The lesson of Columbine

By Jack Levin, and James Alan Fox, 11/4/2001

For many Americans, life will never be the same following the catastrophes of Sept. 11. There is no turning back the clock for those who mourn the loss of loved ones or even for New Yorkers who will be reminded of tragedy every time they gaze at the hole in the skyline that was formerly occupied by the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But for the average American who was not directly touched by the tragedy, notwithstanding a profound sense of ''innocence lost,'' much of its impact will eventually be absorbed by a return to normalcy, albeit one blended with a new awareness and caution. The key to whether Americans deal effectively with this tragedy lies in whether we, as a nation, address its true causes, or whether we reach reflexively for easy, visible fixes that don't work.

Though it was less expansive in scale, we can learn a great deal about the long-term impact of terrorism from what occurred in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. - a scene of devastation also captured on national television, in which 15 students and teachers, including the killers, lost their lives. In a very real sense, the two young shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were terrorists. They managed to commit the largest school shooting in American history and also had plans to crash a hijacked plane into the New York City skyline.

Principals around the country reacted by turning their schools into armed camps, instituting a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons, and profiling potentially dangerous students with such ''predictors'' as wearing a black trenchcoat and worshiping certain rock idols who preach violence through their lyrics. School administrators were quick to suspect and suspend students for innocent, yet ill-advised, comments or jokes. In the rush to make students, teachers, and parents feel more secure, the same law enforcement measures were applied indiscriminately to safe and unsafe schools in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Even elementary schools were transformed. Additionally, some lawmakers, as well as the National Rifle Association, even proposed arming teachers and training them to shoot. Only much later were school administrators able to recognize that such efforts were not always necessary or even desirable.

The Columbine tragedy provoked a slew of copycats - some actual shootings but mostly empty threats, false alarms, and bomb scares that emptied school buildings around the country. Feeling ignored and unimportant, the youthful perpetrators hoped to re-create at their own school the anxiety and horror of Columbine that had received so much attention.

The recent anthrax scare represents an incredibly disruptive version of the same copycat phenomenon. Aside from a small number of genuine anthrax contaminations, there have been thousands of hoaxes in the form of talcum power or sugar being mailed in suspicious-looking envelopes to national and local leaders.

Also not unlike the response to Columbine, we are now in the process of securing our airports and government buildings with more metal detectors, armed guards, surveillance cameras, and a ban on any instrument that could conceivably be used as a weapon (including plastic cutlery). We have begun to profile Arab-Americans and Muslims as though they were all terrorists. Around the country, many decent foreigners and immigrants have been verbally or physically attacked. In addition, new security policies and practices are being applied to all kinds of locations, regardless of the actual risk. There has also been talk of arming airline pilots, despite the many hazards to innocent life that such a move could pose in non-terrorist instances of air rage or incivility.

In the short term, an intense and overarching focus on security makes good sense, if only to calm widespread fears. Fortress-like school buildings enabled students to return to their studies, just as extra police presence, undercover marshals on planes, and other appropriate security measures in airports are needed to help people cope with returning to airline travel. In the long term, however, such measures can and should be relaxed when they inconvenience more than they safeguard our lives. In the long run, moreover, the continuing presence of armed guards, searches of bags, and the use of canine units do as much to reinforce a sense of vulnerability in schools and in airports as they help protect us.

Even if our antiterrorism measures are effective at airports, in planes, and around government buildings, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that terrorists would not move to less secure venues, for example, to football stadiums, churches, and cruise ships. The Israelis know this all too well. Their security measures at airports and aboard El Al jets have kept terrorism at bay; unfortunately, they have been much less effective in eliminating suicide bombers from committing mass murder in crowded restaurants, outdoor markets, and buses.

The spread of terrorist activity, whether by schoolyard malcontents or international dissidents, can be arrested only if we address its most sustaining components. First, we must construct an effective strategy for detecting and controlling weapons of mass destruction including those of a biological origin. Second, we must secure the most likely and important targets for such attacks. Third, we must continue to implement an effective plan of retaliation. Fourth, we must seek to understand the underlying sources of frustration and hatred that motivate terrorists. And, finally, we must work to reduce the excessive publicity given to acts of terrorism without also reducing the information disseminated to citizens who seek to protect themselves from harm.

It has been more than two years since Columbine, and much of the hysteria, hypersensitivity, and hyperbolic rhetoric has subsided. By calmly examining the scary phenomenon of school violence, we have begun to understand the frustration and anger experienced by young misfits who are routinely picked on by their classmates. In response, we have developed effective antibullying strategies that will have large payoffs in terms of improving the student culture and reducing violence.

As President Bush has suggested, when the dust and ashes settle in New York City and the Pentagon, there is much work for us to do as a nation. Not only do we need to find and obliterate the terrorist organizations that have encouraged and supported the recent attacks, but we also need to punish the governments giving them sanctuary. Not only do we need to repair the crumbled structures of lower Manhattan and Washington, but we also need to repair America's image as the benevolent leader of the free world.

Hopefully, we will be so effective in counteracting the attacks on America that their aftermath will parallel the course following the Columbine massacre: Within a few months, Americans were able to move beyond the issue of school murder. Everyday life in schools around the country resumed an unexpected level of normalcy.

Admittedly, the scale of carnage is profoundly larger in the recent terrorist strikes, and it might take longer to recover, depending especially on the effectiveness of our war in Afghanistan. Moreover, we still do not know whether additional large-scale acts of terror will follow. The string of copycat attacks on our schools after Columbine certainly kept our attention over a lengthy stretch of time. An escalation of terrorism would do the same.

Whatever the outcome, the impact of the recent terrorist acts should not, by itself, change the America we know and love - that is, not unless we let it. If we allow a drastic and permanent curtailment of our civil liberties and become a more repressive society, then the terrorists will have won.

Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology and James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice, both at Northeastern University.

This story ran on page C2 of the Boston Globe on 11/4/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.