Why Germans care so much about Columbine

A film crew from Munich-based FOCUS TV Produktions was in our southwest suburbs during the past few days, interviewing people whose lives have been altered by the Columbine shootings ten years ago -- school and police officials, parents and survivors of the massacre, journalists and others. The program plans to air a lengthy segment on the tragedy on April 17.

Media from around the world descended on Littleton a decade ago (including an unusual number of Japanese reporters, baffled by America's gun culture). But German journalists seem to have a more abiding interest than most in the quagmire that is Columbine -- and it isn't just because the teen killers were so intrigued with odd bits of Teutonism, from the music of Rammstein to the rantings of Hitler. I spent some time being quizzed by the crew and quizzing them about why they were here.

One reason for the project, FOCUS editor Kristina Peter explained, is that Germany has also had its share of deadly school attacks -- most recently at a high school near Stuttgart. On March 11 a seventeen-year-old former pupil killed fifteen people at the school and during a subsequent rampage before taking his own life. That attack, like so many others, has distinct echoes of the kind of shocked incomprehension that gripped the Front Range in 1999 -- a nice quiet boy, no apparent motive, what the hell? Check out this New York Times account.

Yet on closer examination, it's the differences rather than the similarities that stand out. The latest gunman, Tim Kretschmer, apparently didn't advertise his intentions the way Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did (see our Columbine Reader for the details), and Peter was hard-pressed to cite any obvious "warning signs" in his case. At the same time, it's becoming clear that Kretschmer, like the Virginia Tech shooter and so many others, appears to have studied Columbine closely.

Germany tightened its gun laws after a 2002 school massacre left sixteen dead, but Kretschmer was still able to find the necessary firepower at home. More important, perhaps, the police responded in less than five minutes, engaged Kretschmer in one gunfight as he fled the school and again at an auto dealership miles away, wounding him -- and thus may have prevented even more casualties.

What a difference a decade makes. The policing "strategy" that essentially ceded Columbine High School to the gunmen while everyone waited for SWAT to arrive simply isn't accepted any more. Columbine has become the place the world comes to in order to derive lessons for preventing more school violence. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the model deranged teenaged boys study as they start assembling the fantasy of their own apocalypse.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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