has one.
Within minutes of the tragedy, travelers searching the Web for information on the Trenchcoat Mafia were stunned to find their quest laid bare--very bare--by adults-only sites that had quickly linked to legitimate ventures. Not since the days of Monica Lewinsky (remember her?) and the XXX-rated had entrepreneurs answered opportunism's knock so quickly.

Other entreaties were only slightly more subtle. The striking Teamsters took a second out of their Budweiser-bashing to buy an ad honoring the Columbine victims and maybe, just maybe, to remind readers of their cause. On Sunday, Colorado Right to Life gave birth to this announcement: "Today our organization reminds Governor Bill Owens and all Colorado elected officials that 32 years ago--April 25, 1967--this state signed into law the first in the nation abortion law...For those who would reject that the abortion culture is at the root cause of the Columbine massacre, we acknowledge that there are, of course, other influences. Yet, can anyone deny that we have destroyed our reverence for life at the most fundamental level? Violence in the womb has begotten violence outside the womb."

So if Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had lived, would they deserve the right to life?

Also agenda-sharing was a New York-based gay publicist, who last stuck his nose in Colorado's business when he promoted a state boycott after the passage of Amendment 2. "I'd be happy to discuss the possibility the shooters were gay," he offered, even though Klebold had a female prom date who was at least close enough to buy him guns (whatever happened to a nice boutonniere?). In any case, the publicist said, the media shouldn't keep any homosexuality a secret.

But if sexuality were an issue, it's unlikely anyone could keep it quiet, since the Reverend Fred Phelps had vowed to camp out near Columbine, bringing Colorado--and, not coincidentally, the national media--the hate-filled message he'd delivered to Wyoming after Matthew Shepard's murder.

Phelps is not the only religious figure promoting an agenda. This past week, God's name has been invoked often in the southern suburbs that constitute Denver's Bible belt, in support--or condemnation--of a variety of causes. At Monday night's no-media-allowed gathering at Foothills Bible Church of youth pastors and volunteers, a Westword reporter overheard one adult rapturously telling another: "A couple of weeks ago we were getting real discouraged, thinking, what is it going to take to reach these kids? A lot of them seemed to think they had everything they need--through the media, their parents, their wealth--then something like this happens, and they see they really do need God."

Reaching them was a breeze after the deaths of thirteen innocent people! "Has it been incredible how, in the last several days, Colorado has recognized Jesus?" asked speaker Rich Van Pelt, a local youth-ministry worker. "I never thought I would see the day when our state would pay for a worship service," he added, referring to Sunday's memorial at the shopping center near Columbine, which featured such luminaries as Franklin Graham, the Reverend Billy's son. "I'm thankful for our governor--he had the power to decide who was on stage, and I liked his choices. I only hope that what will take them through this is the hope that's in the Gospel." Because the only thing that could heal such terrible wounds, Van Pelt said, was "God's spirit."

That, several dozen lawsuits and the death penalty for any co-conspirators.
By Sunday, the political agenda was spinning out of control. The networks had already televised comments from Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone--the former county commissioner who's been sheriff for all of three months--that the shooters' parents could be held accountable. That was enough for commentators to ask first Owens about Stone's comments, and then Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder, and then Attorney General Janet Reno--whose boss two days later would introduce federal legislation pushing his own agenda to reinstate Brady Bill provisions and make parents responsible for giving their kids access to weapons.

By then, someone had actually referred to Colorado law and learned that it's tough to charge parents criminally--particularly if they could have, but didn't, know what their children were up to.

But also by then, the threat of civil action had been added to the din. The family of Isaiah Shoels will be meeting with attorney Geoffrey Fieger, defender of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, to discuss filing a wrongful-death case against Columbine High School. And how did the family find him? During Fieger's unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan, his campaign was managed by consultant Sam Riddle--until Riddle departed amid charges of racism. That left Riddle free to come to Colorado and help embattled Secretary of State Vikki Buckley with her re-election campaign, then accept a job in her office last fall. Buckley just happens to attend the same church as the Shoels family--and during a meeting held in conjunction with the National Conference of Black Mayors last week, she called for a statewide discussion of racism, since the Columbine shooters reportedly had targeted minorities as well as athletes.

Although so far no athletes have demanded equal time, that's about the only group that doesn't plan to spill its agenda into a town-hall meeting, public forum or summit. The biggest one, of course, hits town Saturday.

The National Rifle Association spent good money planning its annual convention in Denver--not to mention lobbying the Colorado Legislature to pass assorted concealed-weapons laws, including one that would have exempted gun manufacturers from any pesky lawsuits. And even after supporters withdrew that proposed legislation last week, the NRA still wanted some bang for its bucks.

"Dear NRA Member," read the letter signed by Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre within hours of the shootings, "We had long looked forward to the 1999 Denver meeting and exhibitions as a time to conduct necessary NRA business, enjoy your fellowship, express our unity and celebrate our precious freedoms. But the tragedy in Littleton last Tuesday calls upon us to take steps to modify our schedule to show our profound sympathy and respect for the families and communities in the Denver area in their time of great loss.

"For that reason, we have canceled the Exhibit Hall Exposition and all other seminars, luncheons and festive ceremonies normally associated with our annual gathering. Instead, we will only conduct the Annual Meeting of Members at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 1, in the Colorado Convention Center, as required by New York not-for-profit statutes which govern our Bylaws...Our spirits must endure this terrible suffering together, and so must the freedoms that bring us together. We must stand in somber but unshakable unity, even in this time of anguish."

As a consolation prize for the loss of those "festive ceremonies," Heston and LaPierre promised to "make a major address on the crisis all Americans now face, and we will do all we can to help your voice be heard." In the meantime, both Heston and LaPierre have made sure their voices are heard on newscast after newscast, blaming pop culture, blaming parents--but never blaming the guns used to kill those kids.

Others have made the connection, however. House Majority Leader Doug Dean--who displayed his exquisite insensitivity to the situation by polling fellow Republicans before he agreed to drop the concealed-weapons legislation--claims his family has been getting threatening phone calls since the shootings. According to Dean, the threats--which come as news to the Colorado Springs cops--may cause him to abandon his political career.

At last, a golden opportunity--and one small silver lining.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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