A New Controversy in the Shadow of Columbine

Last Tuesday, as Blacksburg, Va., was reeling from the slaughter at Virginia Tech, the city council of Littleton, Colo., reached out in sympathy. "We wanted to send a message of hope," the town's mayor, James Taylor, says softly in a telephone interview. Taylor paused for a moment, adding in exasperation: "I just don't know how you stop this kind of stuff."

The "stuff" Mayor Taylor is talking about is a pain Littleton knows all too well. Eight years ago today—on the morning of April 20, 1999—the world watched in horror as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, students at the nearby Columbine High School, unleashed a flurry of violence as random and incalculable as the Virginia Tech massacre this week. Twelve students and a teacher were killed. Twenty-four were wounded. For the residents of Littleton, a tight-knit Denver suburb of 42,000 that bore the brunt of that day's carnage, the gunfire left an awful legacy that resonates to this day.

So, on Tuesday, Taylor and his six colleagues on the council voted to send a letter of assistance to the mayor of Blacksburg, Va., Ron Rordam. "Even though the tragedy (of Columbine) happened eight years ago, the memory of the day remains fresh," reads the letter, which was obtained by NEWSWEEK. "As a community that can truly say 'we know what you're going through,' we offer any assistance we can provide in helping your citizens and staff through the difficult days, weeks and months ahead."

But even as the town extends its offer, Littleton finds itself embroiled once again in a controversy involving guns. At issue is the planned construction of a nine-foot, life-like statue honoring a local soldier killed in Afghanistan two years ago. While everyone agrees he was a hero worthy of commemoration, his proposed memorial—complete with a replica of a high-powered weapon, and set to be placed a stone's throw from three schools—has triggered a sharp debate about whether this means of honoring the fallen in the war on terror reopens the wounds of Columbine.

When plans for the statue and its placement were revealed last winter, a small group of Littleton parents rose up. "Our issue is not about the sacrifice a man has made," says Emily Cassidy, a local mother and a member of Littleton's Fine Art Committee. "A group of us were concerned about the statue's location and the design that was chosen…. There is this umbrella of Columbine over this city. Is this really appropriate? This happened here and you have to take it into consideration when you're displaying public art."

But Mayor Taylor sees no cause for concern. "To honor a war hero with a statue would have nothing to do with two young men who murdered their classmates," he says. "The greater community makes the distinctions of that."

There is no debate about the soldier's valor. On June 27, 2005, Danny Dietz, a Navy SEAL and Littleton native, was sent on a mission along the Pakistan/Afghan border—an area dubbed by troops as "enemy central" because of the dangers there. According to Department of Defense accounts, Dietz, 25, and his four-man team quickly ran into trouble. While facing "numerically superior and positionally advantaged enemy force," three of the four SEALs were wounded, including Dietz, the DOD records show. Dietz's team radioed for help. A helicopter with 16 reinforcements was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all on board. Still on the ground and severely injured, Dietz helped stave off attacks, allowing one soldier to get away before the rest of the unit, Dietz included, perished. Dietz, along with two comrades, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross—a commendation second only to the Medal of Honor.

To honor Dietz back home, his parents, Cindy and Dan, along with the help of Republican Colorado congressman and presidential-candidate Tom Tancredo, raised $42,000 in private money to have a statue erected in his old Littleton neighborhood. A park adjacent to two of the schools that Dietz attended as a child was chosen for its construction. The design was reportedly inspired by the last photograph taken of Dietz in Afghanistan—depicting a stoic, focused soldier, squatting in full combat gear, and holding an assault rifle with an attached grenade launcher, his fingers just inches from the trigger.

The objections from Cassidy and other parents in the area stirred a fierce debate, played out on local talk radio and blogs across the country. The tenor of the conversation has at times been heated; some parents who oppose the statute say they have received threatening phone calls and e-mail messages, and declined to be identified in this article. "I'm just not going to put my name out in public anymore," says one mother whose child was at Columbine in 1999. "It's gotten scary."

Still, support for the statue runs deep. When Dan and Cindy Dietz came to speak at a recent community meeting about their son, local police officers gave them a standing salute. The Dietz family, who could not be reached by NEWSWEEK, has reportedly been surprised by the controversy over the figure, which would be placed roughly two miles from Columbine High School. "This was Danny's third tour over there," Dan Dietz told The Rocky Mountain News. "The first time he was over there he lost a friend, and when he came back he was mad. And he said, 'Boy, Dad, I'd better not run across any of those anti-Americans. You know they're not doing us any good.' And I said, 'Wait a minute, Danny. During Vietnam I fought for those rights and now you're fighting for those rights.' I said, 'That's a part of the United States. We have to be thankful we can do that because the other countries, if you did something like that—protested or anything like that—you'd be in jail or be shot.' "

Kelli Narde, spokesperson for the city of Littleton, says the city has received more than 600 letters, e-mails and calls in support of the statue in its current form. Only about 10 calls opposed it. Mayor Taylor (who, like all the current members of Littleton's city council, was not in office during the Columbine shootings) says the protest "comes at the 11th hour," and is completely misdirected. "It's all how you approach the subject," Taylor says, adding he believes the statue should be seen "as a teaching tool, and not as a scary tool."

As the debate rages, the sculpture is already at the foundry, where it is set to be cast in bronze. Plans for dedicating the memorial are slated for July 4—two years to the day that Dietz's body was recovered from the mountains of Afghanistan.