The Columbine Massacre and American Violence
by Howard Smead

"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer."
-- D.H. Lawrence
Beginning with the urban drug wars and the Rodney King riot all the way up the spectacular lynchings in Texas and Wyoming, and now the mass murder/terrorist strike by teenagers in their own high school, the 90s is a decade made numb by civil disorder.

In between came the incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, involving dubious law enforcement assaults on separatists, which led to the terrorist bombing at Oklahoma City — the single worst terrorist act in American history. Since then, law enforcement agencies have thwarted twenty-four major domestic terrorist attacks.  Shootings and bombings at abortion clinics, the slaying of abortion providers by right-wing fanatics and racial disturbances, some of which involved flagrant police brutality, added to the mix. Meanwhile, mass murders and serial killings grew to such a degree they became a part of popular culture, inspiring everything from an Oscar–winning motion picture to trading cards.

Violence is our mother's milk. It has given us an incredible breadth of freedom and personal liberty. But it is also our demon rum that threatens the fabric of that freedom and liberty.

The epidemic of teenage killings in our cities, black church burnings and abortion clininc violence, Neo-nazi skinheads and white Separatists, home-grown terrorism, and the rise of hate crimes have brought face-to-face with an aspect of our culture most generations have found too unpleasant to contemplate. Not until children began dying in the streets in unprecedented numbers and disgruntled white males begin forming paramilitary organizations did a general concern about violence begin to re-appear.

When you consider our high crime rates in conjunction with events such as Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the shoot-out in Waco, Texas, the Rodney King beating and riot, the Crown Heights, NY, riot and the lynchings in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, NY, in 1986 and 89, it's difficult to disagree with the Indianapolis prosecutor who concluded, "Violence is becoming a way of life."

Still, kids-as-shooters brings a re-newed strain of violence to the tumultuous American landscape.

Prior to the three-year blood-spree of school shootings, enough corpses were already littering the inner city landscape to convince us that we had waded knee-deep into a crisis of violence. In spite of declining crime rates, the lonesome sidewalk chalk lines that blight our cities joined the dust-covered bodies twisted in the wreckage of the Murrah building as frightful symbols of societal dysfunction. They are the latest incarnation of a disturbing fact of life.

Teenage murders may be unprecedented, but violence is not. The past has followed us right up to today. Several national magazines recently ran alarming stories about the epidemic of criminal and group violence. Rolling Stone in "A Pistol-Whipped Nation" and both Time and Newsweek ran alarming cover stories about the "virtual epidemic of youth violence." Newsweek's "Teen Violence: Wild in the Streets," decried the number of young people carrying guns, using them, being shot, and being killed. Accompanying all this was a casual if not blase attitude indicating that, as one expert quoted in Time put it, "Violence is hip right now."

Several weeks later, Time was back again, in wake of President Clinton's crime bill and the murder of Michael Jordan's father, with another cover story, "America the Violent: Crime is spreading and patience is running out." The writers argued America was in a crime wave characterized by wild violence that was moving into the suburbs, into hospitals, malls, and McDonald's. According to UCLA criminologist James Q. Wilson, our cyclical rise in crime and violence will get worse as baby boomer babies get older. But more important, "as we have had an artistic and economic explosion (since the 60's), we have had a crime explosion." Which Mr. Wilson attributes in part to "the dramatic expansion in personal freedom and personal mobility, individual rights, the reorienting of culture around individuals."

This analysis does nothing to explain similar covers about the Oklahoma City Bombing. Newsweek May 1, 1995 showed a fire fighter holding the bloody body of baby. A week later the magazine cried, "The Plot" over the blurred image of Tim McVeigh. Time labled his visage, "The Face of Terror" on its cover. Poverty has nothing to do with this. Neither do the "excesses" of the 60s. Yet it is consistent with our history.

Running for president in 1968 Richard Nixon said, "We cannot explain away crime in this country by charging it off to poverty — and we would not rid ourselves of the crime problem even if we succeeded overnight in lifting everybody above the poverty level. The role of poverty as a cause of the crime upsurge in America has been grossly exaggerated." Like Wilson, he tried to blame it on the permissive ways of the Sixties. He succeeded, but the era ended and violence didn't. After over a decade of strict sentencing guidelines, harsher penalties, and the restoration of the death penalty, the problem in many areas has only grown worse.

