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Seeking to Make Sense Where There is None

Los Angeles Times, Friday, April 23, 1999 (and subsequently in The Boston Globe, Newsday, and others)


The killings at Columbine High School in Colorado provoked a flood of explanations from assorted experts and media figures. Television, Hollywood, self-esteem, child abuse, class inequalities, racism, the culture of guns and violence--these and other putative causes were trotted forth. The deluge began even before the students' bodies were cold or the survivors had begun to comprehend their own experience.

The urge to explain is understandable. Such events are an affront to the belief that the world should be a predictable place, and people try hard to restore that faith. There are no motives that they can identify, or identify with, that permit them to understand how two high school students could methodically and coolly kill others and then themselves. Where people cannot find plausible reasons, they look for causes. In doing so they seek to make sense where there is none, and to explain what happened in the hope that they can prevent its happening again.

But the search for a hopeful explanation of this tragedy may itself be hopeless. A vast array of social, cultural and psychological forces makes such events not only possible but almost inevitable. Guns and explosives and knowledge of how to use them are widely available. Many people believe in the efficacy of violence. The culture fosters a romantic view of people achieving immortality (or at least fame) through acts others condemn. Social scripts for evil are readily available from the electronic, film and print media, and from local cultural traditions. Even people who generally shun wrongdoing sometimes want to throw up their hands in dismay and say, "What the hell, let's do it." Taken together, these and many other "causes" make it highly probable that some people will do horrible things. We cannot easily predict who or when or where.

None of these social and cultural conditions is "the" cause of any particular tragedy. Nor will the talk of all the pundits and experts soon alter even one of those conditions in a way that will prevent future such occurrences. Nor will we ever likely grasp even the particular constellation of events and circumstances that prompted these young men to act as they did. We may convince ourselves that we understand, and that there are things to do in the short run to prevent a recurrence, but it will be an illusion.

More ominously, this tragedy may have an explanation that we are not prepared to accept. Science has taught us to look for peculiar social or psychological circumstances that cause people to do what they otherwise would not do. The mind does not rest easy with the idea that seemingly ordinary people who are a bit odd but generally keep to themselves may quietly be forming awful plans. We would rather think of bad acts as the unfortunate consequences of discoverable and remediable social and personal conditions. Yet it is precisely the account we do not wish to believe that may best capture what happened in Littleton.

The two dead members of the "Trench Coat Mafia," together with their fellows, may simply have chosen evil in circumstances where others choose to play football or to crave membership in the National Honor Society. Most of us, in spite of abuse, or low self-esteem, or exposure to violence, choose personal projects and social paths that lead us to conventional lives. Others, even absent conditions thought to predispose them toward doing evil, choose to do evil.

We should not underestimate evil's seductive charms and ordinary rewards. Evil can be exciting and demanding in its own terms and seems to offer pleasures that goodness denies. And evil affords those who choose it the same rewards all people seek: a sense of purpose in this world and a feeling that they somehow have a place in it. Even if that purpose is to destroy and that place is to affront good people and be condemned by them as evil. The really difficult task may be to explain not why people choose evil, but why they more frequently choose good.

I do not recommend that we do nothing about school violence, for we owe it to our children and our teachers to do something. But too often the something we do is based on glib and unduly optimistic assessments of cause and effect. Those of us whose business it is to construct explanations will continue to discuss this event. Talk we must. But let us now and then recognize that we are whistling hopeful explanatory tunes in the dark. And let us listen closely to the tearful voices of the young survivors, who in expressing their inability to understand why such a thing should happen, show a deeper wisdom than most of those who will talk about their awful experience.
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John P. Hewitt Is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved