On April 20, 1999, 18-year old Eric Harris and 17-year old Dylan Klebold, of Jefferson County, Colorado, killed 12 people and wounded 24 others before both committed suicide on the campus of Columbine High School. They had planned their violent outburst for a year. They expressed their hate and discontent with the world via website and video. This was done without parental knowledge or supervision, even though their parents were described as ""dream parents" and "caring, attentive parents."
On March 5, 2001, then 15-year old Charles Andrew Williams fatally shot two of his classmates and wounded 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, California. Williams told several people about some of the problems he was having. His divorced parents said they knew he was having problems. The day before the shooting, Williams shared information with others about the way he'd chosen to deal with his life. Because he followed his announcement with “I’m joking,” classmates would later say they didn’t take him seriously.
On April 16, 2007, 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and himself, and wounded 15 others at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Before the shooting, Seung-Hui’s writing assignments were described as "macabre" and "disturbing," his classmates speculated about his propensity for becoming a school shooter, and concerned faculty brought the writings to the attention of administrators.
Prior to and since 1999, there has been no shortage of school shootings by students who felt troubled and either demonstrated or spoke directly of their problems and/or their intentions. In almost every case, someone knew what was going to happen and didn’t tell anyone until a reporter or law enforcement investigator asked about their affiliation with the shooter.
I was four years old in 1966 when Charles Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others in Austin, Texas. Since then, I've heard people half-joke about someone looking so stressed or being so bullied that they "might just end up on the news at the top of a tall building."
Before I knew it, there "someone" was – again and again. That the geography of violence has moved from the clock tower to the post office to the playground to the campus appears to have some seeing it all very differently when it's obvious the motives are the same: "I can't take it anymore and I don't know what else to do."
There is no justification for murder. Why the young men and boys did what they did is only an explanation, but it is an important, and thus far ignored, part of the equation. Those who would ignore the explanation are inviting more of the same because of the inactivity their disbelief breeds. It doesn't matter whether or not a person is justified in feeling the way he/she does. What matters is that the person does feel that way.
As we've seen time and again, people will sometimes act on those feelings in a violent way when they think they've run out of options. It doesn't matter that there were other options; it matters that they didn't see them. Even if someone did show them options (although there is no evidence to suggest any of the aforementioned shooters were afforded the services they needed), they didn't continue to work with them until a plausible option was found. Before this point is bemoaned, look at yourself and the choices you've made given the options you've had.
If you're still sitting in a dead end job that makes you miserable because quitting won't pay the bills, then you know what an implausible option feels like. I'm not comparing the situations or the consequences; I'm saying you know what it feels like and how that feeling directly affected the decision you made. You can, therefore, now choose to stuff that unsettling feeling of empathy down deep inside or act on it to bring about positive change in your life and in the lives of others.
If your response is that you don't know what to do, then you also know what it feels like to feel helpless. If your response is that the shooters should have just dealt with it, then you obviously have ideas for dealing with stress that could help others, so then be kind enough to step forward and share with those who don't know what else to do. We are simply not as separate from each other as we would like to think we are – and good thing, too, because if we were, we wouldn't be capable of all the happiness and good fortune that we do have.
While water coolers and all manner of technology are abuzz with "Why did he do it?" I pose the question "Why are we just talking about it?" We don't like to think about things like this happening, much less have it plastered all over the front pages of our newspapers. That doesn't mean we should ignore it or make dead-end editorial comments in the aftermath without a plan to back it up. It means we should accept that other people, specifically children, feel differently and respond differently to the stress in their lives.
Because most of us respond differently, in that we keep ourselves in check, we are obligated to express this by sharing just how we are able to maintain control with those who come into our lives with a bit of trouble on their face. Our disdain with their lack of skills is not justification for not taking the time to at least give that person a knowing glance.
Every shooter did in some way telegraph or flat out announce their problems. They didn't have the tools to deal with their problems. If they already had the tools to deal with their problems in a positive manner they would have. They obviously didn't, and in some small way they were all looking for answers to their questions.
That those questions were hidden beneath disturbing comments, stares, conversations, videos, websites, and one-act plays is no excuse for having kept right on about one's business as if one had heard nothing. I'm not saying anyone should've heard murder coming, but every person privy to what was said or demonstrated heard or saw something that was obviously good enough to repeat to reporters the day of and after the shootings.
With the exception of Seung-Hui's teacher alerting administrators of his writing, no one reported their concerns prior to the shootings. Is this because they lacked a microphone and the promise of a few minutes of publicized glory? If what you hear today is good enough to repeat in an on-camera interview tomorrow, then it's worth mentioning to someone today.
We all know what it feels like to have a horrible no good very bad day. For some of us, it's way more than just a day. Why is it so unfathomable for so many to believe that the odds of someone actually going through life feeling tormented — by their own inner demons or by others — are alarmingly high?
The Santee, California boy was called a "coward" and his actions "cowardly." What was he called the day before? That's right – no one was listening. Everyone was too busy not taking his comments seriously. His actions were taken seriously, though, weren't they? Look at how much attention was given to every shooter's violent behavior versus how much attention was given to anything they'd said or demonstrated before they hurt anyone. The same can be woefully said of every shooter.
Echoed in the haunting lyrics of Harry Chapin's "Sniper", the young men involved in every shooting either asked for help from those around them even though some of them didn't know how to say it, or they made their intentions clear by way of the things they were doing and saying. Like the "Sniper," we have once again answered the desperately human question "Am I?" with inhumanity.
Given the daily hostility, stress, and aggravation we are all subjected to, it's a miracle there aren't more people losing it, but who is to say there aren't more people losing it? We heard about Eric and Charles and Cho because they killed people. We aren't hearing about any of the other kids who, at this very moment, are feeling the same way they did but are instead withdrawing inside themselves. We may never see some of them ever again. Others, we may see on the news in the coming days.
The pen was thought to be mightier than the sword. Unfortunately, we've sent the message loud and clear that we will not heed words, only weapons. We didn't focus on what any of these young men were saying until they said it with bullets, and even now our focus is not on what they said but how they said it.
Robert Fulghum wrote, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will break my heart." Every one of us will find a way to be heard when the need is strong enough, and every one of us has an opportunity to listen. The Virginia Tech shooting, along with all the others like it, is proof that we will continue to be haunted by the people we choose not to see and the words we choose not to hear.