No social movement can thrive without the energy of the emerging generation, and from this perspective the Columbine High School shooting was awful in more than the obvious way. Amid the anguish, indignation, hysteria, and political posturing that followed the events in Littleton, what struck me most keenly was the silence: the eclipse of young people as social and political actors. Yes, we heard a lot about teenage culture, with its seemingly intractable hierarchies, cliques, and brutal exclusions; and hardly anyone argued, as they might have done had this been the first such incident, that these were just two psychopathic kids whose actions reflected on no one but themselves. It was widely assumed that if mass murder was erupting in the heart of white, middle-class suburbia, some sort of social critique was in order. A few intrepid souls, noting the gender of every school shooter to date, even suggested that masculinism and homophobia might have something to do with the case. Yet the spirit of the public discussion was mainly that of panicked prison guards who had lost control of the inmates. How to get it back?
With teeth-grinding superficiality, liberals demanded gun control, conservatives the posting of the Ten Commandments, while the usual coalition of pop-culture bashers blamed the media. There was much curiosity (laced with schadenfreude) about the killers’ parents—how could they not have known? what had they neglected to do? and a hasty dropping of the subject when it appeared that their lives and child-rearing practices were more or less indistinguishable from their neighbors’.
But what I want to know, and have heard virtually nothing about, is this: how do teenagers in “normal” middle-class suburbs feel, not only about their present lives but about the adult world? What do they think about their own prospects? Do they have any concept at all of having individual or collective power to influence their condition?
In the eighties there were two highly publicized “youth violence” crises: escalating gang warfare among inner-city black kids and a wave of suicides among white teenagers in working-class suburbs. Efforts to understand these events from their protagonists’ perspective—like Do or Die, Leon Bing’s report on gangbangers in L.A., and Teenage Wasteland, Donna Gaines’s account of high school “burnouts” in Bergenfield, New Jersey—suggested that in different ways both groups were dying, literally and figuratively, of their lack of a sense of possibility. They saw death as a logical extension of lives they could not imagine changing, and at the same time as the only choice that was truly theirs.
Both these groups were losers, in terms of mainstream American criteria. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were losers too. But there is a crucial difference. They were not excluded from the shiny, happy opportunity society by virt...
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