WAR IN COLORADO: Systemic Perspective on a
contemporary Social Trauma
by Dr. Anngwyn St. Just
On April 20, 1999, the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado entered U.S. history as the worst school-related tragedy. Senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire with guns and bombs in the cafeteria and the library of the school killing thirteen people and wounding 23 others before committing suicide. Swat teams in camouflage gear rushed to the scene along with police, emergency medical personnel, helicopters, and overwhelmed representatives from the media, and desperate parents seeking news of their children. Terrified teenagers were evacuated from the school; their hands in the air as police searched them. By all accounts, confusion reigned, and the scene continued to unfold in an atmosphere of absolute chaos.
In the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy, the Colorado State Board of Education issued a statement "What Is To Be Done: Searching for Meaning in Our Tragedy." "As we seek the WHY behind this infamous event, we must find answers beyond the easy and the obvious." Some of the easy and obvious explanations for the massacre began to emerge almost as rapidly as the tragic events themselves began to unfold. Mental health professionals, news commentators, religious leaders and community spokes persons rapidly emerged with explanations. We heard about the "Trench Coat Mafia" of disgruntled loners, the lack of gun control, violence in the media, lack of supervision by and involvement of the parents, psychotropic medications, racism, violence in the video games and other forms of media hype targeted for young audiences. A recent article in Time Magazine added the lust for fame to a growing list of probable causes.
If we look beyond the easy and the obvious and avoid linear causal explanations for the complexity of the Littleton massacre, we might begin with the nature of chaos itself. According to John Briggs and David Peat in their book, Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, the scientific term "chaos" refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists within apparently random events. Chaos Theory on non-linear causality is now being applied to fields such as medicine, economics, warfare, and social dynamics. As Chaos Theory emerges as a new cultural perspective, we are challenged to question our cherished assumptions about causality. The non-linear connections of Chaos Theory can serve to open our thinking to radical new ways of exploring apparently familiar realities.
Consider, for example, the historical reality that the tragedy of massacre is not new to the geographical area, which now includes Littleton. The city of Littleton maintains an Internet Web Site which includes information about "Native Americans in the History of Littleton." (http://lcnmaster.littleton.org/lcn/Govenme/Museum/history/DH22.htm). This article features an account of the notorious and controversial Sand Creek massacre, which took place on November 29, 1864. A total of 137 peaceful Native Americans, mostly women and children, were slaughtered during a pre-dawn raid on their campground. Sand Creek is over 200 miles from Littleton, so I wondered why it is featured on the community web site. In response to my query, the web custodian explained that the massacre was on the Littleton web site because it involved the Arapahoe people who had also lived in the Littleton area and also that Littleton is technically located in Arapahoe County.
From a non-linear perspective, there are several elements within the Sand Creek atrocity that resonate with the events at Columbine High School. Racism and genocidal intentions are factors in both massacres. Colorado Governor John Evans, who was intent on proving that peace with the Indians, was not possible, wanted an excuse to eradicate as many Indians as possible. Evans sent Civil War hero Colonel John Chivington and his volunteer Colorado militia troops to attack peaceful Chief Black Kettle and Chief Left Hand and their starving bedraggled bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped at Sand Creek. The Colorado militiamen responsible for the slaughter and mutilation of innocent and defenseless people described their mission as a "military operation."
The Columbine killers also had racial and genocidal motives as evidenced in their diaries and their fascination with vengeful and hate-driven Nazi ideology. Fascism appeals to feelings of powerlessness. The teenage gunmen also considered their attack on the school to be a "military operation." War and all things military fascinated both Eric and Dylan. On closer examination, numerous military elements emerge. Eric Harris 's father was a decorated career military man who had worked for Boeing Airplane Co. Also, Eric had been rejected from his attempt to join the Marine Corps just days before the slaughter.
