Why This is Not Columbine … or any other “school shooting”

As the adrenaline rush begins to subside from the latest violent episode to jolt our society, I have heard the comparisons between the “Movie Theater Massacre” (as one media source dubbed it — how quick we are to “name” our tragedies for the continuous scroll at the bottom of the screen) and Columbine.

But how similar are they, really? What they share is a perpetrator (or perpetrators in the case of Columbine) who were meticulous in their planning and very, very callous, calculating and cold-blooded in their thinking and in their actions. They are similar in their inexplicability. Rational, sane, sober, clear-thinking people cannot fathom what drives a person to this level of violence. Even after thoroughly digging into the history of the two Columbine killers, as did Dave Cullen in Columbine, we cannot really get to a deep level of understanding of what motivates mass murderers.  The events are similar that innocent victims had their lives taken at the hands of males who are disconnected — emotionally, spiritually, mentally — from their fellows.

But it is the difference between the two events that occupies my thinking.  Schools are self-contained cultures and communities within the walls of their building — and even beyond the walls.  Columbine had its own culture and community.  Relationships formed.  Cliques and clubs — informal and formal — shaped part of the school culture and community.  Students knew who belonged to which club or group and knew those students who sort of move in and out of given groups.  Schools have probably been like that forever.  I was a jock — but mainly during baseball season.  I was not a stoner.  I didn’t hang out at the smoker corner across the street.  I was academic but I was not AN academic.  I certainly wasn’t preppy.  There were drama kids and yearbook kids.   I knew which students fell into those groups, though, and I was good with it.  I think we were all good with it then.

The point I am trying to make here is that a school culture and community  is formed and shaped over time with student and adult populations that, in the case of high school, come together every day for years.  Students enter as 14  year old freshmen and exit as 18 or 19 year old young adults.  We may not hang out with all of our high school graduating class, but we know them.  We are “part of the class of ’75 (or ’98, or 2012)” even if we are on the fringes.  And there is continuity as next year’s entering freshmen enter the mix.  Traditions evolve.  Histories develop.

At the movie theater, though, we have come together for a mere 2-hour purpose.  We may come with one or two friends or as one person in a larger group (particularly at a midnight showing such as that on July 20th).  Some of us may even go to the movie alone.  The only interest we know we share is that particular film, actor, or genre of movie.  We have not built relationships over time.  We have not shared the joy of team victories or the thrill of a prom.  Our time together will be a mere flicker in our lives.  We are an audience — expecting to be entertained, stimulated, or otherwise engaged.  Mostly we are passive participants.  Interactions are superficial if they happen at all.  Of course, we may share a laugh, or a tear, or even an eruption of applause at the end of the film.  We share the moment.

We occupy our individual seat.  So does the man next to us and the woman down the row.

But no man is an island.  And as the violence exploded in that Aurora theater early on Friday morning, we all experienced the loss.  “Each man’s death diminishes me.”  After the event, community surfaces.  Those in the theater are like Titanic survivors, or Mountain Shadows residents — or Columbine students and teachers: nobody else will share what they directly experienced.  What springs up BECAUSE of their experience is community.  They have a bond — whether it is further developed or not — that nobody outside of that theater can share.  The teenage boy who helped the young couple with their small children — only audience members a few minutes before — are now part of that community.  That which didn’t exist before, exists after the fact.

It is ironic that community is what sustains us after these tragic events and that a tragic event can create community where none existed before.

And maybe in that way the two events become more similar.  The threads of shared experience weave together.  And we all respond as another thread in this fabric of the larger community.

And maybe, just maybe, in that we have a chance.

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