Heed Columbine’s lessons
Vail CO, Colorado
Every day, every hour, more people come forward who knew that something was deeply wrong with Cho Seung-Hui. Teachers, roommates, classmates from college, high school, middle school ” people knew.
And people acted. Not all of them, and not all in loud and useful ways, but some who were disturbed by Cho’s actions and words did what we would want them to do: They told somebody.
And still, here we are.
Dawn Anna, who has supreme cause to ask that question, thought we would be beyond this point by now. “I had this Pollyannish vision that when Lauren was murdered, that the reaction from the nation and the world was so intense and so heartfelt that we would all get around the table and say: ‘As a parent, I saw this piece of behavior’ and ‘As a teacher, I saw this’ and ‘Let’s put it all together and see what we can do to protect our children.’
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
“But it didn’t happen.”
Friday marked eight years since the murders at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Eight years since Dawn Anna’s daughter, Lauren Townsend, and 12 others were killed by two teenagers whose murderous intentions had been plain to see for years. The killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, wrote school papers about their plan. They put up a Web site about it. Harris even wrote in court documents that he was homicidal and suicidal.
People knew. Still, Columbine happened.
Even afterward, Anna and other parents couldn’t get people to speak openly about what they had known. The parents eventually sued to force the flow of information that hadn’t happened before the murders.
They won, and they lost. Harris’ and Klebold’s parents were deposed and required to tell how their children became killers. And the authorities were forced to reveal the existence of numerous complaints about the two boys that were never investigated.
But a federal judge in Denver, Lewis Babcock, ruled this month that the depositions, the thousands of other records and the basement videos in which Harris and Klebold spelled out their sick plan must remain sealed for 20 years.
“There is a legitimate public interest in these materials so that similar tragedies may hopefully be prevented in the future,” Babcock said. But he ordered all the material sealed for fear that its release might engender copycat killings.
The copycats seem to be doing just fine without the information. The rest of us could benefit from seeing what the government is hiding.
“In the depositions, you see the dynamics of the homes that produced Klebold and Harris,” said Brian Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine. “In the basement videos, they say exactly what they’re going to do, when and how. These
killers always tell other people. There’s always months and months and years of planning. But we’re not being allowed to use what we’ve learned to save other lives.”
Anna, Rohrbough and the other parents are prevented by a court order from talking about the specifics in the tapes and documents. But they are crying out this week for all those who know the Chos and Klebolds and Harrises of the world to stop cowering in fear.
“The murderers who killed Lauren weren’t stopped because everyone just closed up in this fear of being blamed,” Anna said. “People withdraw into shadows and fear of lawsuits. We’ve written the laws so that the rights of one person supersede the rights of the many to live in peace and safety.”
Of course, simply stating that someone seems dangerous is only the beginning of a hard road. The devotion and commitment of Virginia Tech English professor Lucinda Roy, who reached out to Cho and also referred him to counseling, was more than most of us could summon, yet still not enough.
The U.S. Secret Service, which has spent decades trying to figure out who is truly dangerous, has concluded that profiles and checklists are pretty much useless.
Instead, a Secret Service study says, what works is the most old-fashioned tool of all: talk, and more talk. As many eyes as possible on the situation. And especially the gut sense that a person is dangerous. Yet we’ve built a paralyzing web of laws that erode our own trust in that basic human instinct.
“So we cannot insist that someone not attend classes until he gets treatment,” Anna said. “That’s crazy. We need to realize that we belong to each other. We need to create empathy. Instead, we remember the murderers’ names when it’s the children and teachers whose names need to be remembered.
“You’re part of the problem,” Anna told me. “You’re not going to want to include the names, because you don’t have enough room in your column.” The truth is worse: I hadn’t even thought of publishing the victims’ names. But Anna is right. These are their names: Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matthew Kechter, Dan Mauser, Daniel Rohrbough, William “Dave” Sanders, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Kyle Velasquez.
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