It's the issue that won't go away. The tragedy at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, was only one in a series of violent episodes at America's high schools, but it has galvanized the nation. Thirteen people were murdered in the hallways and library of Columbine High. Many more were wounded, and many more still spent hours hiding in terror as the killers roamed the building.
We can't bring the dead back to life, and we can't erase the trauma of those who lived through this awful event. But we can at least try to learn something from the tragedy. What are the lessons of Littleton?
Schools are banning book bags, removing lockers, and installing metal detectors in order to keep weapons out of the hallways and classrooms. Politicians are considering new gun-control measures, and pressuring Hollywood and the video-game makers to tone down the violence in their products. President Clinton has called for a national campaign against youth violence.
Obviously we should do what we can to reduce violence in the schools — and everywhere else, for that matter. But that's a big and complicated project, and there are limits on what you can do as an individual. Meanwhile, there are other lessons to learn, lessons about the meaning of what happened in Littleton.
If you are in high school now, you have a special connection with those events. The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and most of their victims were students like you. Columbine High is a typical school, probably not that different from your own. I know that many of you are wondering, "How could this happen? What does it mean?"
I don't begin to know the whole answer. But if we could talk face-to-face, there are two things I'd ask you to think about, two lessons I think we can learn.
The first is that what Harris and Klebold did was evil. They were deliberate and malicious killers. They planned their actions in advance. They deliberately stalked their victims, laughing as they went. They taunted those who were trapped in the library: "Who's next? Who's ready to die?" They asked one girl if she believed in God, and shot her when she said yes.
If your school is like most, you have been taught that right and wrong are matters of opinion, not fact; that you shouldn't be judgmental; that you should tolerate everybody's lifestyle; that it's important to clarify your own values but you shouldn't impose them on anyone else. All of this adds up to a concept called relativism. If you go to college, you're going to hear a lot more of it.
Don't believe everything you hear. Relativism is okay if we're talking about things like the movies you watch, the music you like, the people you hang out with, the people you sleep with, the clothes you wear. But when you get beyond lifestyle to the fundamental things in life, relativism is a dead-end. Harris and Klebold were not just practicing an alternative lifestyle. They destroyed human lives. We insult the memory of their victims if we fail to condemn the murders as objectively wrong.
And once we do that, we have to ask what other things are objectively right and wrong. When you think about your values, where does relativity end and objectivity begin? What about lying, or cheating on exams? Are they objectively wrong? What about working hard, developing your talent, striving for success? Are they objectively right?
There's no point in my telling you what I think about these questions. The answers wouldn't mean anything unless you understand the reasons. It's like a problem in algebra: the teacher can give you the solution, but you haven't learned anything until you know how to solve the problem on your own. What I can tell you is that you need a moral compass in order to guide your path in life. Finding that compass is one of the most important things you can do for yourself.
That's lesson one. Lesson two is the importance of independence.
Harris and Klebold were social outcasts, rejected and teased by the popular cliques at Columbine High. Everyone's talking now about the social pressures of high school — how teenagers try to fit in, and how they feel if they don't. Many of you have spoken about the tense reality of cliques in your schools, and the conflicts among them, and the stupid, hurtful things that students do to each other in the scramble for popularity and status. I know. I was in high school once, and it was no different then.
Most people take the existence of cliques for granted. The only solution they have for all the nastiness is: groups should tolerate each other. "All of the popular conformists need to learn to accept everyone else," said one young woman on an Internet forum. "Why do they shun everyone who is different?" Well of course it would be nice if people were nicer to each other. But that's not the essence of the issue, and the "tolerance solution" is not likely to work unless we get to the essence.
It's natural for people to get together on the basis of what they have in common, like an interest in alternative music. It's natural to like one person more than another because your personalities are more similar. But cliques are different. For one thing, they breed conformity: the members of a clique put pressure on each other to dress alike, talk alike, think alike. They also look down on outsiders. "I'm an athlete and you're nobody." "I'm a rebel and you're clueless." In fact the point of a clique is as much to exclude as to include.
So why do people form cliques? Why do people care so much about status, about being popular, with-it, cool? Isn't it because they feel unsure of themselves? In a sense, they don't really have selves; they feel the need to define their identity by how they relate to other people. They get their attitudes, lifestyle, and values from the people they look up to. They get their self-esteem from looking down on people who are excluded. That's why it won't work to say, "Let's all tolerate each other." People who need to be insiders in order to feel secure will always need to sneer at outsiders.
And what happens to those who are excluded, the ones who are equally unsure of themselves and don't get the approval they need? As one student put it, "If you go to school, and people make fun of you every day, and you don't have friends, it drives you to insanity." A psychologist quoted in a magazine article said, "All kids need to belong, and if they can't belong in a positive way at the school, they'll find a way to belong to a marginal group like a cult or a gang."
But it doesn't have to be that way.
When you graduate, you're going to leave behind the groups that are part of your life now. There will be other cliques in college, and at work, and you'll leave them behind, too, when you move on. But there's one person who will always be with you, one person whose judgment will always matter. That person is you.
If you're willing to think for yourself, if you're willing to choose your own goals, if you're willing to mount your own search for that moral compass I mentioned, then you won't need others to give you an identity. You can be your own person. It can be risky to stand alone, but isn't it riskier to count on the approval of others?
We all want others to respect us. But if you have self-respect, the respect of others is a secondary issue. No one likes to be excluded or made fun of, but the real nobodies are those who need approval so badly they can't live without it.
I hope you never have to deal with the kind of horror that occurred at Columbine High. The statistics say that violence like that is pretty rare. But you will have to deal with the issues I've been talking about, because they're inherent in human life. You will need to decide what kind of values you accept, the moral compass you steer by. And you will need to decide whether independence of mind and soul is worth the effort. Your decisions will shape the person you become.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.