Friday night, ABC aired an interview with the mother of one of the murderers from the Columbine High School incident by Diane Sawyer. Admittedly, I was reluctant to watch it. I have a real problem with any publicity that highlights criminals and mass murderers in particular. There is no doubt in my mind that notoriety contributes to the perpetuation of these crimes, for several reasons. I also dislike the melodramatic treatment these issues are given by such shows and the media stars that sacrifice journalism for the sake of celebrity. Having said that, I was encouraged to comment on the program for Blue Lines…so I swallowed hard and tuned in.
I didn’t do so completely flatfooted, because I had substantial experience with the subject matter. Back in the 1990’s, long before “Columbine” became synonymous with school massacre, I was tasked with developing training programs offered by the Huntington Beach Police Department for school personnel in Critical Incident Management. I was assigned to Chief Ron Lowenberg’s Executive Division as the coordinator of a wide variety of administrative and prevention programs. With the growing phenomenon of Workplace Violence, we initiated training curriculums for City personnel addressing prevention and response procedures for such incidents and offered them to local businesses. Violence follows patterns and HBPD was committed to staying ahead of trends when possible. It didn’t take much to convince Chief Lowenberg that schools were just as much, if not more, at risk for mass casualty incidents as adult workplaces. We already had strong ties with the schools through our D.A.R.E. and school liaison programs, so the district officials welcomed the introduction of new training for teachers and administrators.
Despite overwhelming support by most educators, there were some who resisted the proposition, which was soon to become reality, that there were potential killers among their students. Delinquency was one thing, but mass murder? More than anything, there were those who were so fond of their kids that they couldn’t bring themselves to imagine the bloodbaths to come. The idea of helping police officers identify the bodies of the slain in the aftermath of an incident was more than some could handle. Sympathetically, I acknowledged the whole thing was horrible to contemplate, but quite necessary if we were to save lives. That sold them, but denial was a continual challenge…until “Columbine.” One of the few positive consequences of that tragedy was the affirmation of the curriculum we offered; because some teachers intuitively did the things we predicted would save students from being numbered among the victims. It was one horrific way to be proven right.
Since then, school violence has exploded on the national scene and has been the subject of numerous media treatments and “expert” analysis…some for the worse. So I had a certain amount of trepidation over what this latest exposé had to offer. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. I didn’t think 20/20 did a bad job and Sawyer managed to get through it without having one of her notorious weepy breakdowns. They didn’t cover every aspect of school violence, but they did an adequate job of going beyond the interview itself and touched on the clinical analysis of these incidents that has become an industry unto itself. Of course, the question I had…along with many others…was why this mother had submitted to this interview after years of relative silence. And then they mentioned she had written a book. Ah…okay…a book. But she claimed she was donating the proceeds from the sales to causes that worked to prevent similar acts of violence by young people…so, I’ll give her a pass for now. Potential narcissism and profit aside, I settled in to hear what she had to say.
Again, my cynicism was moderated by what appeared to be a sincere, articulate and rational discussion with a woman who has experienced one of the worst nightmares a parent could have endured. She has had years to come to grips with the reality that she raised a murderer and seemed capable of some objective refection. She acknowledged her responsibility and reasonably identified those things that were out of her control. She expressed remorse, sorrow, and sympathy for the victims and their families. Clearly, that is a pain she will suffer for the rest of her life.
To their credit, 20/20 went beyond the interview to explore the psychological attributes of these killers. They brought in an expert in the field who reviewed some of the basic principles that have been recognized in cases of mass casualty incidents, particularly those involving teenagers who rampage on school campuses. It’s a medical discipline that has gone well beyond mere study of psychological depression, personality disorders, and psychosis. They also discussed the influence of violent entertainment and access to firearms without identifying them as sole causes of violence in the schools. Over all, this was one TV show that didn’t try to dummy-down the complexities of the subject into some stupid, simplistic equation for the sake of trying to assuage public fears of the unknown. Fair enough.
