Could have been anyone

The Columbine killers, a new book says, weren’t twisted little psychopaths who intended to kill dozens. They were one twisted little psychopath and his pathetic sidekick, and they hoped to kill hundreds. But otherwise they were regular kids. USA Today reports this as if it’s news, though the article is strikingly similar to Slate‘s breakdown in 2004.

The point of “addressing the myths of Columbine,” I guess, is to conclude that it can happen, as Dylan Klebold’s father intimated, to anyone. Your kid could be a closet psychopath. Mine could be his erratic, depressed follower. I suppose that can happen to anyone, just as any of us could be killed in a car accident.

There’s little left to say about evil, in a secularized culture with a Christianesque patina, once the tired whipping boys of culture and video games and bullying are laid aside. They weren’t gamers? Weren’t bullied? Weren’t molested or obsessed or wrongly medicated? Well then. Could have happened to anyone.

Pagans centuries ago used to attribute catastrophes and miracles to the gods. We have no gods, and only a shadow of God, and hence no demons. Recently Barna reported that a wide swath of self-reported Christians believe neither in the presence of the Holy Spirit nor of Satan. These beings have been demoted, even in American Christendom, to symbols. Just like the Eucharist, come to think of it. We would do well to remember Flannery O’Connor’s remark about that.

I think perhaps the pagans were wiser. Having no knowledge of I AM, they still had a sense of things moving in the world that lies behind the world of sight. Peering out from their smoky fires into the gathered night, they imagined they could see spirits flitting through the trees. We squint beneath our fluorescent lights at the dissected corpse of a tragedy, and can see only DNA and synapses. Nature’s binary code arrays in most children to NORMAL, but tragically in some it twists to ABNORMAL. Why would two young men dream of slaughtering hundreds? A pin fell out. Could have happened to anyone.

God knows it could. This is why we pray over our children, because even after our lectures and the quiet talks and the good books and the protection from toxic culture, we know pins fall out. We believe as well that there’s a kingdom of darkness whose minions would love nothing more than to pull those pins, to see more confused children become, in their rage and hopelessness, monsters. We pray — how we pray — because it can happen to anyone. But not, God willing, to these little ones. Not on my watch. Not on yours.

Yet we have no language, any more, for saying such things in the national conversation. We conclude the Klebolds and Harrises were good parents because they spent time with their children and sought help for their disturbed psyches, or we assume they are culpable to the point of legal liability because their children were depraved. We none of us can ask whether these parents labored as best they could to bring their children to a knowledge of the Living God, because polite, educated people don’t talk that way.

And more, none of us are empowered — thank God — to judge the answer. But perhaps more of us could recognize that raising a child well is inseparable from showing him as best we can what it means to fall on one’s knees and cry out to the God who loves children. Precisely because it can happen to anyone.


  1. C L

    Well said, Tony. Let us as parents remove the millstone from around our necks and bring our children a cup of cold water. Let us view our children as what they are; our great and ultimate responsibilities, the first and most important place we are to show good stewardship. Let us count our quiver full as a blessing and not so easily and carelessly string them up and shoot them into the world out there.
    It has been said, that children are resiliant, but first, and foremost, they are teachable, they are sponges, and they soak up what and to whom we expose them to. They can idolize pro wrestlers and power rangers… or they can fall down before “Christ Himself, our King and our God” and follow hard after the Saints who have preserved this great deposit of faith.
    Thanks for your well though out commentary, very moving and thought-provoking!

  2. Marc V

    Ditto the thanks. I continue to be amazed by a baby’s ability to love and to belly-laugh. Babies are selfish creatures, and how they break through to learn how to love has to be more than just a survival trait. A God who is love has given us this ability to love others, as we are wonderfully reminded in the Easter season.

    Yet we also know of the dark side in our heart, the source of selfishness (and sin) that can justify anything we want. I am following the story of the 8 y.o. girl murdered in California, and something just does not add up. The accused killer is a woman who has a 5 y.o. daughter of her own, teaches Sunday school and comes from a Christian family. A recent update came out that the girl was allegedly raped before being killed, stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into a pond.

    What kind of evil is that? Does that same type of evil lurk in my heart? God help us all. One of my biggest tasks as a dad is to help my children get past their selfishness in order to serve others. I can talk the talk but am I walking the walk effectively as an example for them? A heart that is directed towards service, particularly serving the Lord, has less of a chance to fall into the Columbine chasm of despair.

  3. Jonny

    At some point, we just can’t control our children’s choices, can we? Makes me feel the weight of parenthood even more– how crucial it is to strive our hardest to live holy lives as examples for them, to treat them with love, compassion, and understanding, and to pray for them all of their lives. Your thoughts remind me to add the following, specifically for my children, to my rule of prayer:

    “O Merciful Lord Jesus Christ! To Thee I entrust our children, which Thou gave to us. I ask Thee, Lord, save them in the ways which only Thou knowest. Keep them from vices, evil, pride and may nothing touch their souls that is repugnant to Thee. But give them faith, hope of salvation, and love, that they be chosen vessels of the Holy Spirit, and may the paths of their lives be holy and pure before Thee.

    Lord, teach them to pray to Thee, so that their prayer may be a support, a joy, in grief and comfort in their lives. May Thy Angels protect them always! May our children be sensitive to the grief of their close ones and may they fulfill Your commandment of love. And, if they sin, permit them, O Lord, to bring unto Thee repentance, and do Thou in Thine immeasurable mercy forgive them. When their earthly life ends, take them to Thy Heavenly Abode, to which they may also lead others.

