In the hyperaccelerated world of “news,” my topic — the Littleton, Colo., massacre — may seem dated. But in living rooms, classrooms, legislatures and, of course, on the Net, the aftershocks are still reverberating
I was in a hotel room in California when I saw the news of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s attack at Columbine High School. A lot of reports moved me, but I also witnessed more than a few that sickened me — the journalism that is, not the events.
I can’t forget the words of one particular CNN talking head. Commenting on the fact that some kids used their cellular phones to call the media during the massacre, he called it “our first interactive siege,” as if this was a milestone in reportage.
Technology, however, did loom large over the story. Harris and Klebold hung out on AOL, designed their own Web pages, and were avid players of violent video games (Doom, Quake).
The Internet/game connections followed a common pattern. There was the ubiquitous Gallup poll in which 82 percent of those surveyed said that the Internet was at least partly to blame for the Colorado killings. Somebody’s got to take the blame, I guess. What part the Internet had actually played in the boys’ motivation is a big question mark. What is known, however, is that a concerned parent alerted school authorities regarding the boys’ own Web site. The red flag was there on the Web and somebody chose to ignore it. Does that make the Web an accomplice?
While I marveled at not only the media’s easy assumptions about the boys and kids like them, I was also impressed at the quality of analysis and real dialogue that emerged online in the wake of the tragedy. The speed of online reporting is often praised, but the depth and variety of voices were more important in this instance.
On one level, the Web is very much a haven for the 5 percent nations, the tribes of different stripes — be they fans of Marilyn Manson or lovers of Beanie Babies. Call it a network of cults if you will (just please spare me any references to Armageddon and Satan worship). By that token, it’s not surprising that the Web perhaps offered sharper insights than conventional media simply because they were written by journalists and ordinary Netizens more attuned to the vocabulary of Harris and Klebold.
One of the most level-headed voices heard on the subject was Jon Katz, a former media columnist for HotWired who can now be read at Freedom Forum Online and Slashdot.
org. With his sympathetic and balanced online commentaries on the event and its repercussions, Katz earned the respect and trust of teenagers (and former teenagers). Especially at a time like this, he became a vital conduit.
In the conclusion of “Why Kids Kill,” his first essay on the topic, he wrote, “Since educators and authorities don’t know what to do, what they tend to do is dumb. Since the kids they’re supposed to be protecting know quite well that wearing trench coats, going online or watching movies isn’t dangerous, mostly what they end up demonstrating to the young is that they’re clueless.”
Slashdot.org bills itself as a site for nerds and geeks, primarily of the technological breed. However, in the aftermath of Littleton, the geek umbrella extended to include “oddballs.” Ironically, while Harris and Klebold sought to punish those that had excluded them, the educators and authorities only further ostracized the oddballs by singling them out. Kids who listened to the same bands, played the same games or wore the same clothes suddenly came under suspicion.
Of course, the voices of teenagers can be heard all over the Net, but following the “Why Kids Kill” column, they could be heard loud and clear at Slashdot.org. Katz received thousands of e-mail and posted many of them on the site. Many were from victims of a nationwide witch hunt for potential killers. Tales were told of students who spoke out frankly about the shooting and then were sent to the principal’s office or straight home. A kid who wears a black trench coat told of being investigated by the local police. Another’s parents took away his computer.
Katz received a wealth of stories that no reporter could have ever assembled. He got them not because he asked for them but because he proved himself to be a sympathetic listener. In the process, he saw a sort of consensus in the response, something that no poll could ever assess.
I have to say that I listened to and liked goth music in high school and later had a fling with industrial/noise music, even some of the bands that Harris and Klebold supposedly listened to. It was the audacity of extremes that appealed to me. It was also an easy form of rebellion, or more specifically bored middle-class white boy rebellion, perfect for affronting small towns and small minds. Despite the pose of defiance, though, I was in a group, a group pretty much like any other. If the Net had been available at the time, the group would have been larger.
Nostalgia for teen alienation, however, didn’t inspire this column: It was an open e-mail by MIT professor Howard Jenkins that was forwarded to me. As a scholar of pop culture and the author of several books about computer games, Jenkins has recently been in high demand as a spokesman.
Jenkins recounted how he was asked to speak at a congressional hearing on the effects of violent enterainment, but soon realized that he had been invited to play the role of a scapegoat, an academic liberal to play off a military psychologist who believes that video games are training kids to become killers. Jenkins, however, held his ground and pointed out the folly of banning the “dangerous” parts of popular culture. In his conclusion, Jenkins pointed out where the danger lies is in a fear of youth, youth culture and technology.
Jenkins ended his speech to the senators and his e-mail to the Net with a simple message: “Listen to our children. Don’t fear them.” This could be applied to the Net as well: Listen to the Net. Don’t fear it.