Kneejerk Mafia

After a new tragedy comes a familiar cry: Stop the Internet before it kills again.

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the land of no good explanations, the man with the daffiest explanation is king. Witness Gerry Spence on "Larry King Live" Tuesday, blaming the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on the war in Kosovo: "Violence is how we solve our problems in this country," said the criminal defense attorney and front-runner for the 1999 Malcolm X "Chickens Have Come Home to Roost" Award. But why not? Why the hell not? After an inexplicable killing, Spence's guess was as good as yours, but loopier, and so it made better TV. And even at this late date -- 30 years after a sun-bronzed Al Gore, driving a team of plow horses, dug a furrow for the first T1 line -- some of the loopiest insinuations being thrown about in the aftermath concerned that multibillion-dollar menace, the Internet.

A report thrown together Tuesday for the Fox 10 O'clock News in New York, for instance, angled toward Goths, the black-clad subculture that the attackers apparently emulated. It called the Goth scene "a cult on the Web." Charitably -- in a city that has survived numerous Anne Rice book signings without notable mayhem -- the reporter did note that "not all of them are violent toward others." Signing off from the newsroom, the reporter posed in front of a computer monitor showing an actual Goth Web page, glowing blue and lurid on the dimmed set. The NBC affiliate, meanwhile, was parsing over the contents of -- brace yourself -- a Web page reportedly maintained by one of the suspects: a drawing of a "demonic figure" and a man mowing down people with a gun. (This after actually admitting that it had asked the NYPD, "Is there any evidence of this gang -- this 'Trench Coat Mafia' -- at New York City schools?")

Was the Web page image a telling detail? Sure it was -- precisely as telling as it would have been had it been drawn on, say, a piece of notebook paper (in fact, it looked like just that, scanned into an image file). Which is to say, sort of, after the fact, and not particularly at all, before the fact. The tone of these pieces made the familiar message clear: not just the drawings but the medium that delivered them were evidence of sickness, and -- of course! of course! -- it only made sense that these killers hung out on the Internet, where crazy people come from.

There are all sorts of Net dangers worth checking out here, not for unsuspecting youth, but for doe-eyed, credulous journalists. Tuesday, cable news and the networks (as well as Matt Drudge) were repeating as gospel a report that the shooters had posted warnings on America Online (where a suspect had had a Web site). By the next morning, AOL confirmed that the various messages were hoaxes, noting with dry understatement that "such hoaxes are not uncommon after a big news event." Naturally, this sort of incident gets spun against the Internet, Den of Falsehood, but in fact it shows the inherent prejudice, increasingly silly as time wears on, that anyone not using the Internet to buy sweaters or make millions with a harebrained e-commerce strategy is a potential nut job.

Of course, on Tuesday this was arguably just another part of an overheated news rush. (There were three suspects, or maybe two. The shooters were targeting jocks and minorities, or maybe they weren't.) But the insinuations were just getting started. "They designed Web pages," accused a Denver Post columnist on MSNBC Wednesday morning. On CNN, a social scientist warned against letting "boys on the Internet at any time" because of their natural aggression; an anchor pressed a Columbine student, "Did they have their own Web site?"

By Wednesday afternoon, Columbine students were futilely asking reporters to stop overblowing the "Trench Coat Mafia" connection, which irresponsibly tarred a group of students who, with two exceptions, had evidently not killed anyone. Meanwhile, criminologist Casey Jordan told MSNBC anchor David Gregory, "The key to this case is the Internet ... They were in chat rooms; they had Web pages. And on the Internet," she warned, "the possibility for recruiting is just unknown."

Let's hear that again. "Just unknown." Exactly. Whether anyone here was recruited online (into what? into a clique at their own high school?), whether the existence of the Internet made any difference in the massacre, is just that -- unknown, and unlikely, to boot -- but why should that stop anyone from marrying those seductive terms, "Internet" and "recruiting"? (As if to one-up Jordan's non sequitur, incidentally, Gregory darkly noted, "Don't forget it happened just after the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing," apropos of no apparent evidence.)

We've seen this template before. After the 1997 Heaven's Gate suicides the cultists' Web-design work was seen as natural for a bunch of loons. The Oklahoma City bombing saw an obsession with militia material online and a near-identical AOL user-profile hoax for Timothy McVeigh. And you know where it goes from here: The killers deployed sophisticated bombs requiring extensive explosives knowledge, and we all know where that comes from. Rest assured, of course, that although authorities also determined that the killers used such low-tech paraphernalia as cooking fuel and nails, few authorities will step forward in the coming days to question the ethics of the Hank Hills of the world or to ask you to consider monitoring your child's frequenting of hardware stores.

The Internet isn't taking the rap alone. In fact, the phenomenal thing about this case is that it wraps up so many subculture bugbears into one dripping package, a screwy mélange of Marilyn Manson, Hitlerphilia, Gothicism, anarchism, role-playing games, Eurorock and gun culture (a Goth musician on CNN's "Talkback Live" said the suspects "sounded about as Goth as Johnny Cash"). There was even the trench coat, for which the San Francisco Chronicle offered a grand-unification theory: "a symbol for everything from Hitler and the Nazis to mass murder to suicidal fantasies." This bizarre potpourri of signifiers might suggest to anyone assessing it that, just possibly, these oddly matched usual suspects attract already-troubled kids instead of creating new ones.

Popular culture and technology mavens should perhaps be flattered by the importance that the media accord them here. And in fact, there were interesting uses of technology in the crisis, such as the live cell-phone calls from students trapped in the high school; Garrick Utley of CNN called the shooting "our first interactive siege."

But clearly there are deeper fears at work. We are eternally concerned with what technology will do to us -- how it will change our minds, change our lives, affect our livelihoods. In this sense -- apropos of the "Web cult" talk -- technology is like religion: We adulate and fear both, we consider both potentially destabilizing and so we adopt taboos moderating how seriously we are allowed to take them. In our broadly but shallowly religious society, there are two people we distrust intensely, the atheist and the deeply religious, and we've applied the same principle to technology. The Heaven's Gate cultists were seen as somehow dangerous not just because they made a suicide pact but because they designed Web pages; Ted Kaczynski was crazy not just because he blew people up but because he spurned technology.

Any society that didn't want to explain what happened in Littleton would be a society of dead souls. We want to identify the one bad gear that we can replace and make everything right. So we look for it. But the simple truth is, some disturbed people can now use a tool they didn't have before. Students can watch their own potential last moments on classroom televisions, can hear themselves calling out live on cell phones. And ... and what, exactly? The far-flung, Zeitgeisty elements of this story tantalizingly hint that there must be some common thread, some tangible difference in the way we live and kill today. But good luck finding it. The only lesson to be drawn so far is this: From broadband to print, wireless to cable, we now have myriad forums in which to be left speechless.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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