I was 10-years-old when the mass shooting at Columbine happened. I have distinct memories of feeling paranoid about the possibility of seeing teenage boys in trench coats and gaining a newfound fear of a musician who was previously unknown to me: Marilyn Manson.
The killers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999 were white teens: two seniors named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They fatally shot 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. Reports that followed the mass shooting, which shocked and horrified the nation, revealed that Harris and Klebold were affiliated with a school gang known as the “Trench Coat Mafia,” obsessed with Adolf Hitler, harbored incredible resentment toward their classmates, played video games, and enjoyed Marilyn Manson’s music. Of these details, the press, particularly cable news, latched on to the tidbits about violent video games, the Goth garb the two favored, and Manson CDs.
It really can’t be understated just how fixated on and hysterical over these three things—video games, Goth fashion, and metal—people became. Which of course explains the kid-fears I had of trench coats and Manson’s songs.
However, news of the neo-Nazi ties never trickled down to my pre-teen consciousness beyond learning that the murders had been committed on Hitler’s birthday, April 20 (though they’d planned the attack for the day prior). But to this day it seems many people either were never aware of this information about the killers, or perhaps forgot about it in the wake of all the other tragedies over the years, or maybe people remember but it never felt too significant.
One way or another: it ended up being sort of irrelevant to the general public that this massive killing of mostly kids, by kids, could have been in some way prompted by the murderers’ interest in Nazism.
To be fair, this was not for a lack of effort on the part of some journalists. A Washington Post report from 2 days after the attack on Columbine called Harris and Klebold “white supremacists” and made several mentions of their fondness for Hitler and neo-Nazi antics. “John House, 17, a Columbine senior, told reporters that when he went bowling with Klebold, ‘when he would do something good, he would shout ‘Heil Hitler’ and throw up his hand. It just made everyone mad,’” the paper reported. (By the way, aggressive anti-social and racist behavior like shouting Nazi slogans feels like a legitimate reason for kids to distance themselves from and ostracize a peer.)
Still, the cop quoted in the article, Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, said the only clear motive to him was “anger,” and Harris and Klebold’s dedication to Hitler was framed as more or less as big a factor as their other non-mainstream interests.
The pair’s fanaticism for Hitler—which was reported by students and found in school papers and other personal documents written by Harris and Klebold—was largely buried in favor of other narratives about scary clothes, music, and games, which totally dominated not only news about the shooting but the news in general for some time.
The shock and horror of the killing meant that things changed for a lot of kids, especially those of us who, like me, had not previously been exposed to stories of mass killings. The changes manifested on the level of the family unit all the way up to new legislation.
The brother of a friend of mine at the time often wore a trench coat to school, but after Columbine, their dad made him wear a patch on the coat that indicated he was non-violent. The clothes that the young murderers had worn that day, their signature trench coats, became a temporary symbol of something horrific and evil, something that could come for their kids, or perhaps that their own children could become themselves. What this thing was exactly was a matter of debate, but it was brutally, painfully evident that whatever it was ends in death; some adults thought they could thwart it by policing trench coats.
While the fear-mongering over anything considered to be Goth or “dark” in anyway was in full swing, there were still other questions about what led to this awful day. The analysis of the Columbine shooting entailed incessant nitpicking over the psychological and social profiles of the killers. People wanted to know what could have driven these two boys to do such a thing. Was it because they were mentally ill? Are their peers responsible for this because they rejected their classmates? Did the music and video games make them do it?
For the most part, the press and lawmakers failed to acknowledge the relevance of the teenagers’ sincere fascination with Hitler and Nazism. Instead, there was an unending emphasis in the press that the killers were simply disturbed Goth kids who snapped on their preppy peers after listening to too much devil music. Even five years later, Slate and other outlets proclaimed that Harris and Klebold committed the murders because they were depressed and psychotic, respectively, based on an FBI report. The headline for the Slate article was: “At least now we know why the Columbine killers did it.”
