Defining evil 

Our common Columbine

Just in time for the anniversary, my daughter came home from school with a disturbing story. During the lunch break, a crowd of boys had gathered like they do every day out on the end of the football field. Remember, these are middle schoolers—13, 14 years old, tops. They're a mere hop, skip and scooter ride beyond playing with Tonka trucks in soft dirt during recess. In another year or two, they'll be peeling out of a high school parking lot so's to get to the nearest Jack in the Box and back before fifth period tardy bell rings.

So we may understand, a little, how they aren't quite sure what to do with themselves when they have some free time. They're neither here nor there. Too old for much of life's fun, and too young for the rest.

To amuse either himself or the crowd, one of these boys came up with a plan. Where he got the idea, who knows? Possibly, as he passed the garage workbench on the way to school, he noticed his dad's duct tape lying out. Possibly, he'd recently seen a movie or played a video game that involved bondage. Possibly, he's just an inherently vicious little fart who takes pleasure in humiliating others. Don't ask me why. I never have understood what's so fun about picking on weaker people.

But for whatever reason, this kid decided it would be cool to do a duct tape mummy number on a couple of smaller kids out there on the football field. And he had help. At first, the smaller boys thought it was a joke and laughed as they were being trussed up. But then it began to hurt. And it went on and on. My daughter actually saw the bruises it put on one boy. The other kid was too embarrassed to show up at school the next day. You know how boys that age are. The last thing they want is a crowd of their friends looking on as they cry and plead for mercy.

Three boys have been expelled over the incident. That's good. I'd rather not have my daughter sharing the same space/time continuum with vicious little farts like them. But it would be interesting, wouldn't it, to know what they'll be up to four years from now? Or ten? Or fifty? Hopefully, their punishment won't twist their lives beyond all redemption. And hopefully, those two kids they humiliated will get over it.

As I understand it, though, school officials are still as mad as school officials dare get anymore, and it's over the witnesses. There were so many other boys gathered around the principle players that from the outside, no one could tell what was happening. A big huddle, it was. Yet apparently, none of the onlookers made any attempt to stop the bad boys, and no one went to get help. There's no way of knowing if most of them laughed, or if most of them were scared or what. All we know for sure is they just watched and did nothing.

You have to wonder, don't you, what it was they thought they were seeing? And it wouldn't hurt to ask, "What would I have done?"

Had something happened to make me think of it earlier, I would have had this column ready for you last week. To commemorate the five-year mark, right? Hard to believe, isn't it? That it's been half a decade?

But the truth is, for the past few years, I haven't thought much about Columbine or what it means. Worse things happened as you know, and 14 dead kids and a teacher came to seem like small potatoes compared with what America had in her near future.

Please, no offense intended. Kid by kid—murder by murder—the Columbine casualties are no more "small potatoes" than if a loved one of yours or mine were cut down. We mustn't measure a single individual's violent death by the magnitude of the event it was a part of. Huge news stories do not make one person's murder any more huge than what happens to a lone girl found dead in a pond or even a bum under a bridge with a knife wound to his ribs.

No, to the victim and anyone who mourns the victim—and even anyone who spends time thinking about what the victim might have gone through—terror is terror, murder is murder, and the scale of the incident doesn't figure into it.

But back to Klebold and Harris ... five years later, are we any closer to figuring out what made them do it?

I think I am. I think I know what causes such terrible things to happen, and—wish as we might that it's something simple and easily remedied—I don't believe it's violent videos or movies or garbage music lyrics or the availability of guns or even schoolyard bullying. I could be wrong, but I think of all those movies and guns and bullies and murderers as just different kinds of debris carried along in the same flood. Or better yet, different symptoms of the same contagious sickness.

Trouble is, I don't know what to call it. There's no name for it. The best I can do is cross-reference a few of the symptoms and hope somebody wiser than I can diagnose the disease. Like ... what does a wife battered into submission in her own kitchen have to do with a Timothy McVeigh, so cocksure of himself he's willing to crush babies under concrete?

What does a pumped-up Vin Diesel character or The Rock, destroying a host of enemies on screen with utter resolve have to do with some overwrought tenth grader with a Tech-9 he ordered from a catalog? Or for that matter, with an unwavering leader, steeling his eyes and locking his jaw as he vows for the cameras to stay the course?

What does a pro wrestler, strutting around a fake stage, bellowing his fake intentions of fake revenge have to do with 19 resolute skyjackers on their way to a very real grudge match?

What does that stud you see in the gym, the steroid eater who cares more for muscle mass than he does his mental health, share with that unsure young boy in the video parlor, who daily fantasizes himself into a warrior hero with a huge joy-stick body count?

Why is smashing a nation to dust and taking pride in all the havoc we can wreak so much like what a macho fool like Saddam Hussein does that the dead people can't tell the difference?

Cowboys stomping a gay guy to death ... the frenzy of a well-programmed football team ... Ted Bundy ... every film Mel Gibson makes ... "winning isn't everything—it's the only thing" ... see what I mean? Or maybe you don't. It's so damn hard to pin down, isn't it? Not because it's rare, but because it's everywhere. We look straight into it, every day, and we don't recognize what we're seeing. We don't know whether to laugh, be afraid or join in. And the worst part is, until we know exactly what we're witnessing, I fear there isn't much we can do to stop it.

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