Community Kills

The last thing American high schools need is more warm fuzzies.

The massacre at Columbine High School prompted op-ed writers across the land to diagnose a shocking “lack of community” as the cause of the madness. As if! There is no public institution in America that works harder to forge a sense of belonging than the suburban public high school. Assemblies, homecoming week festivities, car wash fund-raisers, pep rallies, proms, graduation ceremonies–these rituals instill in their participants the “school spirit” that persuades many alumni to return to town every five years for reunions to celebrate high school’s glory days.

Representing the “lack of community” position were essayist Richard Rodriguez and biographer Neal Gabler, writing separately in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times “Opinion” section.

Rodriguez took the standard communitarian tack, arguing that newly landscaped suburbs such as Littleton produce deracinated teens who can’t become individuals because they lack a sense of community: “[Y]ou cannot become an individual without a strong sense of ‘we,’ ” he writes. Gabler combined a squishier communitarian criticism (“it may be too simple to say that rootless malleable communities … give rise to rootless malleable children with little identity of their own, save the identity borrowed from mass culture, but it may not be too far off, either”) with his media monism: Identitiless teens play “Doom” on the PC, then try it out in the enhanced 3-D perspective of real life.

But neither Gabler nor Rodriguez appear to have attended a suburban high school. If they had, they would know that such high schools suffer from an overdose of community, not a deficit. In Columbine, community killed.

Columbine evidently overflowed with this sort of school spirit, most of which revolves around student athletics. The latest consensus from Littleton is that rage directed at student athletes and their perceived protectors, the school administration, drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to meticulously prepare and then execute the killings. At Columbine and suburban high schools elsewhere, athletics are the biggest tool in creating the sense of “we” that Rodriguez extols. The community–both on and off campus–worships the basketball and football gods, and favoritism for the top jocks is institutionalized in the name of fostering a sense of community. It’s more than curious that at institutions supposedly dedicated to academics, spectator-friendly athletic competitions are the only activities considered to be worthy of regular praise and attention. Gabler notes that Columbine’s closed-circuit TV system played sports highlights regularly. Can one imagine the Rocky Mountain News, or any other newspaper, replacing high-school sports coverage with debate team transcripts?

The skewed community values created by administrators, teachers, parents, and the media exacerbate the natural volatility of high-school social groups. Just as rape and other felonies committed by star athletes at the NCAA powerhouses are tolerated with wearying predictability, today’s high-school administrator will allow the barely controllable gangs from the gridiron free rein to commit verbal and physical aggro upon the castes below. Most victims of the harassment and ostracism survive. Some drop out of school or transfer. In my day, one hassled student ended his life by hanging himself from a basketball rim. In Harris and Klebold’s case, the endgame was a spasm of violence.

While Harris and Klebold have established–one hopes–the extreme end of inappropriate response to high-school hazing, their crimes were anticipated by popular culture. It’s particularly strange that the supposedly media-savvy Gabler didn’t acknowledge in his piece the popular-kid killing classic Heathers and its less acute echo Jawbreaker. Even the mild snarkiness of MTV’s Daria should have put Gabler, for whom mass entertainment is the only important reality, on notice that high schools are communities that are hardly tolerant, accepting, or even rational. Are the public vows to rebuild Columbine also a vow to resurrect the very community that shaped Harris and Klebold?

You can’t feel like an outsider if you don’t want to get inside. Viewed from this angle, Harris and Klebold’s rampage can be interpreted as an extreme desire to join a community whose values they had bought into. By embracing Nazi sloganeering, Harris and Klebold may have thought that they had cast out Columbine’s influence. But they absorbed Columbine’s football team community values–aggression, planning, cohesion, and physical sacrifice for the goal–in the methodical planning and execution of their atrocity. Yet right up to their donning black trench coats for the last time, they would probably have preferred being honored at a Columbine pep rally than at the Nuremberg rally.