Once you have seen the larger pattern,you can longer see a part as the whole ” . (Ursula LeGuin)
Shooting sprees are as American as apple pie, convenience stores and mass incarcerations . And yet, the April 20th,1999, Columbine High School massacre in Littleton Colorado, launched a sustained media blitzkreig; which continues to ricochet in and around our American culture. The shock of this now iconic event, sank deep into our national psyche and remains troubling to this day; as that cruel madness continues to serve as twisted inspiration for other similar events. While the Columbine massacre was not the first event of this kind in the USA, it became iconic due to a massive media hype and political involvement at the highest level of both government and military.
April 20th was a cold Spring morning, a Tuesday as I remember, when I was living in a small town not far from Littleton, a quiet suburb south of Denver. A phone call alerted me to a frantic media, struggling to make sense of what was to become the most notorious school-related tragedy in American history. Columbine High School, named for their elegant state flower that blankets the Western Rockies, suddenly became the site of unthinkable carnage. Shortly after 11 A.M., seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had opened fire with guns and bombs, killing 12 students and a teacher; while wounding 23 others during a 46 minute killing spree before, turning their weapons upon themselves.
Over time and with more than a decade of research, I eventually came to some understanding of the wider context of those Columbine events and later with the Littleton community, as representing an integral part of a replicating loop, in an ongoing fractal of our unfinished business with genocide and war. As a result, I published “War in Colorado” in A Question of Balance (2008). Given the recent events surrounding a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I have decided to re-visit that 1999 rampage which lit the fuse of a fire still raging out of control.
One of the issues that keep trauma specialists awake at night, is the question of why some traumas repeat, as they definitely do, throughout individual lives, family systems and in larger groups of tribes, communities and entire nations. These often uncanny repetitions tend to happen on an anniversary of previous unresolved traumas. While dates of traumatic repetitions have often been dismissed as mere coincidence, my experience over nearly fifty years of working with trauma suggests otherwise. These temporal markers are important in tracking traumas that repeat throughout individual lives, families and larger systems as well as representatives of important clues that something serious is in need of attention and resolution.
In addition to dates of previous unresolved traumas, a second factor may be the location of a traumatic event, for as Rupert Sheldrake has suggested, places have “fields of memory”. And third, personal and systemic histories of those involved may also be a factor. The importance of these three factors, may be understood as “attractors” within the context of chaos theory. According to John Briggs and David Peat in Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, the scientific term chaos refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists within apparently random events. As chaos theory continues to emerge as a new cultural perspective, we are challenged to question our cherished assumptions about causality.
Early on, I felt that the apparent chaos surrounding the Columbine tragedy was worth examining, in hopes of bringing some insight to the possibility of an underlying order. Working within this paradigm was a speculation that this seemingly random event might be understood as part of a pattern which flows from the past, through the present, and into the future as a component in a still evolving system. Chaos theory suggests that if an event is part of a repeating pattern within a larger system, then this system will have one or more attractors which attract a tendency for behaviors or events to constellate and also repeat along the same or similar themes. Consequently, I began to search for these attractors by gradually assembling non-linear connections contributing to this tragedy. Gradually then, a gestalt of this event began to emerge as something like a collage with the dates April 19th and 20th and the Colorado location presenting the first two attractors.
Timing played an essential role in viewing the events in Littleton from a chaotic as well as systemic perspective as there were a combination of intentional and unintentional synchronicities involved with this date for what Eric and Dylan had termed their “military operation”. According to their diaries, April19th was the original target date for what they called their “judgment day”. As with most terrorist events, this date was intended to play a pivotal role. Given their fascination with Nazi lore and swastika symbols evident throughout their diaries, the two would have been aware of the date of the April 19th Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 when German troops arrived to round up remaining Jews.
Eric had written an 11 page paper on “Nazi Culture” and in a journal entry of the previous year: ” I love the Nazis too. I f…..g can’t get enough of the swastika, SS and Iron Cross”. Eric took to wearing Tee shirts with German phrases and both boys took German classes and were known to shout “Seig Heil !” along with a stiff armed Nazi salute, at any successful bowling strikes. April 19th is also a date associated with clashes between anti-government radicals and “rule of law”. More specifically, this date is an anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, April 19th,1995, now remembered as the deadliest domestic terror attack in U.S. history, which shocked and wounded our American heartland. A series of explosions destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building killing 168 people including 19 children under the age of six and wounding over 680 others.
The so called mastermind of this fertilizer bomb attack was former Army Sergeant Timothy McVeigh, former Eagle Scout and decorated Gulf War veteran who served in Iraq. One of his duties was to use a massive armored vehicle to bulldoze bodies of Iraqi casualties of US bomb strikes and bury them alive in trenches. A similar fate befell his bombing victims as many of them were crushed and buried in the Oklahoma rubble. For Eric and Dylan, Timothy McVeigh was added to their Nazi idols as another hero to be emulated. As a result they named their plan a “military operation” which they hoped would “top Mc Veigh’s body count” as they harnessed their assault weapons with military web gear.
As a dedicated terrorist, dates were important to McVeigh as well. He had chosen his April 19th bombing attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the FBI and Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms apocalyptic assault on a radical, millennial, religious, Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, where this sect was suspected of child abuse and stockpiling illegal weapons. On that date, in April 1993, McVeigh was there in Texas and witnessed a militarized federal law enforcement unit launch an attack on the community, which resulted in the fiery death of more than 80 people, including the immolation of 17 children. For more information see: Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (1998).
In a letter dated April 20th, 2001, McVeigh stated that the April 19th Oklahoma bombing was, in part, an act of revenge against the April 19th atrocities of Waco. McVeigh also added that he sought to make a political statement about federal government force against its own citizens. In an interview with CBS news correspondent Ed Bradley, who asked if it is 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 all the time”. Now in 2018, I would add that this unbridled aggression, endless killing and bloodshed has continued on into the oil rich sands of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
After McVeigh left the Army, he joined an uber-patriotic, anti-government paramilitary militia group suspicious of federal attempts to limit a citizen’s right to bear arms. April 19th,1775 was highly significant to this group, and the “shot heard around the world” was fired by rebels against the British at the Battle of Lexington, now celebrated as Patriots Day. In Massachusetts this civic holiday is held in observance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. I find it interesting that the Columbine High School sports teams were called the Rebels and are represented by an image of a Revolutionary War soldier. Two hundred and seventy-five years later, two Columbine rebels also planned shots that would be heard around the world.
Less than 2 months after these murderous shots, the 1999 Columbine High School graduating class gave their school a statue of a Revolutionary War soldier. Another image of this soldier is set into a circle on the floor, just outside the guidance counselor’s office. Moreover, this soldier is wearing something like a trench coat, and holding a gun. This is even stranger still, given that a hysterical media had initially blamed the massacre on a non-existent “trench coat mafia “.
While this Colorado massacre is often referred to as the Columbine shooting, this overlooks the fact that the original plan was nothing less than a grandiose scheme to orchestrate a bombing attack to blow up the entire school and everyone in it. Bombs were an important part of the boy’s “military operation”. Their 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 duffle bag bombs with 20 liquefied petroleum tanks. When all of this was too much to install by the 19th of April, and they couldn’t get their ammo on time, the two carried out their plan on their back up date of April 20th; Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
When most of their poorly constructed bombs fizzled, Eric and Dylan relied upon their semi-automatic weapons to carry on with their “military operation”. Surveillance videos recorded laughter as they strutted around the premises shouting racial slurs, freakishly glib sadistic taunts and sneering insults while gunning down a teacher and their terrified classmates. The pair had recently recorded a series of Basement Tapes filmed with a Sony camcorder checked out from their high school video lab in which they both made clear that they planned to “die in battle”. During one segment Eric said: ” I declare war on the human race and war is what this is”.
