Don’t settle for scapegoats in Littleton

Saturday, May 15, 1999

In the aftermath of the horrific massacre in Littleton, Colo., the
nation looks for clues and culprits.

How could this have been avoided? Closer parental supervision? More
attentive law-enforcement? More gun control?

A surprising number of Americans suggest these additional suspects: The
Internet and popular culture.

According to a Gallup survey:

  • 64% of those polled said the Internet bears a 'moderate amount' or
    'great deal' of the blame for the shootings.
  • 79% said television programs, movies and music bear some
    responsibility for the massacre.

Little wonder, then, that news coverage has focused on the two young
killers' fondness for Marilyn Manson, German industrial music, video
games and the Internet.

That coverage in turn has helped fuel an immediate, and extensive,
backlash against the media and free expression:

  • Schools are developing impromptu dress codes, banning black
    trenchcoats because the killers in Colorado wore them.
  • Parents have lobbied state and local governments to intervene and
    cancel Marilyn Manson concerts. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn wrote to Manson
    promoters asking them to call off a show in Reno.
  • Republicans have announced plans for a National Conference on Youth
    and Culture to examine video games, films and drugs.
  • A Senate hearing on violent video games is being expanded to look at
    other media.
  • A bill has been introduced in the Senate to require that violent
    television shows be permitted only 'when children are not reasonably
    likely to [make up] a substantial portion of the audience.'
  • High school students who have simply acknowledged in classroom
    conversations and assignments that they understood the anger of outcasts
    like the Colorado youths say they have faced disciplinary action or
    mandatory counseling, according to Jon Katz, a columnist for the First Amendment Center, our
    online news service, who solicited e-mails from students.
  • Other young people have lost access to computer games or the Internet.
    As one student wrote to Katz: 'My parents took my computer away today,
    because of what they saw on television. They told me they just couldn't
    be around enough to make sure that I'm doing the right things on the

One irony to all of this is that the Internet could just as easily have
saved lives in this case. Colorado shooter Eric Harris' Web pages made
his darkest plotting public. Concerned parents of a classmate took those
to the sheriff's department, but apparently no action was taken. If the
plot had been foiled, would we now be celebrating the Internet as a
crime-fighting tool?

A lot of thoughtful people, from throughout the political spectrum, have
called this week for a re-examination of American culture. Is there so
much emphasis on violence in our popular entertainment that it either
desensitizes children to violence or actually encourages it? That's a
fair question that deserves to be explored through debate and
discussion, not legislation or hasty rule-making.

What is needed most is perspective. This was a crime committed by two
disturbed boys. Yet there are more than 70 million copies of the 'Doom'
video games in circulation and almost 4 million copies of Marilyn
Manson's music. There is no epidemic. In fact, arrests for violent
crimes in schools have steadily declined in recent years, according to
the Justice Department.

There are no easy answers for what happened in Littleton. But we don't
make any progress when we settle for scapegoats.