Don't Ignore the Hate Crime
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 crime."
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 curriculum.
Clarence Lusane, Ph.D. American University-School of International Service (202) 885-1674 "Chance Favors the Prepared"