In the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine High School in
Colorado, a search for meaning and understanding has begun. Concerned citizens across the
nation are seeking to grasp what motivated at least two students to turn a normal school
day into a killing field. Clearly, the answer is complicated and may never be fully known.
In this bewilderment, unfortunately, many parents, students, school officials, and police
authorities have chosen to dangerously downplay the racial, and indeed, fascist,
undertones of the incident.
There appears to be a multitude of reasons why the killers went on
their deadly rampage. Taunted by fellow students, living as outcasts, immersion in a
cult-like existence, a hatred festered and grew that ultimately manifested in the worst
way possible. While an immediate explanation of the targeting of athletes, who reportedly
teased and harassed the two known assailants, may help explain (though in no uncertain
terms excuse) their being gunned down, a more disturbing and serious assessment must be
made of the racial targeting.
Students reported that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
expressively made racist remarks during their killing spree and stated they were going
after students of color among others. As they reportedly gleefully sought victims, one
killer stated, "There’s that little nigger son of a bitch right there," and then
coldly murdered black victim Isaiah Shoels.
This dimension of the incident is all the more frightful when placed
in the context of a record of racial and fascist behavior on the part of some members of
the so-called Trench Coat Mafia. These students often used the Nazi salute, shouted
"Heil Hitler," and sported swastikas. Yet, the desire to ignore the implications
of this behavior is stark. In perhaps the most reductionist effort to downplay these
elements, the Washington Post noted that it was a remarkable coincidence that the
slaughter occurred on the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday. As evidence has come to show,
far from chance, the calculated plotting of this massacre was in synch with the annual
celebration of Hitler’s birthday by fascists everywhere.
Eric Shoels’ father, Michael, reported that his son had gotten into
a racially-driven fight with one of the Trench Coat Mafia members while his daughter,
Cheryl, told him of repeated racist remarks hurled by the same crowd or girls who were
dating Mafia boys. Michael Shoels was correct in stating, "This was a hate
It is a mistake to equate hatred or dislike of athletes (or
cheerleaders or nerds or any other adolescent category) with racism. In a brutal and
purposeful way, Harris and Klebold, at least in part, went on an ethnic cleansing. Teenage
rites of passage should not include the right to publicly, consistently, and physically
attack others because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background. Many of the
surviving students, in their effort to explain away the racial aspects, noted that it was
common for students to hate each other based on a wide range of reasons including racial
and ethnic background. The casualness of this view should give us all pause.
One lesson from this incident, I believe, is to underscore the
necessity of adult vigilance and intervention on questions of intolerance. No one can ever
know if the events at Columbine could have been prevented if parents and school
authorities had been more active in addressing racism at the school. It is clear, however,
that when signals and signs of racism appear, they must be addressed seriously,
forthrightly, and unambiguously.
Congress is considering Hate Crime legislation once again.
Republican Congressmembers continue to refuse to advance the legislation on spurious
grounds despite recent evidence, as provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that the
number of racist and fascist groups in the United States is on the rise. The dragging
death of James Bryd, the cruel murder of Matthew Shephard, and the racially-driven police
brutalities and killings in New York, California, and elsewhere, to name a few, demand
that public policy address the growing hate crimes problem. Why has Congress not put as
much energy into a war on hate crimes as it has in the war on drugs?
Young people require guidance and vision. Ideas of intolerance are
reinforced in the popular media, films, music, and other institutions of society. We can
not simple hope that the youthful years of confusion, transition, and experimentation will
turn out for the best. No tolerance for intolerance must also become a part of the
Clarence Lusane, Ph.D. American University-School of International
Service (202) 885-1674 "Chance Favors the Prepared"