Tangled roots of school violence

In wake of the worst school shooting in US, no clear answers but many

When asked to cite the reason for the horrific school shooting in Littleton, Colo., this week, Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone's response was simple yet profound: "Craziness."

As Americans gather around the dinner table, conference room, or Internet chat hangouts this week, the prime question for discussion is the same: Why did it happen, what are the causes for yet another episode of school violence?

Theories abound - easy access to firearms, glorification of violence in popular culture, breakup of so many families, racial hatred, and the rise of neo-Nazism, an "uncivil" society that encourages ridicule and cynicism in life and in art, a wall between church and state that has grown too high.

It is far too soon to know the reasons here. And besides, say most experts, there is never a single, or even predominant, reason for such jarring episodes.

"In my opinion, it is a mistake to call any of these factors 'the cause' of school killings," says Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn., who has worked with thousands of troubled youths. "What I have found so far is that there are as many reasons as there are killers."

Dr. Smith rejects the "bad seed" theory that some propound - the notion that such young people are "no darn good." But she says, "The truth is that teens who kill - in school settings or elsewhere - are already deeply disturbed individuals who are easily sent over the edge."

What sent them there is frequently in the eye of the beholder.

To gun-control advocates, it is the ease with which weapons are obtained. And yet much of the damage done by the two alleged killers (and perhaps their accomplices) at Columbine High School in Littleton came from dozens of homemade bombs.

Plans for making such devices are readily available on the Internet and elsewhere, and their ingredients are easily obtainable at hardware stores or at fireworks stands (which is where one of the suspects worked).

Trouble with TV

Organized critics of popular culture - especially television - note that many children spend more time watching TV than they spend in the classroom, and they point out that the typical child will have watched 100,000 graphic portrayals of violence, including 8,000 murders, by the time he or she finishes the sixth grade.

But this has been true for far longer than what seems to have been a three-year trend in deadly school shootings. And exposure to Hollywood violence is just as true for many millions of youngsters who would never think of trying to kill a classmate or teacher.

Some observers decry what they see as a softening of the nation's moral fiber as well as a lack of sufficient discipline.

"Kids see that there's a lot more leeway now and it doesn't matter how you act," says Smith. "And with the baby-boom generation, nobody wants to be the bad guy or the authority figure." Related to this is what some believe is a decline in the influence of religion in America - especially in public schools.

Calling this week for a lifting of the constitutional ban on organized prayer in school, US Rep. James Traficant (D) of Ohio said, "People who pray together are not likely to kill one another."

Even for the truest believer, however, it's hard to imagine the typically cliquish high school - with its jocks, nerds, skaters, hippies, "Trenchcoat Mafia," and other adolescent sects - being drawn together by a brief morning prayer over the intercom or a nondenominational "moment of silence."

Racism at the root?

In addition to these traditional emotional and rhetorical responses to extreme violence in schools, new theories and concerns are being raised. The extent to which the suspects in Littleton targeted students of color as an expression of white-supremacist thinking is unclear.

But some experts are beginning to see a definite connection between violence-prone neo-Nazism and broad aspects of what is called "Extreme Music," including the kind of "Black Metal," "Death Metal," and other kinds of music apparently favored by some young people who adopt the "Gothic" lifestyle and outlook.

"Neo-Nazi organizers have targeted very specifically the Extreme Music scene for recruitment," says Eric Ward, regional coordinator for the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a Seattle-based group that tracks right-wing extremism. "What they're seeing is that there's a much broader base to recruit from. It's very frightening."

What's largely misunderstood, adds Mr. Ward, is that the alleged killers in Littleton may not have been just picked on and antisocial but part of a destructive subculture.

"It's the idea of the extreme individual - the whole Nietzsche superhuman idea," he says. "Whereas some like [rock singer] Marilyn Manson use that to shock and to sell albums, there are some in the movement who take it seriously.

"Where there are a large number of youths who think it's cool, there are going to be a number of youths ... who begin to take it very seriously and to seek to act out their culture."

"Yes, it was a tragedy that took place at a public school, but I'm not sure if it was just another school-shooting tragedy," says Ward. "Yes, they were within their own culture, and the jocks didn't like them and probably made fun of them. But that's not enough to drive people to this extreme. There was something else going on, and what we think was going on was a different world view of how to respond to life."

Apocalyptic extremism

As 2000 approaches, those who track apocalyptic thinking believe that extreme millennialism may have influenced the suspects in Littleton, who appear to have taken their own lives at the end of their shooting and bombing spree as part of some "doomsday" plan.

"People who expect a showdown between 'us' and 'them,' and think that time is running out, can decide they might as well take preventive action or seek revenge before it is too late," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass.

"The Trenchcoat Mafia in Colorado," he adds, "seem to have cobbled together an eclectic world view that combined bits and pieces from multiple apocalyptic genre: youth culture gothic rituals and symbols, violent computer games, neo-Nazi lore, anarchist musical genre."

"The result was a type of apocalyptic nihilism," says Mr. Berlet, who has tracked extremist groups and philosophies for 25 years. "They acted out their beliefs."

All about style

Others contend that the gothic look and mannerisms effected by the suspects in the Littleton case may have been more style than substance.

"This age group often 'trys on' different identities, sometimes in succession, other times simultaneously," says Bonnie Bergey, a researcher for Militia Watchdog, an online group that tracks extremism in the US and other countries.

But she adds "it's a tough call for parents to know when to intervene and when to let the 'trying on' take its course."

All of this remains highly speculative, adding several more brush strokes to the picture of possibilities behind a plainly tragic event. It also adds to the complexity of society's attempt to seek prevention and response measures.

In Washington this week, lawmakers used the Colorado tragedy to promote pet proposals for improved school security and tougher gun-control laws. Some called for a "national dialogue" on school violence.

"We should not wait for another incident to happen before we take some action," said Senator Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico.

Passing laws (or at least debating them) is what elected representatives do, but no one believes there is an easy legislative answer.

"Politicians would have us believe that if we can pass new and better laws, we can cut down on juvenile crime. But this is not the case," says psychologist Helen Smith, whose forthcoming book is titled "Killer Kids: Why Kids Kill and What We Can Do to Stop It."

"The best protection against school violence is to be found in caring, hands-on teachers and responsible, involved parents," Ms. Smith adds. "You can't get those by legislating."

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