Despite the fact that these young men described their well planned massacre as a military operation, with the exception of Michael Moore, none of the subsequent analysts were willing to entertain the possibility that this violence had anything to do with our previous or ongoing wars. In respect to location, as a second attractor in this chaotic configuration, Rupert Sheldrake’s research with morphic fields and morphic resonance may provide some important clues. He describes these fields as “fields of information” and also postulated that places can also have “fields of memory”. This is a variation of an ancient Roman term genius loci or “spirit of place”. Similar beliefs are held by indigenous cultures the world over. Australian Aboriginals, for example, believe that every meaningful activity or process that occurs at a particular location leaves a vibrational residue in and around the ground. Within this and similar realities, landscapes carry and reflect vibrations which also echo events that have transpired there.
As filmmaker Michael Moore pointed out in his award winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine, the presence of a large defense establishment in Littleton set a an appropriate context for Eric and Dylan’s mind-set for their “military operation”. Lockheed Martin, located in the Littleton area near Columbine, is our nation’s prime supplier of weapons of mass destruction and the largest military contractor in service of state sponsored violence as a solution to conflict.
From a historical perspective, one also finds that a tragedy of massacre was not new to the geographical area, which now includes Littleton. At the time of rampage, the city maintained a web site which contained information about Native Americans in the history of Littleton. This article featured 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 predawn raid on their campground. Sand Creek is over 200 miles from Littleton, so I was puzzled as why it was featured on their community site. In response to my query, the web custodian explained that this 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 country.
From a non-linear perspective, there are several elements within the Sand Creek atrocity that resonate with events at Columbine High School. Racism and genocidal intentions are factors in both massacres. Historical records reveal that Colorado Governor John Evans was intent on proving that peace with Indians is not possible, and wanted to eradicate as many Indians as possible. Evans even sent notoriously sadistic, Civil War veteran, 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 Arapahoe camped at Sand Creek. The Colorado militia responsible for slaughter and mutilation of innocent and defenseless people described their mission as a ” military operation”. Contempt for victims and slaughter of innocents and the role of militia also came into focus as prominent themes in historical and current events surrounding the Columbine massacre.
The military theme and government involvement was carried forward to the memorial service for Columbine victims. Attorney General Janet Reno, responsible for the April 19th massacre at Waco, paid a short visit to the grief stricken community. As a memorial service for the slain victims began, amid controversy as to whether the killers were also victims deserving of prayer and whether 13 or 15 doves should be released to represent departing souls, the U.S. Air Force arranged a military flyover in a “missing man” formation. Gulf War Commander General Colin Powell then arrived together with Vice President Al Gore. Perhaps there is something about the “sins of the fathers” woven into this collage? One might also be tempted to speculate about national karma or cycles of traumatic reenactment. At this point it is now clear that Harris and Klebold’s “military operation” gave rise to safety and security measures which have fostered an increasing tendency towards militarization of our schools.
Turning now to a third factor in this Littleton collage; personal and family histories of the killers may shed at least some light. While the lame-stream media in search of easy answers, rushed to suspect the cause of this tragedy was “bad parents”, facts do not support such a simplistic analysis. Both Eric and Dylan were younger sons of intact, loving, concerned and engaged middle-class families. Shortly before they died, both boys took care to apologize to their parents and to state that their parents were not to blame for their behavior. Eric even quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth :”… good wombs have borne bad sons “.
Eric’s attraction to the military is unsurprising and he had expressed a desire to join the Marines after graduation. He grew up on a military base in Oscoda, Michigan, home to the Strategic Air Command and center for activity during the Gulf War; and training center for long range B52 bombers during operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. His father Wayne Harris, had a career there as a pilot until the base closed and he relocated his family to Littleton. After retirement, Wayne was employed by a local defense contractor. Eric lived at home with him, and mother, Katherine Poole Harris, homemaker and part-time caterer, and his older brother Kevin. Neighbors remember them as nice people.
Tom and Sue Klebold named their youngest son after the poet Dylan Thomas. They met at University and later earned a master’s for Tom in geophysics and Sue in education. Their house was orderly and intellectual and one finds little at first glance to offer any insight into why either Eric or Dylan would harbor such suicidal and homicidal rage. The boys had been posthumously diagnosed; Eric as a psychopath and Dylan as a suicidal depressive, follower. Both had issues with anger management and had engaged in several episodes of criminal mischief. Eric was also taking the prescription drug Luvox which has been associated with homicidal and suicidal ideations; now off the market. This and similar drugs have been ongoingly associated with mass shooting events.
