The Anniversary of Fear

United States of America has a habit of stirring up such immense frustration for me. Don’t get me wrong, this country has a great many things going for it. Nowhere else can I say anything I want about a public official without fear of retribution. Even if I do have some sort of controversy associated with what I say, I have a very comfortable amendment on which I can lean. It is my right to say whatever I’d like, my right to believe whatever I’d like, and if I don’t like something that is happening in the US I can assemble and peacefully make my feelings known. I can own a gun. I can have a fair trial. These rights, as made clear in the Bill of Rights, allow me to lead a life free from fear and persecution. At least that’s how it is on paper.

Today is the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine. That day also happened to be the heaviest day of bombing by the US in Kosovo. It is the anniversary of an incredibly violent day in US history.

I decided to re-watch Bowling for Columbine today because of a posting I had read earlier by Amanda Palmer, reminding people how outrageous censorship is when it comes to remembering dark history. In Lexington, MA, a junior at Lexington High was in the middle of preparing to put on the play Columbinus at the high school, which she was directing. She was told that she could no longer put on the play because the subject matter and the language were not suitable for those under age 17. It need not be said how completely ridiculous it is to ban a play about a high school shooting at a high school.

Watching the documentary of course brought up tremendous emotions over events that occurred when I was about to enter high school. At the time, I was very much aware of the events, but I wasn’t feeling the kind of emotions I feel as I look back on them. Instead, the documentary brings up a few key questions about people in the US:

  • Why does the US have so much more gun-related violence and deaths than other developed countries?
  • What makes the US so different?
  • Why is it so strange that US citizens lock their doors?
  • Is there anyone to blame for the violence?

Michael Moore makes it pretty obvious that the answers to these questions boil down to one fundamental human emotion: Fear. It has nothing to do with race, or the availability of guns, or our history of violence as a nation, or video games, or alternative music. I completely agree.

Fear is the same reason that Lexington High told that junior she and her classmates could not put on the play at the high school. Since then, it was held at another playhouse, and a discussion was held on censorship in the arts. It was made clear that people in the town think this kind of censorship was silly, but still, it happened. We can speculate that, if we were in Canada, the play would have been held without worry – maybe, maybe not. But the thing that bothers me most about the aftermath of such tragedies as Columbine is our distinct unwillingness to listen to each other, and then to remember it as the terror that it was.

We have the right to speak so loudly about whatever we’d like, to believe whatever we’d like, and to publicly demonstrate those beliefs, but unless extreme measures are taken we never really listen. How do you stop someone from getting to such an extreme point? In the aftermath of Columbine, school security went from a no-tolerance policy to no-tolerance-on-crack. 7 year-olds were suspended for having nail clippers at school because that’s apparently a weapon. We did the same thing in airports after 9-11. If this helps to find those people who actually want to inflict harm upon others, then wonderful. Find them and take necessary measures to be sure it doesn’t happen. But that doesn’t solve the greater problem; these kinds of security measures are merely a band-aid.

Maybe the question isn’t how do we prevent someone from getting to such an extreme place; maybe it’s why do they get to that point?

We all know high school is hell for pretty much every teenager. It’s a perfect storm of biological processes with low psychological well-being, and if a person is pushed down low enough you can be guaranteed that they’ll push back. Why do some kids get pushed so hard? Again, the answer is fear.

You’re 16 years old and you go to a reasonably sized high school. You’re not that popular, but you’re not unpopular either. You’re pretty much the norm in terms of fitting in. Then there’s that kid; you know the one. That kid who’s always been just a little different. You don’t know much about him (or her) other than that he doesn’t really have all that many friends and he’s not the kind of person you want to hang around with. You’re not really sure why. It’s something you can’t put your finger on, but you know that he’s not the kind of guy you remember at the end of your day. And when someone actually does talk about him, it’s never good. It’s always something like “he’s so weird,” “what a fag,” or “he’s just some freak.” You have no idea what he’s doing after graduation and you don’t really care. You think it’s just between you and your friends. Even if these opinions are “common knowledge,” you never really think that that kid knows what the school thinks of him.

Believe me, he knows.

There are thousands of kids like this out there – the ones who only make a blip on people’s radars when others need someone to make fun of. The ones that are so very private, so quiet. The ones you’d never think need help because they never asked. That’s wrong to say though. They probably asked a hundred times for help, but nobody listened. And because nobody listened the hundred times they asked, they decided to make them listen.

That’s not an excuse though because in a perfect world it should never come down to such extreme measures. We all like to think that if we were put into such a situation we’d be brave enough to take them aside and say “put down the gun and talk to me.” I certainly like to think I would. That’s not reality though because we’re human and we’re afraid of imminent danger, so we hide or run away.

But in high school, and even outside of high school, it’s the same.  We may not always have a gun pointed at our temples, but when it comes to putting your reputation on the line to defend someone else many of us probably feel like we do. Defending that person puts you in the line of fire to be the next that kid. So we go along with the snide remarks, we ignore how it makes others feel. Survival of the fittest, right?

Wrong. Let’s use some common sense please.

We need to listen to each other and be aware that everyone is human and needs understanding, even if that person doesn’t ask for it. You can’t wait until someone begs for empathy either. Look back on what Charlton Heston did after Columbine. He still held a gun rally for the NRA 10 days later. When asked to not come to Denver, he replied that it was his right to be there. That’s true. But just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t magically make the people who are hurt by your actions any less hurt. The fact of the matter is that it’s not right to tell people who just experienced a gun massacre that you don’t care, and then wave a gun in their faces. It’s not right to tell a high school student who wants to use an artistic medium to highlight an important issue for high school students that it’s inappropriate. It’s not right to place the blame on music, on video games, on movies – they’re the same movies, video games, and music people are exposed to everywhere else in the world.

It’s perpetuating the idea that we should be afraid of the people around us, and that we’d all better lock our doors because our neighbors want to hurt us. It’s not easy, and we’re all guilty of it. No one likes to be the outcast, but here’s the secret… If you embrace who you are, then words are just words. After a while they lose their meaning because you know that the person making fun of you is really making fun of themselves. They can’t handle how badly they feel inside, so they deflect it outward. It’s a huge hump to get over, but that’s all a person needs – the reassurance that the names people are calling you aren’t true. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

And just in case, I’m always willing to listen.


©  Of Popular Rhetoric, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Of Popular Rhetoric with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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