A violent sense of self (4/20/01)

“Am I? I am a lover who’s never been kissed. Am I? I am a fighter who’s not made a fist. Am I? If I’m alive, then there’s so much I’ve missed. How do I know I exist?” – “Sniper,” Harry Chapin.

I know what I’ve been told since I was little is that I need to try to lead a life worth living, a life that means something. There’s a lot of different ways to do this, said the powers that be. I could give my life worth by making myself happy, or by making other people happy, or by being famous, or by being quietly loved. But there should, somehow, be value in my existence. I had to do something worthwhile.

My senior year of high school, a guy named Robert Craig shot his stepfather and then himself. It was a total shock to everyone; they’d always gotten along really well. Craig was so fringe that he wasn’t even up to the level of “outcast.” For a couple of days after the incident, lots of people walked around the school looking all teary-eyed, including most of the jerky popular kids who helped make him an alien in his own school. Some of them even went to his funeral. Personally, I thought they were a bunch of hypocritical jerks. Especially since everyone forgot about it within a week, and most people had to be reminded of who the guy was when the yearbooks came out with a memorial for him.

Now, imagine you’re a junior at this school when this occurs. You’re part of the same social fringe as Craig, you have the same social non-status. You see reflected in the reactions of the students the proof that Craig’s life had no worth, that even committing a little murder before you kill yourself doesn’t make you important enough to grieve for. It’s got to be something . . . bigger.

The song lyrics which begin this column were written in response to the Texas clocktower shootings of some 45 years ago. I listened to that song a lot about two years ago. It’s been two years today since Littleton, Colo. earned a place on the map by becoming home to the school shooting to which all school shootings, it seems, must be compared. It’s a song that tries to answer the “why” of the event. For those of us who went to school with, knew, talked to, liked Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the why is more important than the question of who must pay for it now. And “because they were evil” doesn’t quite cut it.

I think the song strikes home. The shooters at Columbine wanted what we’re all told to want, a life that means something. Just like all of us, they were told when they were kids that they could be anything they wanted – hey, in America, anyone can grow up to be president, right? And then we showed them that unless you do something extraordinary, your life won’t even be a blip on someone’s radar screen. They didn’t have the tools to do anything extraordinary but what they did. Finally, they got to really exist before they died.

No, I’m not condoning their actions. No, I’m not saying that we have to tell kids they can’t dream anymore. But I wish that they could have chosen different roles for themselves than those of avenging angels.

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