While it seems possible that Luvox was an exacerbating factor, it does not seem reasonable to ascertain that this medication was the cause of the Columbine events. In a similar vein, I would maintain that Eric and Dylan’s fascination with violent video games such as DOOM was a symptom, rather than a cause of their grandiose aggressions. In an eerie twist to their story, Dylan was born on September 11th and the shooters had fantasized hijacking a plane and crashing it into buildings in New York City.
Since it is not at all clear from the outward appearance of their families of origin what factors might account for the attraction to war, Nazis, genocide and a strong pull toward death; one then wonders about systemic factors from previous generations. At this point, the Harris family’s earlier history in regard to war or genocide is not available, nor is there information, for this inquiry, known about Katherine Harris or Tom Klebold’s generational data.
We do know however that Sue Klebold had Jewish roots through her father Milton Yassenoff and her grandfather who was a Jewish community leader and philanthropist who also served in the 116th Aerial Squadron during WW I. According to a descendant, the first Yassenoff to immigrate to America did so in the wake of a particularly nasty Pogrom in Russia after killing one of their Cossack attackers. Milton Rice Yassenoff was adopted, possibly as a child orphaned by the Holocaust. (columbusjewishistory.org) Tom and Sue Klebold were gun control advocates who had no firearms in their home.
In response to a firestorm of hatred that came raging toward them in the wake of the tragedy, both families feared for their lives. Devastated and shell shocked, the Harris’ left town, the Klebolds divorced and Sue chose to remain in Littleton. Years later she would write A Mother’s Reckoning : Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy .(2017).
“Nothing determines who we will become as much as those things that we choose to ignore.”
Littleton’s Columbine tragedy remains a long way from resolution, and local aftershocks continue to this day. For some, important questions remain unanswered. Further events and revelations about the killers, their families, victims and their loved ones continue to shift the focus within this evolving collage of social tragedy, that has deep roots in unresolved wars, racism, genocide, social values, psychiatric medications, gun control controversy, and violent video games. In a tragedy that involves this much complexity, any single cause is neither obvious nor linear. As media noise rolls on, we continue to see, just as Eric and Dylan intended, a picture much larger than these events in Colorado.
Throughout various gestures and ceremonies of, commemoration, mourning and memorials, the Littleton community remained bitterly divided as to whether the killers should be acknowledged, included, worthy of prayers or any kind of remembrance whatsoever. While there was no genuine resolution, those in favor of exclusion generally prevailed. And yet, in April 2007, Littleton, Colorado was again in the news. During the 8th anniversary of the massacre, the community was bitterly engaged in another gun related controversy, regarding another memorial, from yet another war.
At issue was a planned construction of a nine foot, life-like bronze statue crouched for action, intended to honor a local youth killed during the war in Afghanistan. It is generally agreed that that Navy SEAL Danny Dietz was a hero worthy of commemoration. However, objections were raised to a uniformed portrait, complete with a detailed replica of a high powered assault rifle, with an attached grenade launcher, his fingers positioned just inches from the trigger. A spokesperson from the city maintained that they had received more than 600 letters, calls and emails in support of this statue in its current form. Mayor Taylor, who was not in office during the 1999 assault rifle shootings, issued a statement saying that this statue should be seen as “a teaching tool”. Opponents of this statue pointed out, that its proposed location is just across the street from an elementary school, and just blocks away from other schools and a playground. Some parents who dared to speak out against this gun bearing statue and its location reported that they received death threats and other disturbingly hostile emails.
Funds for this Danny Dietz Memorial were raised by his parents with help from Ultra-Conservative Republican and Presidential Candidate Tom Tancredo. Danny’s statue was dedicated on July 4th, as part of Littleton’s patriotic, Independence Day celebrations. After a speech by a Secretary of the Navy, similar to the one at the Columbine memorial service, Dietz’s mother expressed “heartbreak and bewilderment “. She absolutely could not fathom that there could be any opposition to this bronze portrayal of a young man from Littleton, who died in a “military operation”, proudly bearing an array of assault weapons, facing a public school. This, she asserted, could have nothing to do with the Columbine school shooting.
