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Cover Story: Truth and Consequences

Trying to make it through society's chaos and disorder intact

By Brad Balfour · June 10th, 1999 · Cover Story
Sean Hughes/photopresse.com

A couple of months ago, just before I left Cincinnati to return to New York, I saw The Matrix. It blew me away with its virtual reality premise, and its ersatz killing scenes were gorgeous displays of computer graphics and simulations -- death without the painful consequences.

On the heels of its release, though, came the killings in Littleton, Colo., and the movie took on added resonance as a major metaphor for the subtext surrounding the tragedy. With the school year ending and another school shooting racking up more newspaper headlines and magazine covers, I was left considering my life in New York, a city once viewed as the nation's violence capital.

On the day of the shootings at Columbine High School, my mother phoned from Cincinnati to say something pretty bad was happening at a school in a Denver suburb. Did I know anything about it, she asked, and was it near the place where my daughter lived? My 13-year-old lives with her mom in Denver, so I quickly called out there. Everyone was fine.

I sat transfixed before the TV for the rest of the day. I would be transfixed by this commotion with horror and anguish with the rest of the nation.

I'm still traumatized two months later, stirred up and otherwise up in arms. I was really disturbed by this event, but not exactly in the way other parents, pundits, politicians and preachers have become worked up. Why? Because at a much earlier time in my life, I might have been there myself. Not as a target, but as one of those doing the targeting.

When I was in junior high in Cincinnati, I was one of those taunted by the "in" crowd. Oh, I wasn't the ultimate target; there were others who suffered more severe drubbings. But even with moments of social acceptance, I was also on the receiving end as well, the butt of the socs' jokes.

An alleged geek who was called "a queer," I got nasty hang-up calls on the phone. I was told about parties I wasn't invited to. In the eighth grade, I too fantasized about taking a high-powered rifle and gunning down my tormentors in the lunch room at Woodward High.

In Cincinnati, it was within my reach to do so. I had gone to gun shows in Norwood and could have copped a couple of shotguns or rifles, even an automatic or two. I knew where to buy a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook.

But I didn't. Instead, I drew superhero comics where the good guys vanquished the bad guys, corrupt pillars of society twisted by greed and power. I sought out books about everything from Nazis to William Burroughs' dark visions, as well as the heavy music of Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath, in order to comprehend such corruption and find alternatives. Though PCs, the Web and violent video games didn't exist then, there were still enough TV and movie images offering a hefty catalog of death scenes to inspire.

Why didn't I act then?

Unlike the Littleton duo, I realized that giving in to such urges was, to say the least, a dead end (pun intended). It meant using an easy cop-out to managing life. I would have handed my hated enemies the ultimate victory, further justification for the torture committed on me. That I was a total loser who had taken the crash-and-burn way out. That I was somehow deserving of such derision.

The conformists -- the same kind of kids who were the supposed "in" crowd then and now -- attend sanctioned teen parties and proper youth group events. They don't rock the boat; they follow prescribed paths to conventional glory through the school society and prom committees or through the little nasties their parents privately condoned (a beer bash or hot date with a nice girl).

But their moments of glory in high school are the last time they're really guaranteed such superiority. As I learned from a crowd of other outsiders from schools beyond Woodward -- which in those days was a model suburban school -- there was a larger world that neither guaranteed success because of such advantages nor imposed the restrictive mentality of those school halls.

The jocks have a short half-life after high school as well. Maybe they'll get that scholarship, or maybe they won't. Maybe they'll get through college play intact, or maybe not. Then, if they do make it to the big leagues, how long do they last? And what future do they have after pro sports, even if they do make oodles of money?

Maybe that experience is useful in the world at large, and maybe it isn't. Understandably, a jock's life is fraught with an intense climb and an equally if not inordinately painful fall.

That unfair advantage given them by school supporters -- the administration infused with school spirit and the alumni who inject money and enthusiasm into sports -- doesn't represent all of the world outside. Yes, they have the advantages of good schools and parental contacts, but those can be counterbalanced by good ideas and drive.

Of course, I didn't know that clearly at the time. I only had a hazy idea that the wider world eventually became as much the world of geeks/nerds/freaks as that of the socs. And in today's world of Internet IPOs turning 24-year-olds into instant millionaires, success can be had by the strangest loner.

What Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did was tragic -- not only for the waste of such motivated energy, of those killed and of the families left behind, but also because they gave such power to those they deservedly hated. In their crazy way, they were driven to act in order to overcome the utter inaction and impotence they must have felt toward their tormentors, the school and life in the often oppressive greyscape of suburbia.

They were disturbed, immature, inchoate children who felt their backs were pushed against the wall in the hermetically sealed environment of suburbia and home with parents who didn't want the stress or didn't get it. Harris telegraphed his intentions in no uncertain terms and made clear he was screaming to be heard. But no one got it until he went beyond the pale.

But real evil is being committed to this day on the part of a so-called normal society that lets those more accepted feel they're better and, in feeling so, have a right to run roughshod over those who are different or feel less connected. Such people are no better, just more ordinary. The school supporters who let jocks run rampant and the supposedly moral youth group leaders who condemn anyone with an opinion other than their own -- these are the people who deserve condemnation as well.

Now the weirdoes will be under more fire with every administrator ready to pounce on their shit if they so much as express one dark and angry thought. Mind control gets more advocates. Those kids in Littleton, backs up against the wall, have created their own worst nightmare for those who follow.

I feel sorry for the victims but also for the offbeat kids coming up who are now going be under even more negative scrutiny while uncertain as to whom to talk with if they feel overwhelmed by anger, hurt and boring conformity.

Nonetheless, nothing -- no amount of pain or despair induced by society or biochemical imbalances -- justifies the acts committed by these two boys or the others. Killing innocents caught in the crossfire of such rage is not a healthy response to smug assholes. I wouldn't want nuts in black raincoats gunning down my kid, no matter how screwed up they feel the world is.

Looking back on my high school experience, I found mentors from outside the reach of school, people who at that time represented the burgeoning alternative culture of the day. They offered support for the creative outlet of writing and of possibilities beyond my school; they offered solace.

I had the one English teacher at Woodward who taught Joseph Heller's Catch 22. It helped me learn to redirect my anger with irony and sly derision. I found a clique, my own tribe, which had its own way without taking the taunts to heart.

Parents have to be tapped in -- though not in ways those who program anti-drug commercials think we reach kids. Kids' unconventional behavior can be turned from destructiveness to creativity. The ultimate triumph of the will is in success.

I found music, art, comics and science fiction the sources of salvation at my side. In those days it was Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa or Black Sabbath. Today, it's Nine Inch Nails, DMX or Rob Zombie. The Trenchcoat Mafia kids and others become publicists of such bands as KMFDM, Rammstein and Marilyn Manson. (Did anyone notice the one Littleton kid being interviewed who had on a Clockwork Orange T-shirt?) They transform box-office duds such as Natural Born Killers or the Basketball Diaries into video hits. As noted by the many pundits, other incessant fans of such violent wish-fulfillment fare don't turn into schoolyard assassins.

The media mavens wring their hands over the violence in video games, music and films, but I wonder just how bad off we are. Ironically, I believe we are inflamed by such acts because we aren't as inured to violence and pain as it might appear. In fact, I marvel at how civilized the world really is compared to the days not so long ago of corporal punishment, child labor and the slaughter of pogroms.

Ultimately, do we want a society that regulates activity to the degree social conservatives would like? This is a country that extols freedom at the cost of chaos, and so it should be. That's the unique character of our culture: Somehow, despite efforts to the contrary, it revels in such disorder and succeeds.



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