In the course of researching my next novel, I waited for Joseph A. Lieberman’s School Shootings to return to the county library. (God help the poor bastard at Homeland Security charged with cross-indexing my library records—lord only knows what he thinks I’m up to.) And before you ask, no, tonight’s author is not that Joe Lieberman. A journalist and twenty-two year veteran teacher from Boston, this Lieberman spent ten years as a “photojournalist, lecturer and author” in Asia before reentering our Empire in 1999. With Columbine a fresh national trauma, Lieberman set about researching the causes and consequences of such horrific events. His book (originally titled The Shooting Game in its first edition, 2006) is a monumental consequence in itself, a bridge between the sensationalist, bullshit True Crime of an Ann Rule (whom Lieberman quotes) or Charles Patrick Ewing (ditto) and the more-scholarly examinations of this topic, which we’ll examine next time.
Like Ewing, Lieberman provides over three hundred pages of exhaustive, almost exploitative, summaries of real life rampage school shooting events, interspersed with other crimes, such as the more-familiar workplace rampages, which Lieberman attempts to link to the main subject…successfully, for the most part. Throughout, Lieberman charts the lines of correspondence and coincidence you’re bound to find if you stare at any phenomenon long and hard enough. Many an H.P. Lovecraft story revolves around a scholar driven mad by solitary researches into the Abysmal Darkness of subjects just like this. In a modern twist, Lieberman’s own teenage daughter’s school became the site of a gun scare in 2007. No fatalities; the kid went to jail, where he belongs, and the principal even credited Lieberman’s book with helping prevent anything worse from happening.
Lieberman is modest enough to save this story for an epilogue. The bulk of the book revolves around the pathetically tragic story of Kip Kinkel, who killed two and wounded twenty-five on May 21, 1998. Neither the first nor the most infamous soldier in what Lieberman calls “the equivalent of small, personal civil wars fought by a scattering of individuals against their own families, communities and peers,” Kip provides an interesting intersection of banality and insanity. A spree killer, he methodically planned his assault on Thurston High in Springfield, Oregon. Hating society, he killed his parents the day before his rampage, apparently to spare them the social pariahhood suffered by parents of school shooters from Alaska to Arkansas. A nice, normal-seeming boy (when he wasn’t throwing temper tantrums or rocks at cars), Kip reportedly heard voices since the sixth grade. They urged him to kill and constantly reminded him of his status as a piece of human shit, unfit to live, too cowardly to die. He had to kill, in order to be killed. After being tackled by his fellow students (and beaten in the process—photos of his puffy, vacant face, taken the day of the rampage and included half way through the book in true True Crime Book fashion, make this clear) Kip begged to die by their hands. During questioning he pulled a knife on two Springfield police officers and begged for the same. No one obliged, and Kip remains in Salem to this day, waiting for a new trial to come through on appeal.
From Kip, our humble author spirals outward, casting a net wide enough to embrace a seemingly endless stream of incidents, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 Austin, Texas turkey shoot, to Seung-hui Cho’s massacre at Virginia Tech, last year. The gang is, literally, all here, and no one could as for a more exhaustive survey of this topic. All the familiar villains make their appearance, along with plenty of not-so-familiar madman-maniacs from late twentieth century history. Once again we (by which I mean I) meet Brenda Ann Spencer, who opened fire on the elementary school across the street from her house in 1979 because, “I just don’t like Mondays…Nobody likes Mondays.” Once again we see Stephen King’s/Richard Bachman’s Rage blamed for the shootings at Moses Lake, Washington (“Sure beats Algebra class, don’t it?”) and West Paducah, Kentucky. We even meet some of the men who might’ve inspired King to write that book in the first place…like Tony Barbaro, a sort of transitional fossil, who set fire to his school on December 13, 1974, and killed three by sniping at the responding firemen. Or Robert Polin, who shot six people at St. Pius X High School in Ottawa on May 28, 1975. From there we move forward, to the great explosion of 1992—nine incidents in a year when youth violence as a whole spiked higher than a punk’s mohawk—odd Lieberman doesn’t mention that last fact. Odd, too, that there’s no mention of those pesky Los Angeles riots, as if they’re best swept under the rug, like O.J. Simpson.
