On Columbine and 911

By Will Baker


On April 20, 1999 twelve students were shot dead at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado. That was nearly five years ago yet the event is still being discussed and analyzed. Recent news reports have indicated that the local sheriff’s office had previous dealings with the shooters, Eric Harris (18) and Dylan Klebold (17), and some of the victim’s parents are wondering why more couldn’t have been done by the police to prevent the tragedy. Tom Mauser, the father of a young boy named Daniel who was killed at the school, said he wanted more details about why the police didn’t thwart the killings. Brian Rohrbough, whose boy, Danny was gunned down said, "We're going to keep looking until we get the answers."

As much as my heart goes out to these parents I have to wonder exactly what type of answers these poor folks are looking for. For as hard as it might be to fathom, it seems to me that the tragedy of Columbine is not a police matter at all. No, if these parents want some answers perhaps the first place that they should look is in the mirror. After that I suggest that they flick on a television set for a while and then go take-in a movie and then maybe go for a stroll around town. And then they should ask themselves when was the last time they asked their children if they were happy.

And gentle reader, lest I have confused the matter let me make this perfectly clear: the above is not meant to be an indictment of the parenting skills of these dead children’s parents. No, it is an indictment of us all. For I do believe that in a way each one of us killed those kids at Columbine. We killed them by virtue of our apathy. It seems to me that what occurred in Littleton and continues to occur elsewhere is a bastardization of the expression, "it takes a village to raise a child"--in our case one could say, "it takes a society to kill them." Unfortunately the news gets worse.

In 1862 Ivan Turgenev wrote the novel Fathers and Sons, where he used the term "nihilism" to describe a creed of total negation expressed by the novel’s character Bazarov. And From 1855 to 1917 Russia provided fertile ground for the application of this new philosophy (Nihilism) that rejected the authority of the state, church, and family. Enter Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher most often associated with Nihilism. This fellow, in the philosophical tradition of the Skeptics developed an intuitive school of thought whereby "the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and Why finds no answer." Nietzsche argued that there is no objective structure or order in the world (except what we give it). All values are baseless and "reason is impotent."

Nietzsche believed that the deteriorative strength of nihilism is all-powerful therefore it will invariably expose all beliefs and truths as "symptoms of a defective Western mythos." Relevance, purpose and meaning itself will collapse resulting in the most destructive force in history: an absolute assault on reality, the greatest crisis of humanity. In Will to Power, Nietzsche writes: "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of Nihilism… For some time now our whole [western] culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end…"

Well, it seems to me that like Nietzschean bookends the Columbine shooting and the 911 period frame an unparalleled time in our Nation’s history where meaning, purpose and relevance are being questioned on a daily basis. And as for reality, well ask the parents of the slain Columbine students if they feel as if their realities are under assault and I bet that they would answer yes. And while you are at it, ask yourself the same question.

In his The Decline of the West (1926) the mathematician, historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler concludes that Western civilization is already in the advanced stages of decay with Nihilism working to undermine epistemological authority and ontological grounding. In The Question of Being (1927), Martin Heidegger observed that nihilism in various and hidden forms was already "the normal state of man." In 1969 the religious philosopher Helmut Thielicke observed that "Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless." Thielicke believes that Nihilism motivates all human monstrosities. Dark predictions of Nihilism's impact are explored in Eugene Rose's Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age (1994). If nihilism proves victorious--and it's well on its way, he argues--our world will become "a cold, inhuman world" where "nothingness, incoherence, and absurdity" will triumph.

So what are we to do, throw up our hands and surrender ourselves and our children to Nothingness? Well, it has been over a century now since Nietzsche laid out his thesis and just as he predicted, Nihilism's impact on the culture and values of the 20th century has been pervasive, its apocalyptic tenor spawning a mood of gloom and a good deal of terror, anxiety and anger. Nietzsche, himself a hard core skeptic saw many of the themes of postmodernity coming. And it might be helpful to note that he believed we could, perhaps at a terrible price (read: Columbine, 911 and God knows what else) eventually work through nihilism. Therefore, it seems to me that if we can manage to survive the process of destroying all interpretations of the world, maybe we can discover the correct path for humankind.

"I praise, I do not reproach, [Nihilism's] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…(Complete Works Vol. 13) -- Friedrich Nietzsche




 (Essay Collection)




Life's meaning