Columbine Taught Us Many Things. We've Only Learned Some of Them.

Charles P. Pierce
Photo credit: MARK LEFFINGWELL - Getty Images

From Esquire

Photo credit: MARK LEFFINGWELL - Getty Images

The woman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She was 18-years old, her name was Sol Pais, and she was from Florida. It is said that she was obsessed with the havoc wreaked one day 20 years ago by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School outside of Denver. Sol Pais got herself dressed in black and camo, flew to Denver, and bought a shotgun. When that last bit of news hit the police band, every school in the area cancelled classes. These conditions prevailed until Wednesday, when they found Sol Pais dead at the base of Mount Evans. And thus did the 20th anniversary of what once was the worst school shooting in American history begin-with an imminent threat and a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Since then, of course, the body count of 13 piled up by Harris and Klebold has been eclipsed by other murderers at other schools-Seung Hui-Cho killed 33 people at Virginia Tech, Adam Lanza killed 28 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Nikolas Cruz killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida-just as Harris and Klebold surpassed Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, pre-teens who killed four people at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and just as Johnson and Golden surpassed Brenda Spencer, who killed two people at the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego and who famously gave as her reason, "I don't like Mondays."

Photo credit: Steven D Starr - Getty Images

The current etiquette in these situations seems to be not to name the shooters any more so as a) not to give them the prominence they allegedly sought, and b) so as not to inspire others to try and top them. But that is to make out of these people violent flukes of nature and nurture, which they certainly are not. They are American sons and daughters of other American sons and daughters. They have the names that their parents gave them. Erasing those names from memory is a dodge, and a cowardly one at that. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are not nameless, faceless figures in the past. We know who they are because we know what they did. So did Sol Pais, and she went out the way they did, with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

Columbine has become a kind of de facto common noun now; other shooters in other places have talked about doing "a columbine" as though the name of a school named after the highland flower Aquilegia is now a historical synonym for "massacre." That is the only turning point provided by the massacre two decades ago. It began the process of normalizing schoolhouse violence. It set the template for the impotent new ritual of "thoughts and prayers" followed by action on anything else except this country's lunatic fascination with its firearms. In the immediate aftermath of the murders, the Senate passed the first bill that would have closed the so-called "gunshow loophole." It failed in the House.

Photo credit: MARK LEFFINGWELL - Getty Images

It was supposed to have been a teaching moment. It wasn't. So was Sandy Hook, and it wasn't, either. Because of the ferocious reaction by the students at Parkland, that massacre might actually become one, but I'm not betting on it, at least not in the way most people meant it.

And yet, in the end, Columbine taught the country a lot of things. It taught the country denial and it taught the country distraction. It taught the country how to manufacture comforting myths rather than face unpleasant realities-the "Trench Coat Mafia," the Girl Who Said Yes, all bullshit, all debunked by the phenomenal reporting of Dave Cullen, whose coverage of the aftermath in Salon remains the greatest sustained Internet coverage of a single story we have yet to see.

Photo credit: HECTOR MATA - Getty Images

It taught us how to react to further bloodshed-in a Connecticut elementary school, in a Las Vegas concert venue, in a Florida high school-by not reacting in concrete ways. It taught us to live with the body counts. It taught us that murderous schoolchildren, American sons and daughters just the way we are American sons and daughters, are part of the price we pay for freedom. That is the lasting legacy of the Columbine massacre, 20 years ago this week. We all are victims of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

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