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The Internet didn't pull the trigger in Colorado

By James Hanback Jr.

MAY 3, 1999:  When I was covering the police, fire, and courts beat at another newspaper a couple of years back, there was never a morning I walked into the place that I really knew what to expect. Many bad things can happen between the time one goes to bed and when he rises again to face the world.

In that line of work, one would expect to become desensitized to that side of people which compels them to point a hand gun at a store clerk, or makes them angry enough to fire rounds into the rear windshields of speeding vehicles.

I must say, however, that out of all the crime scenes I examined after the police department, out of all of the lives I saw devastated, and even after I saw a man take his own life, I still get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear of tragedies like the one in Littleton, Colo. last week. How could I not?

As we know, 15 people are dead in an entirely senseless act of rage and violence, and two students of Columbine High School in Colorado are responsible. At the time of this writing, authorities had not yet determined if others were directly involved.

Indeed, the teens who did the shooting are the ones responsible for all that carnage, not to mention the anguish now being experienced by the friends and families of the murdered people. But because the shooters also took their own lives, they cannot be made to pay for their crimes. There will be no trial or sentencing of the gunmen to provide closure for those families. There is nothing the living victims of this crime may do to seek payment for their loss. Nor could they ever be repaid, even if the shooters had lived.

So, in the absence of trial and closure, and at that time without any arrests, our national media last week decided to point the finger of guilt in all sorts of directions: music, a subculture, movies, video games, the media themselves, and, of course, the Internet.

It's a debate that raged long before the world went online. Does the violence we read about in newspapers and literature beget violence in life? What about what we see on television and hear in music? And how about those video games? Does life imitate art?

Dateline NBC, for one, pointed the finger more than once at Doom, a popular first-person computer video game. In fact, Doom was a pioneer among video games, taking them to a level of player involvement and control not previously known to the industry. (Players of Doom may also note that Wolfenstein 3-D actually ushered in the era of the first-person shooter games, but Doom is largely responsible for its continued success). The show also briefly pointed to the Internet and mentioned, as nearly all media did, the availability of "bomb-making information" there as a potential contributor to the Columbine tragedy.

"Should the Internet be regulated?" is a question that's popped up more than once lately. "Shouldn't we be monitoring Internet content? Shouldn't we prevent people from putting potentially damaging information out there for anybody to see?" Even the makers of Internet filtering software took the opportunity to use the Columbine High School tragedy as a means of demonstrating their products, sending out press releases that stated (and I'm paraphrasing): See? This is what happens if you allow your child to surf the Net without the protection of our software.

Should the Internet be regulated?

The answer is an emphatic and resounding "no," although in some ways (i.e., the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and its successor, the Child Online Protection Act) such regulation has already been put in place. Even if a government, group, or individual is able to obtain control of the Internet in such a way as to determine what can or cannot be put online; even if we can start by saying, "This kind of content is damaging, but this is not," where in the world do we really believe it would end? Shall we ban Web sites that contain images and information about London Fog trench coats and outerwear because of what the Columbine shooters wore?

The fact remains that we are a nation seeking someone to blame for this tragedy, someone who can pay for the damage created by these two teens who reportedly shot up their peers, laughed about it, and then killed themselves. But there is no one to blame, except the shooters and anyone else directly involved in that incident. We must remember that these teens were what we call "beyond the age of reason," meaning that although they were still young, they were old enough to determine for themselves the difference between right and wrong.

As for me, I will dress in black if I choose and think nothing of it. I will enjoy the freedom of information the Internet provides me and hope that it remains that way. I will play Doom, and I will play Quake. I will enjoy those games. And when I walk away from those things and out into the bright sunshine of the world, I will greet my fellow human beings as I am greeted, with no desire to pull a weapon from my coat and blow holes in their heads.

And if I ever ask why those events in a Littleton, Colo. high school took place, I'll simply remember the words a student who witnessed it spoke on the nightly news: "I don't know why," he said. "There's no 'why.' "

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