As a mother, daughter and grand-daughter from a multi-generational military family, with my own levels of grief, loss and war trauma, I can understand a need for this level of psychic disconnect. And yet, given the fact that these mass shootings have continued, I feel that it is beyond time for us, as a concerned nation, to address our attachment to such glorification of perpetual wars and state-sponsored violence as evidence of “patriotism”.
While Danny’s grieving mother may well have had a real need for her beliefs, I find it curious that this same community that so vigorously excluded two other young men and their “military operation” from all of their memorial activities, has become so militantly determined to erect this larger than life statue of a gun-bearing youth, equipped with grenades, directly across from a school. This level of admittedly trauma induced, heart breaking, psychic disconnect, as frustrating as it may seem, also serves to open a window into the ongoing question as to why these mass murder school shooting events continue to replicate. As we have seen with Columbine, simplistic, specific agenda serving, single cause explanations are less than helpful. The carnage has continued, while we remain in a sleeple state of disconnection between our perpetual, genocidal, profit driven wars against “others” and violence as the solution to conflict; while our kids continue to kill each other at home.
Now, on the subject of psychic disconnection, I am reminded of then President Clinton’s speech shortly after Columbine, advising students that violence is never the solution to conflict. This address was delivered at the exact same time that he was bombing Kosovo, supposedly to prevent a genocide, with Apache helicopters, named after a tribe that we had nearly destroyed through systematic genocide. Small wonder that our present generation has so little confidence in government.
Americans of all political persuasions continue to shoot each other in our streets and now, with increasing frequency, in our schools and churches. Despite our claims for American exceptionalism and moral superiority, ours has always been a violent culture, founded from the onset by genocidal cultures and exploitation of slave labor. American violence, which never stops, has been glorified throughout our history. Given this history, any invitation to reconsider our relationship to guns is apt to meet with fierce and even violent resistance. And yet, there may be at least some degree of change in the air.
On February 14th, 2018, Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday for Catholics, this latest iteration in a series of horrific school shooting fractals took place in the quiet suburb of Parkland, Florida. A drill suddenly went live. Like Columbine, this school was also built on land previously occupied by indigenous who came to a genocidal end. Broward county was home to Seminoles who were either slaughtered or otherwise deported in accordance with colonization policies. In Parkland, shots rang out during a history class whose topic that day was the Holocaust.
While some may advocate arming teachers, more guns as a solution to too many guns doesn’t seem to offer a viable solution. Public school safety programs now include twice yearly, live shooter drills, conducted by former Special Forces and Israeli-trained militarized police. This policy has rapidly evolved into a highly profitable extension of our post 9/11 security theater and economics of fear.
One can take heart in that the response to the Florida shooting was radically different from Columbine in that survivors immediately took to social media, not available in 1999, commandeered news media and sent a clear message that enough is enough. They demanded action. It was such a pleasure to watch these fed-up teenagers skillfully shift the narrative away from the shooter onto an urgent need for social change. Resistance, however, was predictably ugly and fierce. These outspoken young people were ignored by the White House, and this time we are mercifully spared from meaningless “thoughts and prayers”, and political platitudes. Vilified by conservative media as “crisis-actors”, threatened by the NRA, the young advocates for firearm safety became undeserving recipients of sexually specific threats of sadistic violence and gruesome death.
Nevertheless, on April 20th, at 11 A.M. on the anniversary of the Columbine rampage, students and teachers orchestrated a nationwide march to demand changes in our gun laws, especially in regard to AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles. The night before, Parkland students had rallied in Littleton, Colorado, to demand stronger, national gun control laws. An important aspect of their now, ongoing, pro-active and inclusive agenda is to strongly encourage high school students, of all colors, religions, ethnic and gender identities, to get involved and vote as soon as they turn eighteen. Time will tell. (ASJ, A Question of Balance,2008, and Dave Cullen, Columbine, 2009).