If it isn't either permissiveness or poverty, what is it? Political extremism? Indebtedness? Cultural discord? Social discontent? Guns? It's all of these things — and a lot more. It is nothing less than the weight of our past coming down on us.

Consider the following:

Tabula Rasa

For the people who settled here, the New World was more than a virgin land offering the promise of a better life. From an institutional standpoint, the New World was a tabula rasa, ready to be molded any way the European colonists and their African slaves cared to. In fact, the unformed nature of the New World — the absence of governmental and institutional impediments — actually encouraged it. Only its vastness and the anger of the native people offered any hindrance. The Indians for the most part were swept aside violently.

Colonists such as the Irish and Scots from various border lands in Great Britain brought violent aspects of their culture with them, and see them take root and spread westward. In the absence of pre-existing governmental infrastructure and effective law enforcement meant that frontiersmen often felt compelled to take matters into their own hands. No one was present to prevent extra-legal action that settlers believed necessary for their survival.

Rugged Individualism

Because of their isolation in the wildernesses of North America, settlers developed a fierce tradition of what Theodore Roosevelt later termed rugged individualism. A failed vigilante himself, TR celebrated vigilantism precisely because it glorified our notions of men struggling against adversity. What historian Sheldon Hackney wrote about violence on the southern frontier was typical of violence anywhere in America. "Violence was an integral part of the romantic, hedonistic, hell-of-fellow personality created by the absence of external restraint that is characteristic of a frontier." This century, Prohibition and the Great Depression produced violent folk heroes that recalled the Old West (1865-1890). These figures, most notably Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonny and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd, helped continue the legacy of violent self-assertion.


By necessity Americans were heavily armed. Their lives often depended upon their skills with the long gun. Either for procuring food, defending the family or community, firearms formed a vital link in the chain of being. Unlike most other European colonists, the British in North America eventually used these arms to secure their liberty. Settlers were heavily armed well before the Revolution and remained so afterwards, which established an often overlooked link between our liberty and independence as individuals and as a nation, and the ownership of firearms.

Slavery and Racial Segregation

Slavery greatly exacerbated our proclivities for violence. Slave societies have a low threshold of violence for two reasons: the need to hold the slaves in bondage — and protection from them when they resist. Millions of restive slaves who were in continual rebellion in one way or another had to be controlled. For that reason, a fearful white society encouraged slave owners to operate outside the law. As President Ulysses S. Grant put it in his dry, understated way, "Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed." Thus, at the time other countries like Canada and Mexico were experiencing less social violence, areas of this country saw more.

Segregation replaced slavery. Whites used violence to keep blacks "in their place" in all aspects of race relations. The three-day Chicago riot during the Red Summer of 1919, to cite just one of thousands of examples, broke out when a black child swam onto the white portion of a segregated beach and was stoned to death by outraged whites. Twenty-four black homes were bombed: twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites died.

In 1900 South Carolina Senator Pitchfork Ben Tillman said this from the floor of the United Sates Senate: "It was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from negro rule and carpetbag rule." Referring to the Hamburg Massacre in Edgefield County, South Carolina, in 1876, he added, "the purpose of our visit was to strike terror, and the next morning when the negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect ... The state of South Carolina has disenfranchised all of the colored race that it could under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. We have done our level best, we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them, and we would have done it if we could, we took the government away. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it."

In Tillman's state using violence to achieve political ends — in this case re-establishing white supremacy — became known as the Edgefield Policy. A contemporary of his, an ex-Confederate General named M.W. Gary, described it this way: "Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine, how he may best accomplish it ... never threaten a man individually, [for] if he deserves to be threatened, the necessities of the time require that he should die."

