25 years ago .. Remembering the shooting at Columbine

This column was published 25 years ago in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. It’s only gotten worse. And as Emilia has taught me, a whole generation — or is it two by now? — has grow up with the very real fear and present danger that someone might come and shoot up their school.


The massacre at Columbine High School occurred six months before my daughter started high school, and she took to heart the frightening idea that something like that could happen “anywhere.” Personalizing the cliché given voice by so many commentators and public officials, Emilia said, “Newton, Massachusetts is not so different from Littleton, Colorado.”

My daughter was frightened on behalf of friends who were already attending our high school, and she was worried about her own safety, too. She thought that the teachers ought to devise an escape plan, just in case something awful happened. She could not tolerate the idea that it was impossible to safeguard against the contingencies of madmen. She wanted a guarantee, and it was my job to tell her that there are none.

In the copy-cat aftermath that swept the country, there was an empty bomb threat at my daughter’s high school. There were swastikas in the bathroom, and hideous, threatening letters. It was my job to tell her that most human beings do the right thing most of the time. I said things like, “If you don’t believe in the basic decency of humanity, you might as well not get out of bed in the morning.”

But my daughter had been studying the Holocaust in Hebrew school.  Why should she listen to me?

I hated those two murderous boys in Littleton, Colorado. I hated their parents and their teachers, and the principal and the probation officer. I hated the jocks and the cheerleaders, the guidance counselors and the idiots who bought guns and ammunition for 17-year-old kids. I grieved for them, too, but how dare they not see what was going on in their own houses? It poisoned the air, half a continent away, in my house.

I waited for some story that would enable me to understand the cause, which would then permit me to set the danger to one side. I wanted it to be the parents’ fault. Not very nice of me, but maybe that would explain things, something at least. Listening to clips from the funerals on the radio and reading the eulogies in the newspapers unsettled me even more than the lack of explanations.

“She is with God.”

“He is in a better place.”

“I’ll see you in heaven, darling.”

This kind of consolation sounds strange in my Jewish ears. Although some Jews believe that there is a life after death, our funerals offer no guarantees. Jewish eulogies remind us only of what has been lost and can never be replaced.

Of course, when a grandparent dies, full of years and mourned by his generations, we can number the memories and smile through tears. But when a child is taken, there is no minimizing the agony: we howl at the injustice and even hold God accountable. We accept the blow, because we have no other choice, but there is no silver lining in the loss.

The obituaries for the children of Littleton, Colorado were obscenely brief. “He liked to play video games.” “She had just gotten her driver’s license.” Those lives were unredeemed promises, gone to the grave.

The Littleton funerals frightened me no less than the shootings. Why safeguard this life if the afterlife is better? Why limit gun sales if heaven awaits the victims of cruelty, senseless violence, accidents, suicide?  Why set up metal detectors?

Jews answer those questions with a commandment from the Bible: “Choose life.” This life. Here on earth. Temporal and corporal, beautiful and holy, and when children pick up guns, agonizing and raw and wrong.


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