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Leap from a Tall Building | 2018 | To Fully Charge


I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life.  

-Mahatma Gandhi

I Was Not a School Shooter

Literally no one should find this kid threatening

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up Columbine, I was a senior at Beacon High School. At the time, I wore my hair long, was partial to heavy metal and alternative band t-shirts two sizes too generous, and wore an unfashionable green trench coat in weather where it ought to have been prohibitively hot.

On April 21st, the first of my classmates asked if I were a member of the Trench Coat Mafia, if I were going to murder the school. I liked most of my classmates and was liked by nearly all the cliques by dint of having a rebellious older brother and ambassadors from my honors English class. I dated often. I was active in debate and drama, creating an improv group to get more time on stage. Aside from a bad breakup and most of my friends having graduated the year before, I was usually upbeat. I was not a bully by a wide margin.

In short, I was nothing like Klebold and Harris.

Later that day, the first teacher asked me if I intended to commit a mass shooting. She played it off as a joke ("Give me a heads up so I can be sick that day"), but she was genuinely worried. As a messy white kid who had worn spiked jewelry and black lipstick on Valentine's Day, I was profiled as a threat.

The fact that they felt safe enough to harass me should have told them all they needed about my danger level. I was almost pathologically non-aggressive. I couldn't have brought myself to hurt anyone then as now. At the time, I only wanted to graduate and start the next phase of my life.

The idea of the Columbine shattered my emotional security. It happened once before in a circumstance that seems so small now, when Princess Diana died. I couldn't believe a celebrity of her caliber would be anything less than immortal. It happened most urgently two years after Columbine, when planes flew into the World Trade Center, this feeling of "No, this isn't allowed to happen here."

There were school shootings before this, as I found out later, but Columbine seems to be a turning point. Since then, school shootings have become the price of doing business. No proposed solutions have done much good. Since Columbine, everyone knows the shooters' names. The news will not allow us to remain ignorant.

I don't know what goes through a school shooter's mind. Nikolas Cruz was set to inherit $800,000, but that didn't stay his hand from committing a mass murder. He was nineteen and had been expelled, from Stoneman Douglas as well as others, but he decided to wreak a terrible vengeance on the innocent. Most would be more concerned with the life they could have with so much money, even at the expense of a personal tragedy. What are vendettas to almost a million dollars? His life was not easy - that money came from the death of his parents - but many people have lives more traumatic and have far fewer immediate rewards.

I reject the idea that he did this because he was bullied. Minority populations are bullied far more, and they don't pick of weapons of war and run into a school. If anything, Cruz was the bully, as were Klebold and Harris. We are not looking at victims lashing out. That's a demonstrably false narrative fed by victim-blamers who believe having lunch with the guy killing squirrels is going to cure him. We are looking at narcissistic assholes who thought they could get away with this, who saw someone else getting the infamy they wanted for themselves. None of this is about settling a score.

In the aftermath, we look for motives, as though finding one will relieve us of the burden of our witnessing. We don't want to deal with the issue of guns, police involvement, mental health, so we focus on motive as though shooting up a school is a rational act on some level.

Cruz was a fan of Nazis, an implicitly violent ideology, as demonstrated by carving swastikas in the magazines of his gun. On social media, he wore a Make America Great Again hat with trolling, for all the baggage that implies. He had easy access to guns, of course. He has been expelled. There are a hundred other factors that might have contributed to what he did, but none are in isolation the reason this happened.

I teach juvenile delinquents, some of whom pretend idol worship of Charles Manson because they assume it will shock the adults (apparently forgetting that we deal with their actual crimes of serial rape and attempted murder). Whenever they try talking up Manson with me, I make them do a research project and listen to some of his music, at which point they inevitably decide both that there was never anything remotely cool about Manson and that I am not worth trying to shock.

Even they draw the line at admiring school shooters.

Since Columbine, there have been dozens of school shootings, each fed on the blood of the last. It is disgusting to say that mass murder makes young men feel noticed when they have felt ignored, getting them canonized in an infernal pantheon, but it seems to be the narrative. Their victims are quickly forgotten but the faces of killers become tattooed in our minds. The twenty-four-hour news cycle plays endless loops of the last killer to his successor.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, an Internet Tough Guy suggested gathering the killer's effects, dumping them in a pit along with the killer's body, and flooding it with sewage, after which his name would never be spoken again. The message he attempted to convey was to publicly disrespect the memory of the killer, to show he would be forgotten, to make future killers rethink the idea of committing a mass shooting. They don't want death. They want notoriety.