There are four ways society has approached this problem: legally, clinically, spiritually and universally (a combination of all aspects). Of course, there are always the political implications. I’d like to set that aside for now, because once something is politicized the discussion diverts away from objectivity. When objectivity is lost, efficiency suffers and the results are more confused, mangled and muddled than they were in the beginning…making true solutions all the more difficult and delayed. Of the four approaches mentioned above, only the universal methodology has any real chance of success, because it incorporates the strengths of the other three. It also minimizes the inevitable eye-rolling skepticism of those singularly focused on only one avenue of analysis. Many of those fixated on the legalities involved view psychology as a bothersome complication. Those dedicated to the clinical see the legal system as limited in scope by statute. And, of course, others immediately dismiss the spiritual as hysterical voodoo cast about by fire-and-brimstone charlatans. As with any prejudice, these attitudes stifle comprehensive analysis and timely progress. I think you can understand why I’m avoiding politics here.
The universal seems to be gaining ground, if last night’s network presentation is any evidence of where we are going. But, still, the spiritual notion of evil was raised and immediately allowed to fade once the clinical representative dismissed it. Too bad, but not surprising in a popular culture that increasingly embraces atheism. Thirty years in police work taught me evil is quite real and the Beast is alive and well in our communities, to one degree or another. But, that idea predictably meets resistance and denial…just like anything that is scary as hell (literally)…just like imagining a school, church or amusement park turned into a slaughterhouse. It’s mostly beyond our control or influence because it’s not tangible for most. But, then again, how tangible are other variables of an equation that turns a child or young adult into a barbaric maniac? Secular society grapples with it all through science and legislation. Good! But, is that all? Every scientific discipline has its limits and there are many who say that each taken to its logical conclusion points to the existence of the Divine. The legal system has proven its flaws and one can argue it’s susceptible to maniacal manipulation. So neither of these is the end-all to our dilemmas. In fact, with rational reason, the legal, the clinical, and the spiritual can compliment each other.
You don’t have to be a theologian to see that the easiest way to fall victim to evil is to deny its existence. That may, in fact, be the devil’s greatest achievement. And it’s not as if Christ didn’t warn us…
(The devil) was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).
The atheist will wave it away. But for the rest of us, why exclude the potential benefits of recognizing how evil can infiltrate our world like water into the cracks between the mortar and building blocks of our existence? There are some things that cannot be explained by purely secular efforts anymore than problems can be solved singularly through prayer.
The problem of violence in our culture cannot be resolved without embracing a multi-faceted approach. Complex problems are not mitigated with simplistic solutions. The root of it holds tight in our tolerance, rationalization, and lame excuses when the way forward gets hard. Why not let God help? Honestly, how could it hurt?
Michael P. Kelly is a retired police sergeant from the Huntington Beach Police Department in southern California, with 30+ years of law enforcement experience.He served in a variety of assignments in uniform, administration, and supervision.He developed expertise in training personnel with an emphasis in defensive tactics, officer survival, and critical incident management.He served several years in media and intergovernmental relations.At the time of his retirement, he was assigned to the department’s Professional Standards Unit (otherwise known as Internal Affairs). Two years before retirement, Mike was diagnosed with cancer.Thanks to the Lord's blessings and a team of good doctors, he survived the ordeal after major surgery and a battery of chemo and radiation treatments. Subsequent to retirement, he taught academy classes at the Golden West Community College Criminal Justice Training Center in Huntington Beach, CA, and worked for the California Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training as a course evaluator.Mike has done volunteer ministry work for his local Catholic parish, as a teacher of adult and school-age formation classes, and as a member of the Pastoral Council. He has also conducted public speaking presentations about his spiritual life as a police officer and cancer survivor. He authored a suspense novel entitled For Sake of the Son, which was published in 2013 and is well received by readers who have responded with five star reviews posted by online retailers.He is working on another project for future publication. Mike resides in southern California where he celebrates a successful family life as a husband, father of two successful sons, and grandfather to two rambunctious boys…all of whom he considers his greatest blessings.