columbine, by dave cullen

After my first year at uni I got a summer gig on an archaeological dig at Port Arthur, the big Colonial gaol site and open air museum on the Tasman Peninsula. It was fantastic, my first adventure away from home, prefiguring Ireland and America. I got to try on different selves and to spend my days in hard physical labour and my evenings flirting and learning to cook. (Zucchini should be peeled and sliced and blanched and served with pepper and too much butter. Whatever you do to them, eels hand-caught out of the well are gross.) And despite its awful history Port Arthur was, and is, gobsmackingly beautiful. Every Benthamite Panopticon should be built out of sandstone and set in parkland, on a cove.

In 1996 there was a huge, terrible massacre there. The person responsible has said that he did it in order to be famous, and so I have not spoken or written his name since I read that, fifteen years ago. (Boy, I sure showed him!) But my desire to expunge his infamy reflected a deeper conviction that the massacre was an aberration, a rain of lead from the sky. It wasn’t about Port Arthur. It wasn’t some terrible reflection on human nature (Port Arthur’s awful history is that.) It wasn’t how life is. I resist all efforts by heartless men with guns to define the human condition.

The Columbine book is super-interesting in this way, because it discusses Eric Harris as a fully-fledged psychopath. (Dylan Klebold’s is a very different case.) Harris was, as far as anyone can tell, clinically aberrant; as if incapable of empathy at the genetic level. He was a rain of lead from the sky. He doesn’t tell us anything about bullying or nerds or people who wear trench coats or social life in American high schools. He is a natural disaster, like a hurricane or a flood. And this is most movingly expressed by Patrick Ireland, who is best remembered for climbing out a window with blood pouring from the bullet wound in his head. What kept him going through the hours it took him to crawl to the window? Not hope, as it turned out. Trust. At his valedictorian address to his class, Ireland said:

“When I fell out the window, I knew somebody would catch me. That’s what I need to tell you: I knew the loving world was there all the time.”

Life is mysterious and amazing.

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