Blunted efforts to share in America's considerable prosperity has led at times to a revolution of rising expectations, as in the riots of the Long Hot Summers and more recently in the Rodney King Riot, which were more racial insurrections than typical race riots. Ironically, because slavery and segregation kept blacks outside the law, they also adopted the white southern tradition of defending one's honor through violent means. Like dueling gentlemen and eye-gouging white trash, black men began settling their own disputes with violence. It should come as no surprise that until World War II the South had the highest homicide rate in the nation. Or, as one wag mused, there were more murders in the South, "because more people needed killing."

Honor through Violence

Defending one's honor with violence was largely but certainly not exclusively a Southern tradition. Southern men were expected to settle their disputes themselves. The South followed a code of honor. "Northern culture, for its part,” as historian Edward Ayers noted, “celebrated 'dignity;' men were expected to remain deaf to the same insults that Southerners must resent." Regardless, the cult of honor through violent self-assertion was pervasive. Whether they were back-country Irish peasants or upcountry gentlemen — or Wild West gunslingers — many Americans eschewed the courts in favor of personal action. Organized crime from the Irish and Jewish immigrants and the Sicilian Mafia to the Crips and the Bloods mimicked these methods. All have embraced a slogan from the American Revolution — Don't Tread on Me.

Somewhere between backcountry feuds and the urban gang wars lies a defining aspect of the American character. It's part of us as surely as love of individual liberty and parochialism. It’s the third rail that helps explain why D. H. Lawrence wrote, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer." He might also have added fearful of change, exceedingly territorial, and, especially during hard economic times, resentful of minorities, who become the scapegoats for mainstream discomfort. Psychobabblers call it frustration-aggression.  Whatever it’s called, it has led to lynchings, riots and whitecappings, extremism and the Columbine Massacre.

Armed Militias

Most people consider the militia movements to be a new phenomenon. Our history provides explicit context and precedent for this wave of spontaneous local uprisings: vigilantism. Regardless, all vigilante movements were extralegal and therefore operated outside the law despite local support and the widespread popularity of vigilantism throughout history. It remains an important  American form of collective violent repsonse.

Distinctly American, vigilantism first appeared along the South Carolina frontier in the 1760's and spread across the country as locals lynched or whitecapped (drove away) criminals, ne'r do-wells, and other individuals or groups that didn't conform to that society's vision of itself. The first urban vigilante group appeared in San Francisco in 1856, whose Committee of Vigilance swelled to several thousand members and waged a bloody fight against immigrant influence in city politics. Vigilante movements were local and regional, urban or  rural. They developed in response to local concerns. Those concerns generally were law and order, nativism and racism.

Historian Richard Maxwell Brown has recorded 236 separate vigilante movements, and that would not include quasi-vigilantes such as the Guardian Angels, nor the paramilitary militia movements, survivalists and white supremacists. When armed citizens organized and started taking the law in their own hands, and it began early, violence truly became, in H. Rap Brown's famous maxim, "as American as cherry pie."

In various areas of the country, usually the less well developed or backcountry areas, citizens frequently banded together to hold onto what they  feared they were losing. All vigilante movements shared a basic common nature but they differed in their details — and enemies. Thus, one vigilante movement could be racist while another might be inter-racial. It  depended upon the perceived local problem. Because they enjoyed widespread local support and drew members from all levels of local society they all acted with impunity. Frequently they got away with murder. They may be have been misguided patriots, but they weren't crazies or lunatics. Neither are their militia offspring.
We Americans are an extraordinarily violent people who possess the most violent history of any western nation. We've always been that way, and we show no signs of changing. What has been changing is the nature of the violence, and who's doing it. The fact that young, alienated blacks and young to middle-aged white men commit a sizable chunk of it (and in doing so continue the historical thread of violent solutions) is an inevitable result of our history. Our tradition of rugged individualism, the cult of honor, especially but not exclusively in the South, the untamed frontier, and race and ethnicity are its central features.

Violence has become part of our character, threatening at time to subvert it. The reasons for the militia movements, the vehement insistence upon the right to own guns — and those chalky outlines — lie squarely in a past that has turned violent self-assertion into a determinant of social status and aggression into a sign of character. Not all Americans are violent, of course. In fact, most aren't violent at all. And not all violent individuals or groups act that way all the time. But enough people have spilled other peoples' blood enough of the time and in enough regions to create a national heritage of continual bloodshed.