Twenty Years, Little Progress

Well, today is that notorious day. Yes, April 20. Hitler’s birthday (he’d be 130), Weed Day (blaze it?), and the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Since Columbine, we’ve had a number of school shootings, and I don’t think much has really changed. Mental health and its importance to overall health has been given greater due in the media and by medical professionals. I don’t follow the gun control debate,* but I don’t think much has improved there. Video games have gotten more graphic, violent, and all consuming. Social media has made it harder to be a teenager… and teenagers will always be fascinated with death, to some degree.

I was reading in the news about an 18-year-old female named Sol Pais who was obsessed with Columbine, even to the point of having a strange online journal that looks to be straight out of the early Internet days of the 90s and imitating the musical tastes, writing/art style, and nihilism of the Columbine killers. It seemed like she was about to travel to Columbine from Florida to make a bizarre pilgrimage to Columbine and do some kind of damage. But it turned out that the only damage she did was to herself: she committed suicide.

Back when I was 18, I was fascinated by Columbine, mostly because I was roughly the same age as the killers and many of the victims. I liked the same music and had a fascination with darkness that most teenagers end up growing out of. I would skulk around community college wearing my then-boyfriend’s trench coat and his hat (turned around backwards), but I would never have hurt a soul. I think I just wanted to look like a badass, but in reality, I was just a shy, awkward nerd. And I obviously grew out of my fake-badass stage and became a somewhat reasonable adult.

The trouble is that it is difficult to tell which teenagers will grow out of this obsession with death and which will end up committing heinous acts. Nobody foresaw Sol Pais’s destructive tendencies. She was just a quiet kid, intelligent and talented in art. People probably would have thought she was smart enough to know better than to do what she did. I don’t have any good ideas of how to prevent shootings or suicides, and although help is offered and mental illness is not as stigmatized as it was in the past, some kids still will not ask for help or realize that they need help or be recognized as someone who needs help.

I suppose mandatory mental health screenings at school or the doctor’s office would be a good first step, but the person being evaluated could always lie if he wanted to. Maybe it’s just the way the world is. There will never be perfect happiness or peace. No amount of preventive measures can stop a killer whose actions nobody foresaw or a suicidal person who kept everything inside.

*I have never owned a gun and never fired a gun (except a paintball gun, but that doesn’t count). My ignorant thought on guns is that hunting rifles and tiny guns for self-defense are fine, assuming that the purchaser is thoroughly checked out, but the trouble comes when automatic weapons (and their ammo) that are designed solely for killing can be easily obtained. I don’t see the point of anyone other than the military having access to weapons like that, and they all ought to be banned. If a collector wants to have guns, he should only be allowed to obtain guns and not ammo.

The Circle of History

I’m reading To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 by Ian Kershaw, mostly because I am a huge fan of this author’s work and because I used to be obsessed with World War II several years ago. The book is part of the Penguin History of Europe Series, which covers almost all of recorded history (from the city of Troy in ancient Greece until the present). It’s 522 pages with very few footnotes and no endnotes (just a really long bibliography) and a font size that’s not microscopic, so it’s an extremely brief survey of what happened during the two World Wars, the time between them, and a small slice of the recovery period thereafter.

It’s strange to read about European politics in the time before World War II and compare it to American politics today. In a way, it’s the same thing all over again: the ideology of the Right versus the ideology of the Left, the propaganda from both sides, and the regular, hardworking, everyday people wanting no more than the basics of life at a price that they can afford. But the human story goes on in cycles, and history repeats itself whether we are aware of it doing so or not.

We always say that if we were around during World War II, we would have stopped Hitler from destroying the Jews and all the others he deemed unworthy. We always say, with the benefit of hindsight behind us, that we wouldn’t have been as stupid as those Germans who joined the Nazi party or those Italians who supported Fascism or those Russians who supported Communism. We would have seen it coming, unlike those ill-informed citizens of history.

Today it’s different. We’re bombarded with news. We can’t escape it. There are televisions and Internet access everywhere. We have so much information about politics, government, and leadership that we can’t process it all. Most of us can’t effectively sift through all the information to find the bias, and most of us simply can’t be bothered to put forth the effort anyway. We try not to get too involved with politics or with the leadership of our communities because it’s complicated. It’ll just give you a headache and fill you with impotent rage because you can’t truly change anything. No matter which party wins the election in November, we’ll likely still get more of the same thing.

So we put our heads in the sand and go about our lives and fill our ears and eyes with mindless entertainment while world events go on. We become desensitized to terrorist attacks and school shootings and presidential candidate debates because there are just so many of them and new information about them is inescapable and in our faces constantly. Who can make sense of all these world events and do it in an unbiased way? Nobody.

Then someone in the future, one hundred years from now, will look back on our times and say something like, “Those stupid Americans of yesteryear! They shouldn’t have wasted so much time watching all that reality TV. They should have been more aware of what was going on in the world, and all those terrorist attacks could have been prevented.” Or maybe that person in the future won’t say anything because he’ll live in a “brave new world” where history has been obliterated. Who knows? The only thing that stays the same is human nature, so we get what is effectively the same story over and over but with different characters.

Et tu, Brute?

It’s the Ides of March, the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of conspirators. The date is meaningful to me because it makes me think of betrayal as a concept used in movies, books, etc. When Caesar was assassinated, one of his friends, Marcus Junius Brutus, was among those against him. The line, “Et tu, Brute?” comes from Shakespeare and was supposedly Caesar’s last words when he had resigned himself to his fate.

Friends betray friends for a variety of different reasons; not all of them justified. Maybe they’re trying to impress someone else, or get in good with a certain group of people. Maybe they betray you because they weren’t really your friends at all and they were just pretending the entire time.

I think that might be the worst type of betrayal: Someone claims to be your friend. They spend time with you, hang out with you, share memories with you, and bring you into their life. Then they drop you like a ton of bricks, seemingly out of nowhere. Later on, you find out from someone else that your “friend” was never really your friend and in fact, highly disliked you – possibly even hated you. They were only pretending to be your friend so they could have something you had or because being friends with you gave them some kind of advantage.

I’m pretty sure Julius Caesar’s assassination wasn’t really like that at all, but the Ides of March makes me think of betrayers. It makes me think of trusting people in whom we should never have placed our trust in the first place. Betrayal is painful. But forgiveness is the key. Yes, it’s difficult, but it can be achieved with time and with love.

Sic semper tyrannis.