Why is the Columbine massacre so notorious

Prevention is difficult, consequences are to be expected - that is the pessimistic result of the most recent rampage at a German school. Does the horror solidify into normality?

Six years ago, the then Thuringian Prime Minister called the bloodbath that the mass murderer Robert Steinhäuser had wreaked at Erfurt's Gutenberg Grammar School, “calamity that fell from the sky”. The sudden onset of violence might at first seem a mystery, but the reference to heavenly calamity was absurd. Two years after the massacre, a book was published in which the author Ines Geipel showed that in this case the talk of the «rampage» was problematic. According to their research, it was a precisely calculated execution - 12 of the 16 dead had been teachers, and the 19-year-old shooter was looking for revenge on the teaching staff. Neither planning nor indications of the horror that was looming had been lacking.

Die epically

The characteristics of a precise, cold-blooded, by no means spontaneous or even blindly furious approach also bears the actions of the assassin Tim K. in Winnenden, Baden-Württemberg, to whom 15 people, mostly schoolgirls, fell victim on Wednesday of last week. The 17-year-old fits into the now typical pattern of the "conspicuously inconspicuous" gunman who is male, is still in the turmoil of puberty, who no girlfriend gives tenderness, who is introverted, his time in front of the computer with killer games like "Counter." Strike »spends, maybe even has had psychological treatment, has access to weapons, and so on. At the same time, we know that many of these ascriptions probably apply to thousands without the young people becoming people hunters as a result.

So psychograms of the amok are only partially meaningful, prevention has limits, one reckons with follow-up acts. Are we treading on the spot with our insights? Yes and no. One can definitely do something. Since Erfurt, the German authorities have drawn up emergency plans that have a certain effect, at least at the moment of danger. In Winnenden, police officers quickly arrived at the school and prevented the perpetrator from killing further undisturbed, while emergency chaplains looked after the relatives and classmates of the dead and injured. The cooperation between the police and the school psychological service is said to have been close. There is little consolation as this only concerns aftercare. Successful preventive measures would be more urgent. However, research has nothing more to offer than the development of a criminal psychological early warning system. In the United States, the FBI has developed a kind of checklist with clues that are supposed to point in advance of rampage, and at the Free University of Berlin, a working group led by developmental psychologist Herbert Scheithauer is working on a model experiment to prevent outbreaks of violence.

In the face of the bloody deed in Erfurt six years ago, a change in shape of the rampage could be ascertained: From the original Malaysian context, in which the battle cry "Amok!" the confession of warriors was to give their last, the phenomenon has resolved itself. Even the dimension of violent religious heating can at best be recognized if one understands Islamic warriors of God as gunmen, and the idea of ​​a frenzy in delirium, which was brought up by ethnologists in the 19th century, can only be seen with the calculated actions of the gunmen of today do not take cover. The role models for this new generation are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the murderers from Columbine High School in Littleton, USA in 1999. Cold anger, long-term hatred, scenarios played out with relish beforehand and a psyche operating in “hunting mode” during the deed are the characteristics the changed rampage.

Maybe we have to say goodbye to the terminology of amok at all. In the USA the terminology has become specific: it is now called “school shooting” there. That makes the matter all the more worrying, because such terminological consolidation indicates that we are dealing with an event that is considered to have a general character. A kind of "normality". Instead of terrible individual cases, we are dealing with a development, a train of time. And for trends, in violence as in fashion, the rule is that they have an environment. Events that do not form context are not trends. They need reverberation, and the resonance in turn strengthens them.

Around 100 “school shootings”, according to an article in the Berlin newspaper “Tagesspiegel”, have been counted worldwide since 1974. This message would be incomplete without the addition: 60 of these date from the time after the Columbine massacre, which means that they have accumulated over the last ten years. That shows compression and dynamism. Much of our horror comes from the impression that something hideous is growing among us. This brings us back to the school massacre that is stored in contexts, needs the environment and thrives in it. One could also say: in the social anchoring and proliferation of the modern rampage. This would include the admiration that perpetrators like Harris, Steinhäuser or now Tim K. can count on in strange internet forums. Or word formations such as the alleged new coinage "to hero", which the "Spiegel" claims to have found in the US Internet board "4Chan", which is notorious for its wild comments. “To hero” would mean becoming a hero by running amok and ultimately paying “heroically” with your life. What is the apparently valid comment of a German-speaking admirer: "You can hardly die more epic."

Feedback and animation

The embedding of the “school shooting” also includes the first-person shooter games on the computer. Not in the clumsy sense that they can kill someone. But in the sense of an environmental response, a media applause for ideas of violence. The fans of the games may deny that they set patterns of action and can dull empathy in constant consumption, but at least for unstable minds, the danger seems undoubted to us. Media can have an animating effect. Even Goethe had to learn that the suicide of his Werther in the novel, the literary fiction, found real imitators. The motto of the second edition, “Be a man and don't follow me”, would also be appropriate in the credits of “Counter Strike”. But today it would be perceived as “uncool” there. That says a lot for the sociology of the “school shooting”.