Century's symbols of hate resurrected by massacre

San Jose Mercury News, April 25, 1999
By Richard Scheinin

There was something terribly familiar about the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who rampaged through Columbine High School in Colorado last week and then committed suicide. Like so many mass murderers, the so-called "Trench Coat Mafia" students identified with -- and drew strength from, it seems -- symbols of evil. They drew swastikas on their arms and murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher on Hitler's birthday, shocking the nation into collective grief.

Their violence seems mysterious, hinting that something dangerous lurks wide and deep in American society. It can be attributed to feelings of alienation, of course, as well as the easy availability of guns, and the callousness of a culture that sells murder as entertainment.

But the young men also seem to have understood the power of associating themselves with Adolf Hitler: They bonded, at least in part, through identification with the ultimate symbol of evil in this century.

The 20th century has been defined by violence and alienation. Hitler was himself an outsider and a failure as a young man: poor, bitter and eventually jailed for participating in riots against the state. That he should be adopted as a role model by Harris and Klebold -- school pariahs, according to other students -- carries with it some irony. Excluded by a peer group and mainstream culture that defined itself as "good," the teens apparently sought an identity and payback by aligning themselves with what was "evil."

Hate behind actions

This sort of association typifies much criminal behavior: Gangs, occult groups and "white pride" killers all adopt codes or symbols as shorthand for expressing group identity and purpose.

"You look at the incident in Texas where a black man was dragged to his death behind a truck," said Kurt Kumli, supervising deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County's juvenile division. "That's an unspeakable crime, regardless. But then when you see pictures of the perpetrator, and you see his tattoos and you read the racist literature he was espousing, it becomes especially chilling. Because he is saying, 'This sign is what stands behind my action.' "

The Nazis constructed their own mythical universe. Enamored of symbols, they borrowed the swastika from ancient mythologies and made it a symbol of destruction. Half a century after his death, Hitler has attained a mythic status. He has been called the visible embodiment of archetypal evil. His legacy bleeds at times into the thinking of people who set themselves apart from the crowd, shunned by and lost in the masses.

In Littleton, Colo., Harris and Klebold were part of a group that skulked through school hallways wearing dark trench coats as cover.

"The first time I heard about it, I told my mom, 'It's like society's outcasts seeking revenge,' " said Vanessa Bravo, 16, a sophomore at Independence High School in San Jose.

Bravo is reading "Lord of the Flies," the novel by William Golding, in which a group of boys paint their faces and turn murderously on other children on an otherwise uninhabited island.

"When they painted their faces, they covered up who they were to become someone else," Bravo said. "And what normally should be wrong, now seemed right. And when I heard about the black trench coats the boys wore in Colorado, I thought it almost was like their security blanket. It gave them strength to go and kill these people, which was so wrong, but in their minds it was right because they had become totally different people." Benign symbols

Of course, symbols abound throughout society, not just among criminals. Adults define themselves by wearing expensive wristwatches and driving fast cars.

"People burn the flag to make a symbolic statement, and then somebody starts a fight with the people who are burning it," said Cleveland Prince, a county probation officer.

"Law enforcement people wear an insignia. That's a symbol, too, and it represents a belief system: 'This is what motivates me and this is why I'm going to do what I do.' It's this whole issue of identity. For kids, gothic kids, gang kids, Aryan kids, it is an issue of belonging, too. But it can become concentrated, exaggerated, because they're so young and impressionable."

Hitler's legacy

It is more than 50 years since the Holocaust, but Hitler lives on as a symbol and reference point in Western society. Every day, one hears references to Hitler in conversations and the news: Earlier this decade, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was "Hitler." Today it is Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose "ethnic cleansing" of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo conjures up images of Nazi war crimes.

"Hitler opened the door to evil which today seems normal," said Arnost Lustig, Auschwitz survivor, novelist, and professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C. "The Nazis proved it is possible -- and now we have had millions dead in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans. And America? The United States is vital and decadent at the same time. On one hand, it provides people with comfort unseen in the history of man. But at the same time, this comfort begets evil. People are simply spoiled by this good life and are trying to touch something which is more interesting, and this is evil."

Which is not to say that every outsider -- every man or woman who feels marginalized by society -- will join that cult. The majority of outcasts are not destroyers; many become artists, a few prophets. Beethoven, as an example, was isolated "by his deafness and by his personality," said Richard Tarnas, author of "The Passion of the Western Mind."

The composer had "virtually no intimate relationships and yet he brought forth this magnificent musical expression of the human spirit. His isolation served as a kind of spiritual matrix for creative profundity," Tarnas said.

Classically, the outsider has insights that transform society for the better: Jesus in the desert was an outsider in a fundamental way.

'Compelling evil'

But occasionally there comes along the outsider who is a scourge and whose status attains mythic heights. It is unclear how thoroughly Harris and Klebold delved into Hitler's ideology: Was it something they embraced in totality, or used opportunistically? They may have been impressed by images of Hitler speaking to tens of thousands of people who would literally have followed their Fuhrer into hell.

They may have asked how it was possible "that someone could be that powerful and malignant," said Jonathan Bush, a Holocaust historian at the National Humanities Center in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. "Fascism made use of symbols and charismatic trappings -- the swastikas, the helmets, the trench coats. If you look at the old films . . . this is all arranged to be compelling, and it is compelling -- compelling evil. And American high school students can fall for it just like German voters."

In an American society over-stimulated by violent media and entertainment, there's not much that shocks anymore. But there's always the touchstone of evil that symbols of Nazism embody. Alienated young people may or may not know the history of those symbols. But they understand that the swastika and the SS thunderbolt still provoke a visceral reaction, and a few sad souls still put them to use.

"In the pagan world, every country had its own god," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "In modern America, there is the god of evil. And if you are a disciple of evil, you want to pay homage to your god.

"Hitler is the titan of evil."

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