The Colorado high school massacre, like all heartrending experiences in our history, pulls the rug of values out from under us. The event is disproportionate - it overwhelms our unexamined view of the world.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned the massacre for a year and carried it out gleefully and dramatically. These Kamikaze kids seemed to have murdered as a game and ended by killing themselves as the ultimate reality.
The nature of American massacre has radically changed - and that change is linked to the breakdown in our action culture, of the line separating fantasy and reality.
In 1959, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith murdered four members of the Herbert William Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., an incident that would be chronicled in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Then, the motive was money; now, the motive is diffuse resentment and anger. Then, the killers were 28 and 31; now they are in their teens. Then, the weapons were a shotgun and knife; now, they're an entire arsenal. Then, the murderers were poor, deformed, drop-outs, ex-convicts, and abused; today, they are sheltered, good-looking, bright students, and resourceful.
This qualitative and quantitative change forces us to reevaluate our values and behavior. Americans are pointing fingers in every direction. It is inbred to expect every effect to have its cause. But the Colorado event detonated as part of a process, a system. The answer is in the system. There is no discrete responsibility. The proliferation of weapons, the crisis of parental authority, the respect for individual rights, and young lifestyles were necessary conditions for the Colorado murders, but not sufficient to explain the change.
This new behavior all began with the confusion between dream and reality. There was an inkling of it in 1981 when John Hinckley, after watching "Taxi Driver," attempted to assassinate President Reagan to impress the film's star, Jody Foster.
For centuries, the function of symbolic narrative was to provoke a catharsis - that absolute human need crucial to master emotion, expose conflict, deliver insight. Mankind's first visual narratives - cave paintings of bisons - were probably a purging of fear. Aristotle, in his "Poetics," explained that the function of art was to purge and purify. ("I have written an evil book and I feel as clean as a lamb," Herman Melville said after completing "Moby Dick.")
But beginning with Romanticism, certain works of literature led people to take action. Intense, disillusioned young men, for example, committed suicide after reading Goethe's "Werther." In America, after reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin," many people became abolitionists. But these instances were exceptions. And James Joyce, evidently noting those exceptions, excoriated as pornographic art that led to action. He believed that the artist should be detached.
Now, advertising has almost obliterated catharsis. Advertising is never complete in itself; it grabs you, arouses desire, pulls you into the market.
The cover of this week's Newsweek - "Massacre in Colorado" - implores us, "WHY?" Open the magazine and you see a double-page car ad. A Chevy Blazer is attached as a lifeboat to the Titanic, advertising "A little security in an insecure world." Turn two pages and a gray Ralph Lauren suit, sculpted by light, is seated on a windowsill. Two more pages, under a mint green Colgate toothpaste glob: "Twelve hours of freshness, end to end." The car will save you from an accident, the suit will make you handsome, and the toothpaste will carry the day. The ads grip you even as you read the Littleton article, an unconscious guide to evasion.
Eric and Dylan inserted themselves in this symbolic universe by ritualizing their anger through computer games like "Quake." If advertising stimulates you to do, then electronic games give you a certain sense of reality. Holding a joystick and exploding your virtual opponent is much like holding the grip of your own semiautomatic. You are simultaneously in both worlds, virtual and real.
Consumerism - entertainment and advertising - has modified the function of language and image. We live for and are influenced by symbolic narratives that do not produce catharsis but instead induce prurience and incitement to action. Anything seems and often is possible today. CIT Group's TV commercial is the supreme embodiment of our ideology: "If it can be imagined, it can be done. This is America. We never say good enough. We never say die."
Do or die, the premise of American life, penetrated the two Colorado teenagers. "What I don't do I don't like what I don't like I waste," wrote Eric on his Web site.
All imaginings of Eric and Dylan were materialized at Columbine. They were playing "Doom," holding a real weapon as a joystick pistol and shooting students playfully and implacably ("peek-a-boo!" they said), as they moved, killing, through the school labyrinth.
Fantasy and reality had become one - they were now insane. And their double suicide was the final move in their tragic game. Their behavior was extreme, absurd, and tragic - yet another delirious outcome of the other, dark side of our way of life.
Stephen King told us 10 years ago: "There are two sides of America. One side is 'Have a nice day.' The other side is: 'Go ahead, make my day.' " And 10 years ago, school homicides were mostly one-on-one.
Since 1995, according to an ongoing Centers for Disease Control study, there have been an average of five multiple-victim killings per year. And this number seems to be on the rise. The Colorado massacre has uncovered an ill-wind. In every high school of America there may be a young man nursing a grievance.
After every school massacre the images of wounded students, the frantic 911 tapes, the sketches of the crime scene, the names of the weapons used - all of it incites action.
A massacre is an advertisement for crime. In a culture that denies catharsis and glorifies action, the symbolic narrative of every tragedy becomes a role-model event.
*Marshall Blonsky is senior Wolfson fellow at the New School in New York. Edmundo Desnoes is a novelist and screenwriter living in New York.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society