While its long on evidence and short on conclusions (like most pop-criminology), School Shootings does deliver the proscriptive goods throughout, and Lieberman concludes by advocating the same kind of paranoid lock-down strategies American scholars have seen so much of these last ten years. Explicitly comparing school shooters to Islamic terrorists, Lieberman goes on to suggest school should suffer the same security treatment enjoyed by airports across the country, and the world. Lieberman explicitly rejects any charges of sensationalism (don’t they always?), and he does not restrict his criticism to video games, or the mega-corporations that manufacture them (though he gives credence to that wonderful fantasy-syndrome, video game addiction, inadvertently aiding the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-complex—but then, nobody’s perfect). NRA activists, willfully-blind parents, oblivious school administrators (like the Principal of Columbine High, who denied the existence of any jock-worshiping culture at his school, thank you) and kids who know and do not tell--all get theirs in turn. Lieberman is enough of a journalist to editorialize without turning the book into a polemic, and enough of a writer to cover some of the ugliest topics in American history with sprightly, sparkling prose that commands you read on, even as you’re sickened by “the horror…the horror…”
Indeed—Lieberman advises us not to turn away from the monsters in our midst, while simultaneously remaining suspicious of everyone. And Lieberman does mean everyone. The enemy is very much among us, in a fundamental, Body Snatchers sense. He looks just like us; they’re here already; you’re next, and so we must monitor our children, force them to treat such incidents seriously (as the sign at Sea-Tac said, “It’s No Joke!”), and report them to the proper authorities. The policeman is, after all, your friend, and we are all in this together, part of the homogeneous block of wonderful that is the United States of America, glory be, praise God, world without end, amen. There’s a palpable, fire-eating sense that “we must safeguard our children” running through this book, and I’m sure all the right parents are, even now, in the process of implementing its recommendations.
I pity the children who go to those schools, much as Lieberman does. Echoing Danny Ladonne (creator of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, who’s documentary, Playing Columbine, I’ll be requesting for my birthday), Lieberman shares with us an email from a former Columbine High student who, two years ago now, wrote the current principal to let him (and us) know that not a damn thing’s changed in ten years. Another shooting, according to this anonymous source, could very well happen at Columbine…and at any time.
And if that isn’t enough fearmongering for one night, brothers and sisters, you should seek professional help. You, like this country, may have a fear addiction. So far, there is no cure.
Leaving aside questions of liberty (which students obviously have to sacrifice in the name of safety) is the American airport really an institution worthy of emulation? Study after study’s concluded that, for all TSA’s posturing and paranoia, airports are no safer today than they were in the 1970s, when you could still show up five minutes before your flight departed with no carry-on luggage, pay for a one-way ticket to the Dubai with cash, and joke your way into the stewardesses’ pants by asking her for a pat-down search. To find your gun. Not the one that’s for shooting; the one that’s for fun.
Schools, for the vast majority of their inmates, are no fun, and as Michael Moore reminded us in Bowling for Columbine, things went from bad to worse in the wake of that fateful April morn. One could just as easily argue that airport-style (I almost wrote “Soviet style”) security measures have only made the problem worse, as the frequency of rampage incidents has remained steady, while body counts have increased, indicating an increasing sophistication on the part of the shooters. Seung-hui Cho made a point of chaining the doors shut before he opened fire at Virginia Tech. The lesser known, post-Columbine, post-9/11 spate of shooters almost to a man (for, despite a chapter titled “The Female of the Species,” women are all-but invisible in this universe of shooters) reference “sainted” Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, underlining Roger Ebert’s contention that sensationalist media portrayals of these events do more long-term damage than the events themselves. And while I disagree with Lieberman’s conclusions he and I do agree on two important things: these events are not predictable, and they’re not about to stop any time soon.
In the meantime, Mr. Lieberman’s book remains a good one-stop-shop for the discriminating researcher into these incidents. One paradoxically hopes, even as one “enjoys” the book for its merits, that a new edition will prove unnecessary, and that author Lieberman might be permitted to move on to greener pastures. Doubtful, but you never know. Hope does spring eternal.