If we were to look at events in Littleton from a chaotic perspective in the form of something like a collage, a series of fragmented images begin to constellate, along with some combination of intentional and unintentional synchronicities. Eric and Dylan carefully planned the timing of their military operation. April 20th was the birthday of Adolph Hitler, the idol of these hate-driven outsiders. Harris and Klebold were fascinated by Nazi lore. Hitler, as history reveals, rose to power by addressing a national sense of defeat, humiliation, isolation and powerlessness.
One might give some thought to the question of why these troubled youths held such a fascination with World War 11, Nazi genocide, and racism. Perhaps there was something in their family histories involving World War 11 or the Holocaust. From a wider perspective, these boys' obsessive fascinations may have had something to do with our country's need to have Germany carry that shadow, and to minimize our own nation's issues with racism and genocide, particularly involving Native American peoples. In the aftermath of the Columbine rampage, I continued to follow the "Littleton collage" intermittently emerging onto my television screen. I was particularly fascinated by the arrival of our new "Apache" helicopters involved in the bombing operations in Kosovo. How disconnected can we be to name these lethal weapons after a tribe that we subjected to genocide? I seem to remember that we were hurling "tomahawk,, missiles at Iraq and Sudan. In this midst of all of this violence I watched as President Clinton appeared on television to address the nation about the Littleton massacre as an American tragedy. "We must," he urged, "teach our children to resolve conflict with words rather than weapons."
Referring again to the release of the Apache helicopters into the genocidal conflicts in the Balkans, I listened to President Clinton explain that these weapons of destruction are necessary, ,so that Hitler doesn't happen again." Hitler, it appears, was alive and well in the minds of Eric and pylon, and the Hitler State of Mind will thrive as long as those who feel humiliated and disempowered seek vengeance by tormenting, killing, controlling, and blaming others. The U.S. policy of bombing in Kosovo, and starving millions of Iraqi children with sanctions against food and medicine seems unlikely to heal the, consequences of this kind of humiliation. Have we forgotten the hard-earned lessons from World Wars 11 and I? Determined to teach Germany a lesson, the humiliating aftermath of World War I soon set up the dynamics of National Socialism. Humiliation and attempts at disempowerment led directly to the horrors of the Third Reich.
The Columbine killers had originally chosen April 19th as the date for their judgment Day," the anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing on April 19, 1995. The boys reportedly planned a "military operation" which they hoped would "top McVeigh's body count." This is military language. It is important to remember that bombs, as well as guns, were an important part of Eric's and Dylan's Littleton operation. The homemade arsenal included more than 48 carbon dioxide bombs, 27 pipe bombs, 11 one and a half gallon propane containers seven incendiary devices with 40 plus gallons of flammable liquid, hand grenades and two duffel bag bombs with 20 pound liquefied petroleum tanks.
Timothy McVeigh had scheduled his bombing attack to coincide with the anniversary of the FBI and Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' apocalyptic assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. which resulted in the fiery death 70 men, women and children. McVeigh and his accomplices were associated with a militia group that was aware that the first shot fired during the Revolutionary War was at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775.1 find it interesting to note that the Columbine High School sports teams were called the "Rebels" represented by the image of a revolutionary war soldier. The 1999 graduating class gave the school a statue of a revolutionary war soldier. Another image of the soldier is set into a circle on the floor, of the school, and this soldier is holding a gun.
The military, militia and bombing connections continue in that Army Sergeant McVeigh was a decorated Gulf War veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. His rage at the government began during his tour of duty in the Persian Gulf. During Desert Storm, in the early morning hours of February 13, 1991, two of our "smart bombs" struck the concrete and steel Al-Amariyah air raid shelter in the city of Baghdad. In a flash, 1200 civilian Iraqi women and children perished in the rubble of concrete and steel. The remaining walls of this shelter are now covered with drawings and photographs of the murdered children...beautiful children of all ages. The media showed remarkably little interest in the causes of this massacre. The prevailing belief seems to be that the violence of war is acceptable and that it has little to do with the violence at home.
