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Becoming Your Fantasy in Virtual Munich Beer Hall

April 25, 1999|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMANGANSETT, N.Y. — Of all the bizarre sidelights to the horrifying massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Tuesday, the most bizarre may have been the story of the students trapped inside the school who called local TV stations on their cell phones and provided brief commentaries on the action. According to one report, they signed off only because they feared the intruders might be watching television themselves and thus discover the whereabouts of the cell-phone users. All of which suggests that even for the perpetrators and their victims, television was the great mediator.

By now, this is hardly surprising. Like so many real-life dramas in America, the Littleton tragedy became a media event even before the smoke had cleared and anyone knew what was really happening. Copters buzzed overhead, reporters swarmed the scene and commentators were soon delivering sententious analyses of what it all meant, giving us a sense of deja vu.

But tragedies like this are media events not only because the media immediately latch onto them. Often they are media events in two far more important senses: first, because the perpetrators usually seem to have modeled their behavior after certain figures in the popular culture; and, second, because the rampages seem ultimately to have been staged for the media on the assumption that if you kill it, they will come. Or, put another way, what we witnessed at Littleton was not just inchoate rage. It was a premeditated performance in which the two gunmen roamed the school dispatching victims, whooping with delight after each murder. Without pop culture, the slaughter would have been unimaginable.

Begin with the killers. In the inevitable post-mortems that follow these horrors, it was reported that the outcasts Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were part of a high-school clique whose members wore long black trench coats and which dubbed itself the Trench Coat Mafia, a cinematic image if ever there was one. They were also devotees of the computer games "Doom" and "Quake," in which players prowl virtual hallways shooting virtual victims with virtual guns. They worshiped Adolf Hitler, loved Goth music and had a special fondness for Marilyn Manson, the mordant rock star whose satanic persona is designed to scandalize parents of his fans. In short, Harris and Klebold were creatures of pop culture.

Given how much these two seemed to have been shaped by movies, music and computer games, it is tempting to blame the media once again for providing guidance to young would-be sociopaths and to call for greater responsibility from those who command our pop culture. But there have always been alienated teenagers, and the media have always supplied models for them, often violent ones, and yet most of them managed to resist emulating the violence. In fact, many observers have argued that the media may have had the opposite effect: letting us displace our anger rather than vent it. Disaffected teenagers in the 1950s and '60s had James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley to give their rebelliousness form and help channel it. Disaffected teenagers in the '90s have Leonardo DiCaprio, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Manson.

Still, there is a real difference between then and now, and the difference is not the kinds of figures teenagers idolize; it is the kind of consciousness one brings to idolizing them. In the past, one may have identified with pop icons and affected their look and attitude, but few of us were deluded enough to think we could actually become Brando or Presley. We appropriated from them; we didn't see their reality converging with ours. They were "up there" on the screen. We were "down here" in real life. Never the twain shall meet.

What has been eroded is that distinction between the fantastic and the real. America is now so saturated with images that it seems we live within them, helpless to distinguish the genuine from the fabricated, the real from the confected. Life itself has become an entertainment medium, where the distance between "up there" and "down here" has closed considerably and where we feel empowered to be whatever we want, as Klebold and Harris so unspeakably demonstrated.

One reason teens of the past may have been better able to distinguish between having fantasies and actualizing them was that their own reality may have been more firmly rooted in a sense of place. It may be no coincidence that many of the recent school shootings occurred in relatively new communities like Littleton and Springfield, Ore., where malls and houses were sprouting rapidly, or in declining communities like West Paducah, Ky., where the verities were under siege. It may be too simple to say that rootless, malleable communities with little identity of their own, save the identity stamped on them by mass culture, give rise to rootless, malleable children with little identity of their own, save the identity borrowed from mass culture, but it may not be too far off, either.

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