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Juliette Kayyem

Details are a distraction in Newtown killings

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers from Columbine High School, were not members of a “trenchcoat mafia.” They did not listen to goth-rocker Marilyn Manson. They were not bullied by the popular jocks. They were not outcasts. They were not known racists or anti-Semites. They did not ask classmate Cassie Bernall if she believed in God, and then kill her, execution-style, when she answered yes. Yet all those myths live on.

Harris and Klebold, we now know, had an active social life and took advanced classes. Harris was adored by adults; he was a phony who would charm his friends’ parents and then eviscerate them on his webpage. Klebold was from a loving family who were doing everything to try to give confidence to a boy who viewed his life as a failure. And, had the two lived, they would have been disappointed by going down in history as vicious murderers: in their minds, they were martyrs.

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The real story of the Columbine killers, laid bare in exhausting detail in Dave Cullen’s book “Columbine,” was lost in the days after the massacre as apocryphal stories were told, then retold, then re-embellished, to amplify whatever point the narrator was trying to prove. The writing and re-writing of the Columbine drama provides a cautionary tale for those searching for answers in Newtown, Conn.

Possible explanations for why Adam Lanza went on his shooting spree against a classroom full of young students last week, killing 20 first-graders and 6 school employees at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, began to emerge on Wednesday. His mother, who was both a victim and an unsympathetic enabler (based on the veritable arsenal of weapons she kept in the home she shared with her mentally unstable son), was ready to commit him to an institution. He found out and focused his rage on her and the school where she volunteered.

It’s as good a story as any. But this narrative, too, is likely to change as new evidence is unearthed and another reason why, any reason why, is thrown out there.

What we do know now is basic and undeniable. We know that rampage murderers use high-volume, rapid-firing guns.

We can pretend, as we surely do now, that the particular details of this tragedy should make a major difference in formulating the policy choices ahead. They do not. Whatever facts unfold, whatever gems of explanation are unearthed, some narrative will have already been settled based on the attention span of the American public. This is what happened with Columbine.

As the Columbine mythology suggests, the focus on the details of a particular case is not the right way to think about our obligation to those children who died. A nation cannot design a policy around what it thinks it knows about one incident. There are too many incidents to speak of and too many consequences for the choices that need to get made, particularly on gun control. One “eureka” moment, bound to be erroneous, doesn’t matter.

Indeed, the search for facts makes us stupid. By focusing on these details, we perpetuate the notion by those who would want to maintain the current gun laws that we could be safe if only we knew more about the individuals who threaten us. Maybe by rejecting knowledge, we can finally reclaim our common sense: There is a difference between safer and safe. The former is an achievable policy and points to concrete steps we can take; the other is a futile, childish hope. The world will always have “evil” and “sociopaths.” But, we are smart enough to know we can’t be completely safe; we just need to be safer.

Harris and Klebold are nothing. Lanza is irrelevant. Even though we don’t know everything, even though what we think we know will likely be proven wrong in the years to come, we can be guided by the one fact that is irrefutable: On average, over the course of a single day, eight children die from gun violence.

We know enough.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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