["It's only me,"] said the boy with the gun, as he surrendered to sheriffs in the boys' bathroom. If only that were true. In the 48 hours after Charles Andrew Williams shot up his high school in Santee, Calif., 16 more kids in California were arrested or detained for making threats or taking guns to school. An 11-year-old in Higley, Ariz., threatened to kill the girl he liked and the boy who had kissed her. He told police that he got the idea from news reports and was only kidding. Another 11-year-old, in Phoenix was arrested after threatening to shoot a teacher's tape player and then the teacher. He apparently did not like the teacher's "obnoxious music." Elizabeth Bush, the eighth-grader in Williamsport, Pa., who dreamed of becoming either a human-rights activist or a nun, shot the head cheerleader in the cafeteria. "No one thought I would go through with this," she yelled as she fired her .22.
It's not only Andy Williams.
A reasonable person who read the papers or watched the news last week might conclude that murderous violence could happen anywhere, at any time, in any school in America. The one thing that nearly every school shooting has in common is the chorus of parents declaring that "I never thought it could happen here." That's not because they know the statistics--that youth violence is dropping, that schools are getting safer, that fewer than 1% of teen gun-related deaths occur in schools--it's because many of us float our children off to school in a bubble, grateful to live in a wholesome town--"We are America," Santee Mayor Randy Voepel declared--and unwilling to admit that the danger could follow us no matter where we go.
Don't look for a pattern; by the time you find it, you will find a counterargument wrapped around it. Is it the absence of parents, the presence of guns, the cruelty of the culture, the culture of cruelty? School shootings are like plane crashes, rare but riveting for the primitive fears they evoke. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the executioners of Columbine, gave that fear a face: cold-blooded, calculating, seeking immortality, dancing with the devil. They gave our kids the awful shorthand: You're not going to do a Columbine? Williams' friends asked. They even frisked him that morning before school.
In a spasm of fear and frustration, the adults fire back at a moving target. Last week politicians went after the tormentors: in Washington State the senate passed a law requiring school officials to investigate--and notify parents about--incidents of bullying on their campuses. Police went after negligent parents: in Indianapolis, Calvin and Shawnee Sistrunk were charged with felony neglect after their six-year-old daughter arrived at kindergarten with a loaded handgun. She wanted to show it to her friends. The culture cracked down on itself: on Friday night KGTV, an ABC affiliate in San Diego, televised the memorial service for Williams' victims; then, for roughly 35 minutes, it dropped its regular programming and showed only a text message urging parents to turn off the TV and spend time talking to their kids.