The day was April 20th, five years ago.  It was around 11:40 a.m., and I was in my car running an errand during my lunch break at work.  The talk show I was listening to was suddenly interrupted by a woman announcer with breaking news.  A shooting had been reported at a local high school.  The announcement was brief and sketchy on details.


I had never heard of the school, so I did not pay much attention to the announcement.  Occasional school shootings had occurred prior to this time at other locations in the United States, so this incident hit me as just another in the string of senseless violence that sometimes peppered the news.  I briefly imagined some rough-looking school in one of the "dangerous" areas in the Denver area. 


So what did this have to do with me? 


Cold, I know.


After I had been back at work for awhile, one of the people sitting next to me mentioned that he had heard about a school shooting.  As he alternately told the story to those of us around him and read from the news item on his computer screen, he suddenly blurted, "That's right near my house!"


Now I was all ears.


"Where do you live?" I asked.


"In Littleton."


"You're kidding," I exclaimed in disbelief.  Littleton was upper, middle-class America.  It was a safe place.  It was a suburb where I shopped. It was a community not too different from where I lived.


In the days that followed the shooting, I remember being astounded by the deep depravity of the killers.  Two gunmen with a meticulous plan to kill hundreds of students at Columbine High School had cold-bloodedly marched on a rampage through their high school.  They terrorized students and killed several of their classmates, undoubtedly anticipating the time when bombs hidden in the school would detonate in a fiery destruction of property and life.


Fortunately, the summation of their plan fell short.  The detonation of the bombs was mostly a whimper.  However, the killers managed to snuff out thirteen human lives, besides their own, and physically injure twenty-three others. Who knows how much psychological damage they inflicted on family and friends of the victims?


A ball field memorial. The two killers demonstrated in clear terms the monster that is part of our human existence the monster disregard for human life. 


But I remember seeing another side of human existence step forward.  In the days and weeks that followed the shootings, there was an incredible outpouring of sympathy for the victims.  Sympathy came from far beyond just the boundaries of the city of Littleton, the region around Denver, the state of Colorado, and the nation itself.  Sympathy poured in from around the world.  It was an incredible display of human affection.


I remember how expressions of condolence in the form of flowers, cards, letters, posters, and even wooden crosses made their way to the Columbine community.  Since the school and surrounding campus was completely closed off during the extended police investigation, Columbine Park, which bordered the school campus, became the display site for thousands of items sent to the school.  The items expressed people's sincere sorrow at the tragedy unleashed at the school.


I remember feeling like an outsider to everything that was going on in the nearby community, only about ten miles from my house.  I knew no one who had been killed.  I knew no one who had been injured.  For the longest time I did not even know of anyone whose son or daughter was a student at Columbine.


The parking lot where a mass of media vehicles huddled.  

A Visit to Clemente Park


And then I remember the day, sometime in May of that year, that I took a trip to Clemente Park with my family to see the expressions of love that had made their home at the park.  It was an overwhelming sight.


Clemente Park is large.  So when we first arrived at the park, the most notable thing about the area was the large amount of traffic in the parking lots and streets.  Also in the distance I noticed some tents.  We parked and made our way toward the area where people seemed to be coming and going.  As we walked, I became aware of a hill with people streaming to the top and back down.  This was the hill, I assumed, that had for awhile housed the fifteen wooden crosses built and erected by an Illinois carpenter.


We continued walking toward the area of most activity.  It was clear that the area was one place where many items of sympathy had been placed.  Then, without warning, my stomach tensed.  I had caught my first glimpse of the school.


There was nothing remarkable about the school.  Nothing made it apparent that the shootings had taken place there.  It was just an ordinary school building.


Yet at that moment I remember feeling like I had just become privy to a secret.  It was as if there was this delicate wall of glass surrounding me.  And I had to be careful not to speak too loudly or the glass would shatter.  Discreetly I motioned in the direction of the school and softly said to my wife, "I think that's the school."  It was a very naked moment.


