Over the summer, I read David Cullen’s excellent book “Columbine,” an account of the infamous school shooting that killed 13 students and traumatized a nation. The striking thing about this book was that it showed that all of the conventional wisdom about Columbine was wrong: shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not loners, they didn’t dress in trench coats and they didn’t target jocks, Christians, popular kids or anybody else in particular. In fact, it was less a school shooting than a horrific massacre that happened to take place at a school because Harris and Klebold happened to be students. The great mystery of what caused Columbine was quite simple: an aggressive sociopath and an unstable depressive simply held a grudge against the world and acted on it against a nearby target. Everyone was a target because the shooters hated everyone and everything equally.
Of course, that was never the narrative I heard or that our nation collectively decided on. Parents, students and the public at large remain terrified to this day of “goths” who listen to heavy metal and don’t fit into the mainstream school society; the evangelical community still circulates a long-since-disproven story of a girl being asked if she believed in God and then shot in response; and the specter of Columbine still haunts our discussions on violent video games, movies, Marilyn Manson and a hundred other features of our society that were blamed for the bloodshed. What you don’t hear about it is that the FBI has long since debunked any relation between wearing black nail polish and violence, eyewitness testimony has contradicted the supposed martyrdom of Cassie Bernall and there remains not a shred of evidence that Quentin Tarantino or “Doom” has ever made someone decide to go on a killing spree. Admitting all of that would be uncomfortable. We still are not able to accept that sometimes individuals with severe mental illness will murder for reasons we cannot possibly understand, so we need to invent reasons that make more sense to us.
Nearly 12 years after Columbine and four after a bloodier spree at Virginia Tech, we have learned nothing. The blood was not yet dry on the pavement in Tucson before commentators on the left and right began throwing the blame on Sarah Palin, Obama, the Tea Party, violent political discourse in general and another hundred things. In other words, every mistake the nation made after Columbine was made all over again. Now, there has been no real evidence presented that shooter Jared Loughner ever saw Sarah Palin’s famous map with Congresswoman Giffords in crosshairs or watched an episode of Glen Beck in his life. “Time” columnist John Cloud went as far as to say that, “saying Sarah Palin or Glen Beck caused Loughner’s actions is, to put it charitably, completely idiotic.” The only political interests Loughner showed were delusional ideas about government mind control and making his own currency that have no relation to proposals being put forth even by the extreme right. But to admit that would be to let facts get in the way of a compelling narrative, which would not be an appropriate reaction in the face of national tragedy. Better to cheapen the lives of those killed to shamelessly advance narrow, partisan agendas.
What the tragic events in Tucson have actually shown us is that our country still does not understand mental illness. Paranoid schizophrenia (which Loughner had), when combined with drug usage (again, confirmed in Loughner’s case), is known to lead to violence in 65 percent of such individuals. Instead of looking at Columbine, Tucson and Virginia Tech collectively, and realizing the only common thread is young males with troubled pasts and histories of mental illness, we have illogically decided that larger social forces that are different in each case are really to blame. The only question really worth asking is how we can modify our gun laws so that such people can be stopped from purchasing guns while not stigmatizing them to the point they won’t seek out treatment. Anything else will make us feel better and advance political agendas but will not stop the next tragedy. That shootings like this are preventable is perhaps the most tragic thing of all.