During an interview with CBS News Correspondent Ed Bradley, McVeigh was asked if it was acceptable to use violence against the government. McVeigh replied "If government is the teacher, violence would be an acceptable option. What did we do to Sudan? What did we do to Afghanistan? Belgrade? What are we doing with the death penalty? It appears that they use violence as an option all the time."
One of Sergeant McVeigh's duties while serving in Iraq was to use a Bradley armored vehicle to bury the bodies of Iraqi casualties. Newsday, September 12, 1991, reported that thousands of Iraqi troops were buried alive in the first two days of the ground offensive. Some accounts allege that McVeigh used his Bradley armored vehicle to bulldoze Iraqi soldiers and bury them alive in their trenches. Sergeant McVeigh returned home in 1992 and went to a Veteran's Administration Hospital and told members of the staff that he was sick. He was turned away. And then Timothy McVeigh started hanging out with a militia group. Subsequently appalled by the government's actions at Waco, he said, ,Look, we have to take out this government." In time, the war-sickened McVeigh bought some fertilizer; some diesel fuel to mix it with, drove a rented truck to Oklahoma City and blew up the concrete and steel federal building. The explosion killed 168 people, nineteen of whom were children, and wounded 600 others. Timothy McVeigh had turned his military sights on a new enemy: The Government and Society that he believed had molded him into an agent of destruction.
Looking through this lens, one might see the Oklahoma City bombing as a symptom of unrecognized war trauma, a "traumatic re-enactment" of the bombing of civilians carried out against a Federal government that bombs innocent civilians in foreign countries. On the morning of the memorial in Oklahoma, I watched media coverage of President and Mrs. Clinton planting a tree in the White House Rose Garden "for the innocent children killed in the Oklahoma bombing." Was this a message that it is wrong to bomb innocent children? Where then is the tree for the innocent Iraqi children that we bombed? Thinking again of Littleton, why are we surprised that the bombing of children might someday result in children who bomb?
Military elements continued to appear in the Littleton collage of events. As memorial services began to honor the slain students and their teacher, the U.S. Air Force arranged a "military fly over," and Desert Storm commander General Colin Powell arrived to honor the dead. There may be some aspects of generational war trauma unfolding here. Perhaps there is something about "the sins of the fathers," Or one might attribute the Columbine nightmare to "national karma" or "cycles of traumatic reenactment," but I am wary of speculating on specific causality. This painful collage will undoubtedly continue to develop and the complexities will take some time to appreciate. However, it is difficult to ignore the indications that one of the ironies in the aftermath of Harris's and Klebold's military operation includes safety and security measures, which have fostered a tendency toward the militarization of our public schools.
The Littleton tragedy is far from resolution. Aftershocks continue with arguments over gun control aggravated when the mother of a Columbine shooting victim went into a gun store and shot herself in the head. In a culture determined to assign causality, lawsuits abound. The nightmare continues with wounded students still in recovery, and threats related to the incident continue to haunt the community. Further events and revelations about the killers and their families will continue to shift the focus within the evolving collage of a social tragedy that has deep roots in unresolved wars, racism, terrorism, genocide, social values, gun control laws, and media hype. In a situation with this much complexity, the cause is not obvious. The reality is that the picture is much larger than the events in Littleton.
Anngwyn St. Just, Ph.D.
Colorado Department of Education. "What Is To Be Done: Searching for Meaning in Our Tragedy"
(http://datvis.net/fi/columbine/ page 13.htm)
Crum, Sally. People of the RED Earth: American Indians of Colorado. Ancient City Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1996
Hallock, Daniel. Hell, Healing and Resistance: Veterans Speak (Foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh) The Plough Publishing House, 1998
Kohler, Judith. "McVeigh says Gulf War made him angry" Associated Press in Daily Camera March 13, 2000, p.9A
Paulson, Steven K. "Lieutenant governor calls for reparations for massacre", Boulder Daily Camera, Boulder, Colorado, Tuesday November 30th, 1999. Page 5C.
CCST Colorado Center for Social Trauma