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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Another school shooting: Let the post mortem begin

Almost as soon as the news of the Minnesota school shooting that left 10 people dead - including the 17-year-old alleged gunman - the search was on to find a reason for the worst school shooting since the 1999 incident at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

It didn't take long for the media to discover that Jeff Weise, the troubled Native American teen who killed his grandfather and his grandfather's companion before taking three guns to the school and proceeding to kill five classmates, a teacher and a security guard before turning the gun on himself. Weise, it was reported, had a history of posting messages on a neo-Nazi message board.

On the Libertarian National Socialist Green party message board, Weise vented frustration about inter-racial dating and railed against the rap/"gansta"/African-American culture. "Where I live less than 1% of all the people on the Reservation can speak their own language, and among the youth wanting to be black has run ramped. We have kids my age killing each other over things as simple as a fight, and it's because of the rap influence. Wannabe-gangsters everywhere, I can't go 5 feet without hearing someone blasting some rap song over their speakers," according to one of his postings reported in The Guardian.

So there it is. The kid was a neo-Nazi. That explains it all. Case closed.

Unfortunately, for many who seek to understand what motivates a teenager to walk into a school and open fire on classmates and teachers, the search for a reason stops there. It gives them something tangible to blame.

Few groups are as universally reviled as the Nazis and their modern counterparts who get on the internet to give lip service - or is it 'keyboard service'? - to Hitler and his "final solution." If we can blame some neo-Nazi hate group, we can absolve ourselves of blame. No one has to consider the sense of alienation many high school students feel. No one has to question the culture of guns and violence so prevalent in the U.S. No one will feel the need to look at the despair on reservations where Native Americans were sent to live after their near-genocide at the hands of the American government. No one has to figure poverty or a broken home into the equation.

We don't have to confront any of those issues now that we can blame it on the neo-Nazis. And because we can blame the neo-Nazis, we don't have to look at ourselves, because such fringe groups are far, far removed from "people like us."

And, hey, if the neo-Nazi label doesn't hold up, we can find some other source to blame. Weise signed his message board posts "Todesengel," which means "angel of death." If we can't blame that particular reference on the Nazis (Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician at Auschwitz, was given that nickname for his sadistic medical "experiments" on Jewish concentration camp inmates) then we can blame rock music. The thrash metal band, Slayer, recorded a song titled "Angel of Death."

As much as we want some sort of instant answer for why school shootings happen, there often isn't any way to explain such tragedies. Rushing to such quick post mortems of incidents like Columbine and now the shootings at Red Lake may make us sleep better at night knowing that the shooters were social outcasts or neo-Nazis, and thus totally unlike anyone in our own little worlds. But there is a danger in jumping to such quick explanations.

Back in 1988, not long after I had moved to Kansas City, the capture of Bob Berdella, the notorious serial killer who tortured and killed young men at his home only about a dozen blocks from where I was living at the time, broke in the national news. He was caught when one of his victims escaped wearing nothing but bruises and a dog collar. The young man told a horrendous tale of torture and rape. Polaroid photos found at the scene and a "torture log" kept by Berdella corroborated the story.

As Kansas City struggled to come to terms with something so macabre happening in its midst, other items found by police at Berdella's home became the focus of speculation. A business card of Berdella's featuring a dragon became a link to Satanism and black magic. The fact that few remains of his victims were uncovered when Berdella's backyard was dug up led to speculation that he cannibalized them or dismembered the corpses and fed them to his dogs. The sadistic element of the murders fueled rumors of a ritualistic cult prowling the city.

None of the speculations were true. But they served one very important purpose: they placed the responsibility for such acts as far away from "normal" society as possible. As long as the killer is a fiendish Satanic cannibal, we share nothing in common with him. As long as the kid who walks into a school and opens fires is a neo-Nazi, we share nothing in common with him either. The end result of such blame-placing is that society is safe. It's things beyond the fringe of acceptable, normal society that lead to serial killers who torture their victims and high school students who methodically shoot their classmates.

Perhaps it's human nature to want to distance ourselves from acts of cruelty and savagery. We don't want to stare into a killer's eyes and see our own reflection staring back at us. It's comforting to believe that a thick, high wall separates us from the Bob Berdellas and the Jeff Weises of the world.

But if we don't learn to see the common threads that connect even the most inhumane to humankind we will forever be asking "How could this happen?" the next time there's a school shooting. And the next. And the next. And the next.