    By the prayers of Our Most Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary and of all Thy Saints, have mercy on us and save us.”

  4. Ed

    Thanks for that Tony. The same blindness to the forces of Satan exists in most churches and Christian households. Tragedy happens and the response is “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s God’s will and sometimes we don’t understand His ways”. God uses tragedy for His purposes, but I believe it’s MOST often Satan that initiates it.

  5. Kit

    Thanks, Tony. This has given me much food for thought.
    I’m sorry to be so illiterate, but would you mind giving the Flannery O’Connor reference about the Eucharist? Thanks ever so much.

  6. Beth

    One of the most chilling statements I ever heard was in the summing up of a prosecuter in a school shooting case — she said, and I have never been able to forget it — “there is just something in some people that makes them evil.”

    That way lies madness — “some” people? Only “some” people? And where then, if we believe this lie, do we draw the line to know *which* people? Is rudeness evil? Is slapping someone evil? Is gossip evil? Is killing another evil person evil? Or is it only something as obviously horrific as murdering many innocents that is evil? And to what extremes might then we, the rest of us who do not have it in us,go to eliminate this evil that is in “some” people?

    Yes, it *can* happen to any of us, because *each* of us was born with evil in us. And we can only do our best, on our knees before God, to offer our children knowledge of and desire for the way of righteousness. May He grant mercy to us all.

  7. Michael

    What is it about America that makes it one of the most religious countries on earth, and yet one of the most violent?

  8. Tel

    Yes, it can happen to anyone. There’s nothing that prevents anyone, child or adult, from doing exactly the same thing as the Columbine killers. Nothing, that is, except their own choice. The choice may be more or less free: a person who is not aware that his choice is evil (or even that he really has a choice) isn’t as free as a person who is aware. But if people are free to become saints, they are free to become monsters too.

    I don’t think that the existence of that kind of monstrous evil means we were born evil, any more than the existence of incredible good means that we were born good. I think we were born ignorant, with the possibility of the whole spectrum of good and evil available to us. Once we become aware of the difference between good and evil, we start to choose, and are responsible for those choices. As we learn more, our choice becomes freer and our responsibility becomes greater.

  9. Winston Smith

    Well, Christianity isn’t the only alternative to a mechanistic view of humans. What I take to the more-or-less standard view among folks today who take some kind of serious interest in ideas is that humans are ordinarily at least to some extent free and responsible for their actions, and that actions like e.g. murder are genuinely and tragically wrong. The denial of this is still a minority view, I’d say.

    There’s a prominent theory (or cluster of theories) about man and the world that worries me, and I guess it’s what’s worrying you–that we’re just robots, that everything we do (or “do”) is just a result of biological, psychological or social causes, and that, hence, we’re never responsible. So incapable of either good *or* evil–but since right and wrong are either fictions or “social constructs”, it doesn’t matter anyway…

    But that view gets it wrong (or we hope it does) not because there aren’t any gods in it. And adding one or more to the picture won’t help. A god–or the God–hasn’t got anything necessarily to do with moral rightness or responsibility…unless he makes it up…in which case, again, it’s a fiction…so no help there.

    The response to the bad theory in question involves reminding people that some acts are genuinely wrong, and that sometimes we’re genuinely responsible for what we do.

    With all due respect, nothing about the putatively living God is really that important here. I don’t have a huge problem with that conjecture as long as it doesn’t get out of hand–but it has a tendency to.

    Moral skepticism, nihilism and relativism are popular theories today in large part as a reaction to Christianity’s misplaced moralizing. If you keep stomping around insisting that e.g. sex is evil when anyone can see that it isn’t, eventually you give evil a bad name (as it were). People come to realize your insistence that sex is largely morally wrong is absurd, and then they come to wonder whether *all* claims about moral wrongnes are absurd.

  10. Christian

    Oh yes! Making sense of tragedies like Columbine would be much easier if we could rely on the explanation of an all knowing, all loving, all powerful God who could have, at any time, stepped with with His awesome power to stop the demon or crazy people or…

    Wait, what were we talking about?

  11. Paul S

    Wait, unpack this for me a little … Columbine “happened” because we have an insufficient concept of Evil?

    I guess by this thinking, a theistic Manichean worldview like, oh let’s say Wahhabist Islam, would make Afghanistan one of the LEAST randomly violent places on Earth. And a nontheistic nondualist worldview like, oh let’s say Therevada Buddhism, would make Bhutan of the MOST randomly violent places on Earth. Just as a thought experiment.

    Or maybe we’re just talking about Christian nations. So Eeeeevil school shootings are like zillions of times more common in lazily Christian places like Belgium, than in frenetically faithful places like America.

    Am I understanding your thesis correctly?

  12. Carrington Ward

    Maybe they were closet psychopaths… or maybe temporary psychopathology and their access to guns came into unfortunate coincidence.

    It has struck me that the saying “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” is remarkably innocent of the idea of original sin. The problem with wide availability of guns is that it provides us poor sinners with terrible opportunities for damnation.

  13. Tony


    It wasn’t ignorance on your part so much as literary insider snootiness on my part. With the allusion to O’Connor I was referring to a time when she was at a dinner party where Mary Gordon, I believe it was, went on about how the eucharist is a lovely “symbol.” Flannery, ordinarily reserved among the New York socialite set, piped up, “Well if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it!”

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