Violent teen outcasts not surprising

Does Littleton really surprise anyone?
As I type, the television is teeming with footage, firsthand accounts, constantly developing facts and countless faces — faces of broadcasters, talk-show hosts and pundits — long with sadness, frozen in shock.
My gut reaction to the news was typical, I think. When the story of yet another school shooting broke, I thought, “Here we go again.” But as grisly images and eyewitness narratives of the methodical, maniacal killings assaulted the screen, it became very clear: This could happen anywhere. In fact, it’s happening everywhere.
The events that took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on Tuesday represent the eighth such school shooting incident in the United States since October 1997. The patterns: all were teenagers, all were labeled “outcasts” by their peers and all were in suburban schools.
This is a pretty common, seemingly innocuous, set of criteria; every high school has outcasts.
Something like Littleton will happen again.
High school is a tough place. Lines are drawn early, clearly and cruelly. If you don’t fit in, you’re eaten alive. People will point, laugh, ridicule, shove, beat, threaten and belittle you. The result is systematic devaluation of a person’s humanity — perpetuating the idea that the reigning version of “cool” considers everything on the outside with a venomous dose of spite.
I can’t even pretend to know what this must feel like. In my high school, I was Mr. Neutrality; I tried to have good relations with all kinds of people. In the end, it paid off for me. That doesn’t make me a saint.
There was a girl, Megan, in my sophomore year art class. I knew Megan pretty well from elementary and junior high school; we were amicable enough, but she had a mile-wide mean streak that she liked to trot out when the teacher left the classroom. She had a knack for finding meek people and boring gaping holes in their self-esteem. I got along with her, but I didn’t like her.
Megan came from money (most of us did in Bloomington, Minn.) and always dressed well. She was “popular” and socially influential.
Every day in art class, Megan would fire up the derision machine that was her mouth, point it at the two most unassuming students in the class and let ‘er rip. It was an incredible spectacle. Sometimes I couldn’t believe my ears — her pernicious verbal toxin was unrelenting. She hardly came up for air.
Those two students — completely unable to protect themselves from said mockery — wound up finding solace in each other. Soon they were a couple.
Megan found out.
The berating that followed made everything prior seem like praise.
Here’s my problem: Megan was always respectful of me. All it would have taken from me was a firm admonition — just tell her to shut up and leave those two alone — and I bet she would have. Instead, I did nothing. I watched it happen. I watched those two cower and cringe every day.
Every day. Every day in every school in this country, kids are doing this to each other. They’re ganging up on the outcasts, not just singly like Megan did, but en masse. Whether it stems from the fear of not fitting in or intrinsic cruelty, they’re devaluing the fragile ones to the point of desperation.
The outcasts aren’t dumb. In fact, I bet a lot of the “different” ones — the “freaks,” as they’re often described — are way above the intelligence curve of the more socially adept.
The two members of the so-called “Trenchcoat Mafia” that blasted their way through Columbine High School on Tuesday morning weren’t dumb, either. Empowered by the rash of similar attacks before theirs, they saw an opportunity to take retaliation over the top. They acted swiftly and mercilessly. They took their own lives. They had planned it all out.
People shake their heads and wonder why. Psychologists ponder motives while police sort out the grisly details; the country reels. And I’m more sick to my stomach with every minute of coverage. But I think I know why this happened. I think everybody does.
Ours is a violent world. Bombs and guns are easy to get. Kids are increasingly cruel to each other, and something snaps.
A friend of the killers, shaking and pallid, said it best. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Eric and Dylan, why’d you do this?'” he told CNN. “But then a part of me thought, you guys finally did it. You did something.”
They did something all right. They did something so abhorrent, so unimaginably nightmarish, that it doesn’t seem real. And everyone’s wondering what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
Stricter gun control might help but probably wouldn’t have stopped these guys. Better security at schools wouldn’t have stopped them, either.
Teenagers have always found security in singling out “different” individuals; that’s nothing new. In recent years, however, those individuals are fighting back. In a culture where anyone can buy a gun or make a bomb, their power has been restored. With their humanity decimated, they have nothing to lose.
If we continue to refuse to get rid of the guns and the violence that comes along with them, something else has to give.
Maybe it’s time for a little healthy fear. Would Megan have carried out her routine of ridicule with the fear that she might have been pushing someone to the edge?
Maybe, just maybe, high school students — especially those with social clout — will think twice about committing psychological torture. It won’t take unilateral acceptance, just a mockery cease-fire. Just a little bit of tolerance. A modicum of respect. Not much.
If the insouciant devaluation and exclusion of the fringe continues, so will the violence. Not just high school students, but everyone, on all social levels, needs to let this be a wake-up call. It’s not about guns, violence, poor parenting or alertness. It’s about people being pushed to the edge.
The tragedy is that, in Littleton, those people were also capable of mass murder and self-perceived martyrdom. Similarly deranged, severely outcasted students are secretly applauding — and considering emulating — the actions of the “Trenchcoat Mafia” all over the country.
Does that terrify you? It should.
Does it surprise you? It doesn’t surprise me at all.

Josh Dickey’s column normally appears on Tuesdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected].