February 22, 2005

The boys who never grew up

I was watching Bowling For Columbine last night, for a while, anyway. I always find the footage of the massacre extremely upsetting - the security camera footage, the teacher on the phone to the police and shouting at the kids to get under the tables. But I find it troubling, too. I say troubling because I've never properly known why. I'm sure it's partly because the shooting started in a library, and libraries are places where things like that are not supposed to happen. Of course the same is true of schools - I can imagine people being shaken by the events at Beslan, say, in a way that I was not - but being a librarian, and being without children, I don't have the same emotional feeling about a school that I do towards a library. I had a problem watching Elephant, for the same reason. The library is the opposite of slaughter. The library is sanctuary.

There was something else, though, and last night I think I may have begun to grasp it. I could, I suppose, imagine why the killers might have wanted to lash out, why they might have wanted to kill the innocent, why they might have considered that the innocent were guilty. We all have horrors locked inside ourselves. We can all see ourselves wreaking vengeance on the world. But what I couldn't see, what I couldn't get my head around, was the appeal of the inevitable ending, since they must have known, clearly did know, that they would be shot down at the end of it, that their bodies would be blasted apart in immense violence and enormous pain.

I can understand the will to give up living, but that's a different thing completely. That involves giving up, letting go, an inability to keep on going any more. It is a state of final disintegration. The one thing above all it lacks is energy. The planning, the violence, the running, the shouting, the noise - these things would be beyond all contemplation. You could not do it, nor want to do it. Thi must have been something else entirely.

Then, as I was thinking about this, as the clips of interviews with the schholchildren were running and all sorts of motives were being offered ("they killed the black kid - they killed him because he was black") I remembered a line from my childhood - a line, come to that, from many people's childhoods.

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

And that might be it. That might be what persuades children to shoot down other children in cold blood, in the certain knowledge that they too will be shot down in the end. Because, in their childish way (and I mean childish, although they were young adults) they were probably not consciously, but with certainty nevertheless, they knew that this was the greatest adventure they could ever have. Not just the the killing, but the being killed. Not just that it was something of greater magnitude than they could, otherwise, ever dream of accomplishing. Not just that it would make them famous in a way that they would never otherwise be. But that to die would be an awfully big adventure.
Which troubles me no less, now it has occurred to me, than I was troubled before. It troubles me to make that connection, to derive something as devastating as mass murder from something no more rare and no more profound than immaturity. It troubles me too, that this might have happened simply because it was the best idea they could think of.


At February 22, 2005 8:17 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At March 07, 2005 2:11 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Re)-read Houseman: suicide defined as mass-murder. Note the "you" in the final line.

"Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.

"I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth's foundations will depart
And all you folk will die."


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