The hill that held 15 wooden crosses built by an Illinois carpenter. As we continued to walk, we came over the crest of a small hill, and I saw something that slammed my senses like a cold blade of steel.  In the short time we had been at the park, it had become hallowed ground to me, a site of remembering and contemplating and mourning.  In the midst of this hallowed ground in a parking lot in the middle of the park I saw a huddled mass of media trucks and vehicles.

 They displayed symbols from well-known, international media outlets.  Here it was weeks after the massacre, and yet there was still enough of a story lingering in the air, that an entire parking lot was overrun by the equipment of intruders.  They were not here to pay respect to the victims.  Their purpose was merely commercial.

I remember pushing aside my ruminations on the media intrusion.  After all, my purpose in coming was not to criticize but to mourn.


Soon we reached a maze of fences.  These were the fences surrounding ball parks and tennis courts.  On them were displayed sympathy item after sympathy item, sent from places far and near.  The fences went in all directions, and so did the items that hung from the fences.  People were scattered about the place reading and absorbing the incredible display of human kindness.  I remember marveling at the volume of goodness represented here.

The fence maze from which items of sympathy hung.  

Against that backdrop, it was hard to believe that a monster of any size could exist anywhere in the world.


My brief time at the park left me feeling unsettled and raw.


The Meaning of It All


I remember how so many people tried to draw meaning from the tragedy.  How could something like this happen?  For some, this event drew them closer to God.  They realized the brevity of life, the possibility of losing it in an instant, and the folly of ignoring the One who created them.  For others, this event drove them away from any belief in a Higher Power.  The age-old question of "How could a loving God ..." embedded itself ever so deeply in their souls.


I remember political foes making hay of the massacre to advance their particular agenda.  Some called for greater restrictions on guns; the easy availability of weapons had made the acts of the two murderers much too easy.  Others called for easier availability of guns for law-abiding citizens; how might things had been different if some of the high school staff had been armed?


I remember contemplating, on many occasions, the way I initially reacted to the news of the shootings.  Why had I been so callous, so uninterested, so deaf toward the shocking revelation of death at a local high school.  Was there a tiny part of the human monster in me?


Five Years Later


So ... here we are, five years later.  And I wonder.


I wonder if our world has drawn any meaning from the carnage.  The armies and citizens of many nations fight a war against a hidden enemy called terrorists.  Iraq burns as a hotbed of turmoil.  Rogue nations threaten their enemies with the specter of atomic weaponry.  Are we better off than we were five years ago?


I wonder if our nation has learned to live in more harmony.  Political adversaries hurl venomous words at each other in a mad scramble to earn the election year title of "King of the Hill."  Business corruption feeds the greed of money-hungry, wealthy-beyond-belief executives for whom "more than plenty" will never be enough.  The culture of death lives unabated in many of our movies, our video games, and our popular songs.  Has five years made us more humane?

I wonder if my community cares more for each individual.  People around me live in a mad rush of running breathlessly from school to their kids' sports to work to entertainment to who knows what, and there seems to be no time to care deeply for others.  Have we come closer together than five years past?


And while I wonder, deep down I know that the results of the last five years cannot be as dire as the picture I paint.  I am convinced that the events of April 20, 1999 are embedded deeply in the hearts and minds of multitudes of people.  Although the effects may not be readily visible at least at the vantage point from which I peer they nevertheless are very real.


Events like the Columbine High School massacre cannot change governments, institutions, cultures, and communities at least not directly.  They can only change the individual people who make up those groups.  Then, if perhaps enough individuals change, the group changes with them.  But even if the groups reveal no noticeable change, I know that many people must have changed.  Columbine was too profound to have left its mark on no one.


And I have changed, in a small but profound way.  Columbine reminds me of how I first reacted to the terrible news while I was running errands at lunch.  It reminds me to beat down the trace of the monster that presses me to ignore the plight of those around me.  Columbine reminds me to strive endlessly to care for those people who fall within my circle of influence.