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Saturday, 18 April 2009

In Comprehending Columbine (2007) sociologist Ralph Larkin aims high and cuts deep, isolating the existential malaise of Littleton, Colorado, holding it up to close scrutiny, and pointing the finger squarely at American manhood's obsession with violent sport. Blaming football may seem simplistic but Larkin has evidence, particularly visible in privileges enjoyed by 'jocks' in school hallways and which is routinely buttressed by teaching staff, many of whom hold both teaching and coaching positions.

The 'in' crowd - what Larkin calls 'high status individuals' - exclude, bully and intimidate those who don't 'fit in'. In Littleton an additional element is visible in the Christian fundamentalism of many of the high status children. Their professed Christianity clashes with their snobbery and exclusivity, in which failure to subscribe to a set of basic tenets is cause for further ostracism.

Larkin is particularly incensed by the behaviour of the Christian minority following the murder of 13 school children and the suicide of the two perpetrators in 1999. Adopting a Manichean slant, the fundamentalists simply labelled Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold 'evil', and made mileage out of purported utterances. One of the boys was supposed to have asked a girl 'Are you a Christian?' before shooting her dead. The girl was later martyred. Larkin takes exception to opportunistic preachers who used the massacre as a platform for recruitment.

Schoolyard bullying was endemic at Columbine High School, Larkin shows. The school principal would not admit that excessive reliance on sport as a determinant of social status caused some to roam free and others to cower in fear. And coaching staff who condoned bullying of low status students were similarly not brought to book for their laissez faire attitude.

Of note also in this case - school massacres are not infrequent in the US - was the length of time Harris and Klebold used to plan their attack. About a year. Harris furthermore kept a website on which he posted sociopathic statements, clearly signalling (to anyone sensitive to the signs) an intention to seek revenge for past offences.

Given this persistent disclosure, it is difficult to see how a similar pattern could emerge nowadays without attracting notice, and drawing a preemptive response from authorities. Events recently show that online monitoring by ordinary people is widespread. In one case, a UK youth was saved from suicide by the quick actions of an online correspondent based in the US. In another case, a high school arson attack planned in the UK was foiled by the actions of a Canadian.

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