Lawmakers responded with the false promise of increased safety by sending loads more cops to public schools, a policy which has failed to protect students from shooters but has endangered and harmed many students. Inadequate and backwards policies such as these have escalated over time to calls for the arming of public school teachers in the wake of school shootings, a policy idea that president Trump has repeatedly endorsed.
Tragically, frustratingly, and for no good reason, the pattern of overlooking and dismissing the role of far-right influences or radicalization in school shootings and other attacks continues.
In the 20 years since Columbine, there have been 11 mass school shootings in the US, according to new database created by the Washington Post. I wasn’t able to find a dataset detailing the demographic information for every school shooter in recent US history, though a (brief, non-methodical) survey of reporting on mass school shootings committed reveals that at least some mass school shooters have a record of misogynistic and/ or racist behavior at school, sometimes with histories of violence. It’s also frequently the case that school shooters are white boys, and in the case of mass school shootings, it’s common for them to have an interest in or dedication to far-right ideologies such as neo-Nazism.
The most recent example of this toxic mix leading to a tragic body count is Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old murderer of 17 students and staff members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentines Day last year. Cruz gunned down his former classmates (he was previously expelled from the school) and teachers using an AR-15 filled with ammunition rounds onto which he had carved swastikas. The Sun-Sentinel, a local south Florida paper also reported that Cruz has written “I hate [n-words]” and drawn a “Nazi symbol” on his backpack, and was abusive to his ex-girlfriend. In fact, he had been expelled from the school for making threats against his ex, a student at Douglas.
For the very same article in which the Sun reported these facts about Cruz’s misogynistic behavior and use of Nazi symbolism, the paper used the headline, “A lost and lonely killer.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Cruz was portrayed numerous times as frustrated and heartsick over being dumped by his girlfriend. Just like Harris and Klebold were the victims of social rejection and some sort of Marilyn Manson-based brainwashing. Even with Columbine haunting us still these two decades later, the lesson has not been learned, and the result is a partial cover-up.
Columbine has remained a deadly source of inspiration for numerous school shooters and fascist killers. Adam Lanza, the young white man who murdered his mother, 20 elementary school-aged children, and six teachers before killing himself, in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012, was obsessed with murders and school shooters, including Harris and Klebold. The Australian white supremacist, Brentan Tarrant, who killed 50 worshiping Muslims and injured dozens more in two mosques in New Zealand last month, cited the Columbine shooting in his “manifesto.” These are just a couple of many examples.
Not all mass school shootings necessarily fall under the category of far-right violence. In the case of Lanza, for example, he seemed to have a hatred for humanity in general, rather than feelings of animus toward a specific group or groups. He had an interest in killers broadly going back centuries, though the fact that many racist killers were part of his obsession probably can’t be written off altogether. Overall, school shootings remain quite rare, and often gun violence at schools leaves nobody killed or injured.
To me, this feels like all the more reason to be clear when school shootings, or any kind of violence, are linked to the far right. “School shooting” is the natural term to describe gun violence that occurs in schools, but the term has also become a blanket, catch-all, self-explanatory category of violence. Ultimately, lumping all school shootings together in the same phenomenon doesn’t make sense if doing so flattens or obscures the causes of violence.
In cases where people, including children, have been killed because of young people influenced by fascism and hatred for Others, we must be frank about the motivations and causes. Without an adequate diagnosis of the violence, the prescription will fail and the disease will fester, claiming more lives. Particularly in the wake of Parkland and an overall rise in bigoted, right-wing violence, it feels wrong to relegate the Columbine killers’ interest in fascism to a mere piece of trivia about the bloodshed they caused. It’s not that the mass murder is reducible to this interest in Hitler, but that influence seems more worthy of scrutiny than trench coats and metal.
To pay what we owe as a society to the victims of schools shootings and all far-right violence, we must at acknowledge and work to honestly address the warped and sometimes bigoted roots of the violence. Safe schools are schools invested in equality with no tolerance for bigotry. Solutions to this problem are numerous and include decent gun laws and a culture of egalitarianism, but certainly would not be limited to superficial hand-wringing over trench coats and scapegoating classmates, who are the victims here.