Cheap, easily purchased firearms. Bomb-making instructions on the Internet. Ultraviolent pop-culture images. Oppressive teenage cliques. Stressed-out, neglectful parents. Stressed-out, angry kids.
Nobody yet knows why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 classmates and a teacher before shooting themselves; and it's possible we never will know. Even more disturbing, nobody knows what we should do if we are to avoid further tragedies of this kind.
On the other hand, it does seem rather obvious to most people -- though not Charlton Heston or Bob Barr -- that TEC-9 pistols and sawed-off shotguns should not be available to children or to most adults. As for all the other prescriptions offered by preachers, pundits and sociologists in the tragedy's aftermath, let's just say that they will probably have as much effect as such exhortations usually do. It's tempting to leave the subject at that, move on to more intelligible phenomena and wait for the inevitable depressing sequel.
But Klebold and Harris did leave behind a few tantalizing hints about their state of mind as they plotted to blow up their school and blow away their classmates, hints that we would be wise to consider. Documents seized from the suspects' homes by Jefferson County sheriff's investigators indicate that they were obsessed with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. They seem to have planned the assault to commemorate the Nazi dictator's 110th birthday. Eyewitnesses say that they purposely executed Isaiah Shoels, a diminutive black football player, as well as two girls who were known as devout Christians.
The killers' fascination with Hitler and their targeting of Christians and blacks, combined with their apparent preoccupation with "industrial" music, together suggest the possible influence of a fascistic youth subculture that has inspired horrific violence elsewhere. Clues about what appeals to the "Trench Coat Mafia" and other young alienated wannabes can be found in publications like Hit List, a zine that covers punk, metal and other categories of the counterculture. The first issue, featuring a burning church on its cover, came out last February with an almost eerily prescient theme: "The Politics of Black Metal." The lead article by Kevin Coogan, an expert investigator of the far right, plunges into the dank milieu where screeching, atonal bands with names like Mayhem, Morbid Angel, Deicide and Darkthrone exploit Satanic, pagan and Nazi imagery to create an atmosphere of shock.
Both the sound and the fascist fetishism date back to the early days of punk rock, when Malcolm McLaren marketed swastika accessories in his trendy London boutique, Sex. Coogan identifies the early post-punk group Throbbing Gristle, which glamorized the Nazi SS and Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda, as the precursor of certain ugly elements in today's "industrial" scene. A more current example is the suddenly infamous Marilyn Manson, whose stage name refers not only to the murders inspired by imprisoned maniac Charles Manson, but to Manson's ravings about race war and Satanic revolution, which have long enjoyed an audience on the countercultural fringe.
Offensive as this crap was (and is), most of it represented nothing more troublesome than a few twisted losers trying to outrage the liberal mainstream. Cultural transgression has gotten more and more difficult in recent decades, as material like the movies of John Waters and now "South Park" have become widely accepted. (The same problem is faced by radio personalities, visual and performance artists, from Howard Stern to Damien Hirst, who win attention by promoting scatological and sadistic themes.)
"Black metal" is a smaller subset of industrial music, sometimes pervaded by strands of occultism, Satanism, Nordic paganism and far-right, white-power politics. Many if not most black metal bands are simply poseurs concealing their lack of talent behind ghoulish makeup and synthesized noise. But at another level, this quasi-underground has provided an environment where real live fascists can disseminate hate literature and encourage serious violence among vulnerable, disturbed young people.
The most notorious example of the latter was a wave of church burnings in Norway and Sweden between 1993 and 1995 by black metal gangs. That outbreak culminated in the stabbing murder of the leader of one band by another; the killer, a Nazi pagan named Varg Vikernes, is now lionized in some black metal circles as "the Manson of Norway."
In 1996, a couple of years after that Scandinavian crime spree, six Florida teenagers torched a church, blew up a bottling plant and fired a lethal shotgun blast in the face of a high school band director. According to police, their intended finale was to turn Disneyworld into a killing field of black tourists. They called themselves the "Lords of Chaos" -- a name memorialized in the title of a recent popular book about the violent fringe of the black metal scene by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind.
Moynihan is much more than a mere chronicler of black metal excesses. He is the leader of Blood Axis, an American Nazi-Satanist band that toured Europe last winter, and more importantly, a prominent figure linking the music scene to fascist and occult circles. Moynihan once said he rejected Holocaust revisionism about the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews because "I'd prefer it to be true."
Before "Lords of Chaos," he published "Siege," a collection of writings by former American Nazi Party member James Mason, who admires David Duke and regards hate crimes as "white self-defense." In interviews with right-wing music zines, both Moynihan and Mason have openly advocated lethal violence against "the system" -- and they particularly admire "lone wolves" like the Columbine killers. Commenting on Varg Vikernes in 1995, Mason said that "killing any number of people and blowing up any number of buildings" is "ultimate heroism." But, he added, "We need a lot more of this simultaneously, not one here, not one there, but in concert." (Incidentally, he happens to reside in Denver, not all that distant from Littleton.)
Of course, none of this proves that black metal mania motivated Klebold and Harris, nor is it meant to suggest that the suppression of Satanic or even Nazi-oriented countercultures is warranted. Forbidding such obnoxious expressions only makes them more transgressive, and hence more attractive to adolescents seeking to assert their rebellion. And the death lyrics of metal music may even provide a harmless outlet for kids who might otherwise find more destructive diversions. Michael Moynihan himself once complained about "cartoonish and stupid" music about murder that was "just fantasy" by people who "would never actually go out and do what they were talking about."
Yet it's also clear that the metal underground may serve as a recruiting and propaganda instrument for sinister political forces, much as white-power music has both here and in Europe. For adults who hope to prevent the next high school atrocity, it is a phenomenon that deserves attention.