Loitering On The Dark Side

Now for the recriminations. Was the Colorado tragedy a legacy of our technoculture: Doom, "Natural Born Killers," hate-amplifying Web sites and pipe-bomb plans from the Net? Or simply two teenage killers' ability to collect enough ordnance to sustain a small army? Gathering the potential culprits seems less an exercise in fixing liability than tossing random darts at the violence-fixated cultural landscape. After the massacre, there were calls to cancel two upcoming Denver events: a Marilyn Manson concert and the NRA's annual convention. Guilt has to be spread pretty widely to make bedfellows of the androgynous Goth crooner and Charlton Heston.

Still, we've got to look for answers to prevent further massacres, if not to clear up the mystery in Littleton. The Internet has been getting heat not only as a host for some of the sick enthusiasms of the Trenchcoat Mafia, but as a potential source of explosives information. Defenders of the Net rightfully note that criticizing the reach of the increasingly pervasive Web is like blaming paper for bad poetry. Still, it's undeniable that cyberspace offers unlimited opportunity to network with otherwise unreachable creepy people. What's worse is how the Net makes it easy to succumb to the temptation to post anything--even Ubermensch song lyrics or murderous threats--without the sure sanctions that would come if you tried that in your geographical community. The Internet credo is empowerment, and unfortunately that also applies to troubled teens sticking their toes into the foul water of hatemongering. As parents are learning, the Net's easy accessibility to the netherworlds is a challenge that calls, at the least, for a measure of vigilance.

Hollywood is also a fat target. From Oliver Stone's lyric depiction of random murder (rabidly viewed by the Columbine killers) to stylish slaughter in "The Matrix," violence is the main course on our entertainment menu. We are a nation that comfortably embraces Tony Soprano, a basic-values type of guy who not only orders hits but himself performs the occasional whacking. The industry's defense is summarized by Doug Richardson, who's scripted "Die Hard II" and "Money Train." "If I were to accept the premise that the media culture is responsible," he says, "then I would be surprised that the thousands of violent images we see don't inspire more acts of violence." In other words, the sheer volume of carnage is proof of its harmlessness.

Then there are the shoot-and-splatter videogames like Doom--cited as a possible template for the Colorado killing spree. Some are concerned that hours of participating in a killing-machine fantasy might make a real-life version more palatable--a concern made more alarming since millions of people regularly play Doom and its cousins. Doom's creators aren't talking, but Bob Settles, who works on similar games for Bungee software (which makes the popular Myth II game), disputes that racking up virtual body counts is a prelude to real-life mayhem. "Mostly people who play our games get a little relief--it allows them to let out anger," he says. That may be, but isn't it logical to assume that a kid on the edge, after spending days immersed in these killer simulations, might gain a comfort level with the experience? "I'm less worried about Myth II in the hands of a troubled teenager," says Settles, "than the danger of having a gun in the household."

But it's not an either-or situation: guns are all too available to troubled kids steeped not just in videogames or slash movies, but the entire volatile stew that's, well, America. Videogames, the Net and Hollywood are just the low-hanging fruit in this blame game. The violent-entertainment complex survives because it caters to us: its brutal images and dark-side pursuits exist because they're popular and profitable.

Traditional media exploit this, too; the week's news coverage speaks directly to our fascination with home-bred violence. The killers may have been steeped in a crock pot of fantasy carnage, but now the nation is willingly marinating in its very real aftermath: a tissue-consuming orgy of victim interviews and 911 tapes. As a TV-anchor magnet, suburban-school killers easily outpace a complicated conflict in a consonant-ridden corner of the world. (To be fair, NEWSWEEK sent its share of correspondents, too.) Like it or not, the dramatic personae of Columbine High School were destined to be familiar characters in the ongoing American docu-drama.

Katie Couric's emotional interview with two bereaved victims was great television, but as NBC and its cable sisters reran it as frequently as an MTV video in heavy rotation, the line between news and tear-jerking entertainment got fuzzier. ABC's "Nightline" arranged a "town meeting" where victims in Jonesboro, Ark., still smarting from last season's school massacre, were recruited to offer guidance to freshly grieving Littleton victims. Perhaps such communication can be helpful, but should it be conducted under the gaze of millions of onlookers, and broken up by commercial breaks? This is what comes when victims become "gets" in the increasingly intense competition to win the ratings war for the tragedy du jour.

What we're left with is a vicious cycle where even the examination of a disaster reinforces the violence-obsessed culture that may have helped trigger it. How can you pull the threads of violence from a society when those strands are so deeply woven into our character? We're left with a bromide: make sure that your kids don't get in so deep that fantasies cross over to horrible, heartbreaking reality. It'll have to do because the culture isn't changing. We like it too much.