The Columbine Killings and the Convenience of Dehumanization

By Gareth Higgins 4-20-2009

There was a sad piece of serious journalism in The Guardian newspaper last week -- the tenth anniversary of the Columbine murders presents the opportunity for Andrew Gumbel's reflection on how the insatiable desire for quick results led to significant media distortion, which took rumor and emotiveness and turned them into a story that, it turns out, is remembered for being something very different to what it was.

The boys who killed were not part of an organized group; they did not find themselves inspired by over-immersion in the music of Marilyn Manson; and it seems there were no victims martyred for expressing their Christian faith. The intention was to blow up the school and kill as many as 2,000 people. They were consumed by nihilism.

This part of the story, the most important part, the 'why' of the 'what,' is the part that you and I have heard least about. We've seen sensationalist footage of what we were led to believe was the school during an agonizing three hour shooting incident, when later it turned out that the perpetrators may have been dead before the cameras arrived. We've seen parents experiencing the most unimaginable grief seeking to honor the memory of their horribly murdered children by publishing books about words it appears they never actually said. We've seen computer games and industrial metal music blamed for why two boys would do these unspeakable things. But we've rarely -- if ever -- seen a serious examination of the reasons.

Because, on the one hand, nihilism -- as popularly understood -- is terrifying. Some people seem to kill just because they want to; and they probably want to at least partly because they inhabit a world in which it's convenient to dehumanize each other. This is not an underground or hidden world. It's the one you and I live in too. Call me irresponsible, but it does seem pretty obvious that the way we deal with public figures in disgrace, or even our neighbors when they do things that annoy us, are both part of a continuum of social relations that ultimately, when pursued to its logical end, leads to a descent into allowing ourselves to kill.

Of course, most of us don't ever actually get to that end -- but, if John O'Donohue was right to say that killing can only happen when you turn other people into "slates" that can be wiped clean (she's not like me, his motives can't be explained, I hate them), then we're kidding ourselves if we think that we ordinary decent people are not capable of participating in the same kind of societal descent.

It's easy to find simplistic "solutions" to the question of why people do unthinkable things; it's harder to ask questions about violence in which our own behavior might be part of the answer. But, as Gumbel says, every couple of weeks or so, someone shoots and kills a number of people in one place, but the 24 hour news cycle doesn't seem to have the space for anything other than film of the aftermath, close-up photos of the shooter, and brief obituaries of the dead.

I'd really like to take this question of dehumanization more seriously; and I don't want to just blame the media. The relationship between journalists and the public is recursive; we're both in it together, and to some extent give each other what we appear to want. So let me make a suggestion that might be dramatic, or even unfair, but I'd be glad to hear a better alternative: If we don't press for an end to the assumption that audiences have only short attention spans, and the ideological position that states none of us really wants to explore beyond the surface of why people do what they do, then we're complicit in advancing the dehumanization narrative that will lead to the next mass shooting. And the next.

There are probably things that each of us can do every single day to re-humanize the world. Please feel free to make suggestions in the comments section below.

Gareth HigginsDr. Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at and co-presents "The Film Talk" podcast with Jett Loe at

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