Revolution #122, March 9, 2008


Thoughts On Seeing columbinus

We received the following letter from a reader:

Valentine’s Day at our house is usually not a big deal—maybe a card, hopefully a box of chocolates. But this year my partner got two tickets to a play at the Raven Theater in Chicago called columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli.

But this Valentine’s Day started not with hearts and flowers, but gunshots and students being killed and wounded at Northern Illinois University. I watched the news reports on TV and my mind flashbacked to Virginia Tech and Columbine High School. It didn’t even dawn on me till later that the play we were going to that night was about Columbine. I wondered what the cast and crew would be thinking as they put on the performance. Would they mention the NIU shootings? How would the audience respond? Would they be talking about it?

columbinus explores life at Columbine HS in Littleton, Colorado—which is not that different than most suburban high schools. There’s the pecking order of those labeled jocks, nerds, popular cheerleaders, and various stripes of misfits and malcontents. Then there’s the parents, teachers, and counselors, looking past all the anguish the kids are going through. And the kids learning how to cover it up and keep their feelings hidden, just trying to make it through another day.

You see pictures and emails of Dylan and Eric (the shooters) projected on the wall during the performance. They look like “normal,” everyday, clean-cut kids. You follow the dynamics and interactions at the school. You see and feel the ugly, mean-spirited social relations in society that are so concentrated in high school; the struggle to try and fit in; the fear of being rejected; the cliques, competition, the put downs, and “the meds.” And part of this toxic mix were elements of a fascist, racist, and white supremacist ideology that Dylan and Eric adopted in trying to make sense out of it all. Sitting in the theater you felt the emptiness, the alienation, the anger building inside these two kids. And you feel them going into the abyss and taking others with them.

The play doesn’t give you answers but it certainly raises profound questions about the nature of the social relations in this capitalist society and how large sections of youth, not just from the inner cities, but from well-off suburbs, are angry and lost.

What is the relationship between social relations in capitalist society and feelings of hopelessness, alienation, and atomization? Is there a relationship between people being pushed to the edge (and over the edge) and how the world is throwing millions of people into dangerous, uncertain and tumultuous situations—globalization, the war, economic crisis, fascistic moves by the government, etc., which is challenging a pre-existing normalcy and economic stability that rests on exploitation and oppression worldwide?

And what about the prevailing capitalist social and economic relationships that promote a “dog-eat-dog look out for number one” mentality at the expense of anyone else? Doesn’t all this affect and influence how people think and act toward one another? What about the fact that we live in a patriarchal society? Some of these type of shootings clearly have an element of men acting out their anger and hatred toward women.

Even though there were numerous prayer vigils held, the students and community never got the opportunity to really address questions around why this shooting happened; what does it have to do with what is going on in the world and the kind of society we live in. And any kind of thinking that attributes this to the will of some non-existent god is very harmful—giving a false understanding and making people feel powerless and passive in seeking to understand the world and how to change it.

I went back and re-read the letter in Revolution, “Reflections on the VA Tech Massacre,” written by a graduate from that college (see Revolution #86, April 29, 2007 at and I found this part very heartfelt and insightful:

“In the last few days, many people have said words to the effect that our response to this massacre should be to expand, and not restrict, our humanity and our compassion. Though perhaps expressed in different terms and from a different perspective than my own, I am in deep unity with such a sentiment. I would add two things. First, if we are to accept this, why not accept it fully? Why not take this as an opportunity to recognize and reject all the forms of chauvinism which construct some as more human than others and which ultimately help create oppression, domination, and, yes, horrors? If we are to take from Monday’s events the recognition of the need to create a better society, why not recognize, and take seriously, really seriously, the need to create a better world and to understand our role in it?”

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