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One dang video too many

By Walter Jowers

MAY 8, 2000:  Just when you think things can't get much weirder...

Last week, just in time for the first anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, Colorado's Jefferson County Sheriff's Department released a "training tape" featuring video of the freshly-shot-up, bloodstained school library, complete with background music. All week, the television networks played and replayed the video, with the music tracks intact. As if that weren't enough, they went out and found rightfully distraught parents of the dead children and put them on television--crying, shaking, and madder than hell that the pictures of their children's death chamber had been turned into a music video.

I don't shock easily. I've been at the center of more serious trouble and hurt than most folks who haven't been in an actual wartime firefight. But I've got to tell you My jaw dropped open the first time I saw and heard this video, and I'm still having to make a special effort to keep the jaw from flying open even now.

As part of my ongoing quest to figure out how amazingly wrong things happen, I tried to envision, step by step, how this queer tape came to be. I wondered: "Who in the world takes the raw Columbine footage, heads off to the editing room, gets the tape just about like he wants it, and then thinks to himself, 'Hmmmm...this tape needs tunes.' " Of course, the answer is: a blockhead who's always wanted to direct.

If the thought of dubbing some tunes onto a Columbine murder-scene video popped in my head, I sincerely hope my next thought would be, "No, Jowers. No tunes. If ever there was a film that doesn't need a soundtrack, this is it." If, God forbid, an aneurysm popped in my head and I found myself thinking, "A little Sarah McLachlan would go good with this," I just hope I'd come to my senses long enough to jump in front of a bus.

In Littleton, the firefighter who made the tape didn't hear any internal censor. He just merrily ran a few cables over to the video machine, grabbed up some favorite CDs, and got busy dubbing Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" right on top of pictures of those children's blood. In another part of the tape, he put on Cheryl Wheeler's anti-gun song, "If It Were Up to Me." Sweet, sad pop songs, dubbed onto video that shows a dead girl's body being dragged to a fire engine.

Unlike so many of the little infections that break out in this society then disappear quickly, this one has been festering long enough for us to watch it grow and maybe figure out what makes it tick. The story starts out with two boys wearing trench coats to school every day. Then they start breaking glass for bomb shrapnel in the garage, and it's loud enough for the neighbors to hear. They leave recognizable pieces of a sawed-off shotgun lying around the house and make videos of themselves talking about killing people at school. They threaten their classmates on their hateful Web site. They do all this, and their fathers never catch on, never intervene. I said it a year ago, and I'll say it again now: That is some sorry-ass daddying.

After many months of planning, the two boys shoot up the school. Then they shoot themselves, confident that their videotaped diary will reach the airwaves. And it does.

After the shooting, we get days of wall-to-wall TV coverage, right down to the details of who is tearing down whose cross at the impromptu hillside memorial. After the dead are buried, some survivors and grieving family members go on the road, talking about their experiences in front of crowds and cameras.

Then, a year later, as the anonymous Littleton firefighter finishes the mixdown of his "training tape," we see daily TV coverage of the anniversary of last year's shooting. The cherry on the sundae: A Colorado judge orders that the music video be made available to the public to comply, he says, with the Colorado Open Records Act.

Maybe it's just me, but I see three common threads here, and they're all intertwined: 1. Otherwise ordinary, run-of-the-mill folk for some reason decide to screw up their lives and the lives of others for a chance to get a little recognition. 2. TV management types willingly accommodate them. 3. There are no levelheaded, rock-ribbed, steely-eyed adults who'll slap the grandiose delusions out of people's heads before they get out of control.

To their enduring credit, Sarah McLachlan and Cheryl Wheeler have demanded that their songs be taken off the tape. As of this writing, the Colorado authorities are saying they'll comply.

So this is what we've come to: The folksingers have to make the authority figures grow a backbone and show some common sense and decency. I don't think that's a good sign.

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