Massacre in Colorado: Searching for Answers

April 23, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Hours after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down over a dozen of their high school classmates, the world began searching for an explanation. The massacre seemed too abrupt, too painful, and too inexplicable not to probe into the young men’s psyches, reported Wired News.

A profile of the duo soon emerged in news reports. They were Hitler admirers, outcasts, possibly Y2K buffs, and certainly loners. According to Wired, they were also computer geeks, fans of fantasy video games such as Doom and Quake. Harris had, like many avid players, created additional levels of the game. His Web site on America Online, since yanked by the company, reportedly detailed plans for constructing bombs.

All of which together seemed to offer that elusive explanation. A bomb-related Web site? Violent video games? Fantasy role-playing? Reports began to hint, then baldly assert, that technology caused the violence.

Would-be pundits on CNN and MSNBC warned not to let teens online, and one criminologist claimed that “the key to this case is the Internet,” wrote Wired’s Declan McCullagh. The folks at CyberSitter, makers of perhaps the least efficient of the Internet blocking software packages, seized on the tragedy as an opportunity to sell nervous parents on the virtues of their product.

As McCullagh found, the public seemed to buy the explanation. Over half of Americans polled say the Internet was at least partly responsible for the shooting. In a CNN/USA Today poll conducted Wednesday, 64 percent of the respondents said the Net contributed to the tragedy. Only 11 percent said there was no link, and TV programs, movies and music also got blamed.

So, why not sue the manufacturers of the video games like Doom and Quake? White Wolf, which manufactures a similar game called Vampire, has good reason to worry, said Wired.

When three students were slain in a similar shooting in Paducah, Kentucky, their parents blamed pornographic Web sites, video games, and violent movies. Last week they filed a $100 million lawsuit against a number of computer companies and media firms, claiming that the executives traded conscience for cash. Lawyers predict the families of the 15 murdered students in this week’s slaying will do the same thing.

Would such lawsuits succeed? Probably not, says Wired. Similar suits in the past have had little success. In 1981, Hustler published an article — part of a series about taboo sexual practices — on autoerotic asphyxia. An appeals court said Hustler couldn’t be held responsible for the death of a boy who found the magazine and tested the theory.

Another appeals court in 1990 ruled the manufacturer of the popular Dungeons Dragons role-playing game was not responsible for a young customer’s suicide. But experts say when a corporation is sued, it may opt to settle out of court rather than fighting a legal battle against such sympathetic plaintiffs.

If the Internet and games didn’t make the Littleton shooters so angry, what did? “Whatever is the popular media in the youth culture is blamed for violence or criminal behavior by teenagers,” Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union told Wired. “There’s a natural human tendency to look for someone to blame and to look for explanation of what is inexplicable and unthinkable.”

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