Understanding Mass Killings Since Columbine

Mass killings have occupied the media’s attention since events at Columbine, which took place on April 20, 1999, in the town of Littleton, Colorado. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both students at the school, opened fire just before lunchtime. They would kill 15 people before killing themselves in the library around noon.

We must include this massacre in the particular historical context that has transformed the spreading of information. At the end of the 20th century, local and regional news bulletins were replaced by rolling news. The Columbine killings happened almost at the same time as the “breaking news” phenomenon. For one of the first times in history, viewers were able to follow the tragedy live for hours. This might explain why Columbine has so strongly influenced the collective imagination and has found a place in pop culture. But why, 20 years later, after several more deadly mass killings, does Columbine remain a media reference and the starting point to analyze any new tragedy of this kind?

It could be said that the massacre has benefited from a second media life due to the appearance of social network YouTube in 2005, then others like Facebook or Instagram in 2004 and 2006. A lot of media content related to Columbine is found on these sites, allowing the user to recover it, transform it as they please, and then download it onto their channel. From there, this content can be multiplied indefinitely in various ways, creating an endless conversation. Therefore, if internet users can take possession of media content and continuously duplicate it, creating what Nathalie Paton calls “media participation,” it significantly changes the media exposure and the social media effect of a tragic event.

As far as its place in pop culture is concerned, assuming that according to this process the massacre reaches the stage of sustaining itself in the media, it therefore becomes a subculture where individuals make it live forever, and therefore we talk about it more. Also, in order to feed the media beast even more, Harris and Klebold repeatedly mentioned in their diaries all kinds of cinematographic and musical works and video games, which can reach many individuals or groups of individuals. As a result, the media coverage of the event increases, expands to other communities, and becomes even bigger. We can compare it to a storm that feeds itself on winds all along its journey over the Atlantic Ocean and potentially grows.

Whether it’s a school shooting, or a mass killing in a shopping center, a yoga room (Tallahassee, Nov. 2, 2018) or over a crowd at a show in Las Vegas (Oct. 1, 2017), the fact remains that the killer targets a group where individuals more or less form a symbolic “we.” From that exact moment on, he makes his own relationship with society and spreads it through the means he chooses in order to pass it onto posterity, knowing that his message will be read, heard and seen. Here are some examples: Harris and Klebold used blogs, websites and writings; Seung-Hui Cho sent videos to a TV station; T.J. Lane used Facebook; Chris Harper-Mercer used Facebook and 4Chan; Elliot Rodger used YouTube.

In many mass killings, we find that this speech targets the symbolic “we.” Although this can sometimes represent more targeted populations, which could have been the case in the Isla Vista killings (May 23, 2014) − where Elliot Rodger in his last videos specifically addressed a very specific group of young women with whom he had trouble socializing − it is often characterized by the perpetrators of these killings as the “we” who would have succeeded socially. In his video accounts, Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007) expresses this clearly: “You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.”

Although mass murderers mourned their lives, they strongly hope to leave a written or video mark to pass onto posterity. By expressing their existence on the internet and through various media (blogs, social networks), they want, at least, what you could call an obligation of post-mortem feedback. A last wish, often granted by the media, which will broadcast their information and create an ongoing, participatory and above all, timeless, debate.

These killings change and move with society, mutating with it and clinging to society’s cultural products. For Glenn Muschert (2015), mass killings create a cultural scenario by using the form of a spectacle of violence which is broadcast in its totality by the media, and from there, this content is retrieved by internet users and republished for the umpteenth time, broadcast again by media in other forms, as has been explained above.

Twenty years later, the Columbine massacre has sadly left its mark on our collective imagination and is dangerously close to the fantasy of many young people inclined to take action. It continues to be spoken about by changing the way in which we look at this constantly developing phenomenon.

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