I can't hope a flood of shit would shame a man more than having killed an elementary classroom full of kids.

Cruz could have been stopped, it is easy to confess in retrospect, like an unknowable many potential killers are stopped by the appropriate touch (a hug, punch to the face, a restraint, a pair of handcuffs) at the right moment. We can't know when we have done something to abort a tragedy, but only Cruz is responsible for what he did. Those who rightly suspected him of violence, who confronted authorities (who discounted these concerns as unfounded), did what they felt they could.

If I were writing this story, I would rebound between the dual sins of making these men incomprehensible evil, because then I could focus on the nobility of the survivors, or finding every ding and offense that might have turned a boy into a killer, because I grasp to make something so heinous explicable to give defense against it. Neither tacks are honest or accurate, but I can't find a satisfying middle ground. What happened to killers may explain but in no way forgives what they have done - and I do not hesitate to add that some led untroubled, privileged lives. We want to shrug this off on mental illness, but that is only frightened scapegoating. These actions are violently irrational, but that doesn't lump them in with the mentally ill. When Cruz was done murdering, he dropped his gun and vest to evacuate with the other students, walked to a Subway in a Walmart, bought a drink, then returned to the school as though he were any other student, as though he might get away with this by playing it cool. When the police arrested him, he did not run. He did not fight. He wanted the infamy of the act and not its mortal consequences (though he is being tried with the potential for the death penalty). His planning and actions during the shooting were horrific, but they were not rash or he would have gone out in a blaze of gunfire. I wouldn't be surprised if every part of this, even to his arrest, were part of the same plan. Any thinking, feeling being abhors slaughter, but this wasn't some random, impulsive action. Cruz knew what he was doing and wanted this.

To decide to kill with no preamble, without visible slight, is unfathomable. I condemn the killing of spouses, friends, those who stole from you, those from whom you hoped to steal. I condemn, but I comprehend. Firing into a crowd is Herostratus burning down the Temple of Athena so his name would be remembered. (Saying his name was once punishable by death, but one historian felt it worth the risk to record.)

If we forget, do we discourage the next shooter or neglect the lesson? If the latter, to this point we seem not to have learned it yet or else why does it keep happening? I have hope for the student movements, sparked by the Parkland survivors, but I also have apprehensions, having seen this level of activism flare and recede in a season. (Have you tripped upon many Occupy Wall Street encampments lately? Were their nebulous yet impassioned needs met?)

Most of my generation were aghast when news of Columbine broke. We later watched Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" in furious sadness. We did not march. We did not organize. We only felt scared and frustrated, helpless against the enormity. School administrations overreacted in the most useless ways, estranging many to show they were doing something, even if it was intended not to help but to give the image of helping. Schools were no safer, but who could accuse them of doing nothing?

As I wrote this, another school shooting happened. Students from a nearby school used the threat of a mass shooting to play hooky for three days. I would say something has to change, but "something" is so vague as to be counterproductive. "Something" is how we distract from the search for real answers, which I do not have. It is systemic, not single elements. There is never an easy fix, but this discussion begins with such disingenuousness and fatigue that nothing is done and children pay with their lives. (The NRA loves school shooting, since scared people buy more guns, fearing they will be taken away. Politicians on both sides treat the dead as pawns and bargaining chips against their opponents, not caring how many more deaths we accrue while they snipe. The news loves the ratings born of our fears.)

Had my generation marched, had we scared lawmakers with our unity as the Parkland students have inspired their peers, might some of these children been alive today? It is hopeful, guilty speculation. We didn't, and they aren't.

There will be more shootings and far more deaths as broken boys try for a higher score than the last. Senators will offer thoughts and prayers, then defame any survivors calling for legislation. The news will profit off mass murder. And authors on the internet will write handwringing essays because we don't know how to stop this.

Soon in Xenology: Meaning. Anxiety.

last watched: Penny Dreadful
reading: Acceptance
listening: Thalia Zedek

Leap from a Tall Building | 2018 | To Fully Charge

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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