There was a moment earlier today, after a cursory scan of social media, when all I thought about was the lighter side of 4/20. I thought it might be fun, albeit not very original, to talk about great films to get stoned to or to list some of film’s most lovable stoners. But then I remembered the darker side of 4/20, the event that reshaped my own high school experience and the one that reshaped our collective public consciousness. Because before 9/11, there was Columbine and I’m not sure what’s harder to believe: that it’s been eighteen years since the tragedy occurred or that not a damn thing has changed.
I was a sophomore at an all-girls Catholic high school in New York City eighteen years ago, a world away from Littleton, Colorado. My school wasn’t as large, I took the subway to school, we didn’t even have boys. But like most of my peers, I stood in front of the television that afternoon, watching NBC News in a haze of confusion and shock. Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting and it’s unfortunately no longer the deadliest, but it was something Americans really had never seen before. It happened at a time when social media was still in its infancy, having a cell phone as a teenager — let alone a smart phone — wasn’t as common as today.
After the dust settled, wild inaccuracies started being passed around as fact. The Trenchcoat Mafia sounded cool to the press but it wasn’t really a thing, goth kids weren’t ticking time bombs and listening to Marilyn Manson doesn’t make you a killer. But I remember being terrified because of what the news reports were telling us underneath it all: that in a safe space, the people you think are your friends could really be killers in disguise.
I remember spending a month or so slipping out of classes to speak with our guidance counsellor and I kept trying to explain what I felt. I was convinced that I must have had a long-lost sibling or twin I didn’t know about, one who was there that day when the shooting occurred. Why else was I so shaken? I couldn’t comprehend at fifteen years old that life wasn’t sacred enough to merit old age, that mortality is indiscriminate and indifferent to individuality. Eventually, the fear faded and over the years was replaced by other horrors until finally a callousness crept into place, an exasperated sigh at news of new tragedies, an anger at the continued lack of changes to prevent them.
There’s no doubt that a desire to solve the unsolvable, to make sense of seemingly senseless drives our cultural consumption of true crime narratives like Making a Murderer or Serial. But there isn’t any sense to be made out of Columbine. While Dave Cullen’s account is a tough but illuminating read, the truth is that while the tragedy could have been prevented, it was also unprecedented. And it’s why, eighteen years later, we pause and look back at our own innocence and wonder whether it’s worse to know just how capable we as humans are of horror or whether it’s easier to remain blind — even at the risk of being blindsided.