While there is satisfaction in Colorado’s hipness — the first state to retail legal marijuana, younger and healthier on average than our 49 compatriots and the No. 1 destination for migrating millennials — we tend to repress our history as the site of both the Columbine High School killings and the Aurora movie theater slaughter. The Columbine victims have a tasteful memorial, as may the Aurora dead one of these days. Discussion of these events is regarded as rather tasteless at chamber of commerce luncheons. The rest of the world has not forgotten, however. In the past month three very different publications, Mother Jones, The New Yorker and the London Review of Books, have published articles examining the germinal role that Columbine has played in subsequent assaults around the globe, aided and abetted by a social media fascination with Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.
In “Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter,” Mother Jones writer Mark Follman identifies 72 plots and attacks in 30 states “whose suspects and perpetrators claimed to have been inspired by the Columbine massacre.” Police averted 51 of these, while the 21 attacks that took place resulted in 89 deaths and 126 casualties, as well as nine perpetrators dead by their own hands. If we expand our focus to include non-school shootings, like James Holmes and the Aurora theater murders, the numbers climb to 486 dead and 557 wounded during the 15 years since Columbine in 1999. This carnage has prompted police departments, colleges and high schools to deploy “threat assessment” teams. Virginia, Illinois and Connecticut have passed laws mandating such teams for their universities and colleges. As Follman points out, “Virtually every one of these attacks, forensic investigation show, is a predatory crime, methodically planned and executed. The weeks, months, or even years when a would be killer is escalating towards violence are a window of opportunity in which he can be detected and thwarted.”
The story of Eric Ayala, who was identified as a threat at a California high school and smothered in “wrap around” counseling services for five years, is a sobering reminder that while a threat might be contained, it is not necessarily eliminated. Following high school, when his classmates were protected, Ayala moved away and eventually gunned down a group of teenagers at a dance club before killing himself. The shooters’ cultural meme has been embroidered some since Columbine. They often kill roommates or family members before launching out into the public square in order to push up their kill quotient.
Both Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books and the bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker point out these shooters are virtually always male and, undoubtedly to the consternation of many parents, have usually been identified with Asperger’s syndrome or have exhibited behavior falling somewhere on the autism scale.
O’Hagan examines the growing pattern of shooters leaving behind manifestos outlining their grievances against the world. In the case of Christopher Harper-Mercer at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, earlier this year, he chose a single student, saying, “You’re the lucky one,” to hand-deliver his diatribe to police before proceeding to kill everyone else in the class.
It was Dylan Klebold who wrote, “Life is a punishment.” But whether it was Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, who killed nearly 100, mostly children, or Vester Flanagan, the Virginia newscaster, who filmed his murders and then posted them on the Internet, social media postings had evidenced their propensity for violence months before they acted.
Perhaps the most disturbing of these recent commentaries is Gladwell’s recent “Thresholds of Violence: How school shootings catch on.” Gladwell examines the findings of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, who has spent his career attempting to explain how a person does things seemingly at odds with who they are or what they think is right. Granovetter’s research extends to the behavior of mobs and the decision to riot. What prompts people who aren’t inclined to destructive violence to join in looting, throwing rocks or worse? As Gladwell reports, Granovetter concluded, “A riot was a social process in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by thresholds — which he defined as the number of people doing some activity before we agree to join them.” Gladwell proceeds to hypothesize that the growing frequency of mass shootings in the United States might be a question of thresholds — that what we are actually witnessing is a slow-motion riot that could be acquiring greater momentum. Chew on that concept.
Earlier this month, an “open-carry” monster killed three bystanders in downtown Colorado Springs. Within a week, Colorado Springs police, who dismissed 911 calls regarding the initial assailant, shot down a mimic. Copycat or coincidence? If Gladwell is correct, we could soon find ourselves living in a garrison society, much like Israel. The terrorist attacks in Paris provide yet another reason for worry. The Colorado Legislature should consider mandating threat assessments for all public facilities. Several years ago, I was traveling on horseback through rural Ireland, when one of the riders asked our guide, “Why did they build so many castles?” The reply: “Because it was dangerous to remain outside the walls after dark!”
Gladwell’s closing admonition is chilling. “In the day of Eric Harris, we could try to console ourselves with the thought that there was nothing we could do, that no law or intervention or restriction on guns could make a difference in the face of someone so evil. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org