I FIRST HEARD THE NEWS OF LITTLETON on the radio that evening while driving to a friend's house. Someone had broken the antenna off my car a few days earlier; between the lousy reception and the sketchiness of early reports, I couldn't tell at first exactly what had happened. Another school shooting. Twenty-five or more feared dead. Twenty-five? My first thought was entirely weary and entirely cynical. At least the killer understood the moral economy of the situation. One or two bodies wouldn't have made much of a story, not anymore.

My friend and I spent the evening in front of the television, channel-skipping between CNN and MSNBC. I found, to my horror, that I was not the least bit shocked at what I was seeing (were you? really?), but one detail did chill me to the bone: a 15-year-old girl's account of sitting inside a classroom listening to the sounds coming from the hall--bursts of gunfire punctuated by bursts of laughter. As I sat there, the words of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather, writing to his father from death row, came ringing down the years: "but dad i'm not sorry for what i did cause for the first time me and caril had more fun."

Starkweather was the author of the first modern killing spree; in 1958 he and his 14-year-old girlfriend embarked on a joyride through the plains and badlands that left 11 people dead before the law finally put a stop to it. "They say this is a wonderful world to live in," he told a reporter while awaiting execution, "but I don't believe I ever did really live in a wonderful world. The more I looked at people, the more I hated them, because I knowed there wasn't any place for me with the kind of people I knowed. I used to wonder why they was here, anyhow. A bunch of goddamned sons of bitches looking for somebody to make fun of." It's plain enough that there is nothing more dangerous than young men and women who feel themselves locked out, who have no prospects and nowhere to belong. While one might say their desperate rage is all too easy to understand, it's closer to the point to admit that most Americans simply do not care about their kind. Too bad about the people who get in their way, of course, but what do you expect from animals with access to guns? The school shooters who made headlines in the past couple of years belonged to the same lumpen class, at least for purposes of the public imagination. Three of the four were semi-rural Southerners, after all, and you know what that means. Poor white trash.

The shootings in Colorado touch a different chord. These were not kids from the wrong side of town. In a country and an age increasingly defined by ruthless, implacable distinctions between us and them, Eric Harris and Dylan (after Bob, presumably) Klebold were part of us, which means that decent people everywhere will go to great lengths in order not to understand what they did. Consider this, from a local pundit writing in Denver's Rocky Mountain News: "The violence--impossible to explain--wasn't the scream of impoverished misfits, but of middle-class children venting a rage that didn't seem to fit the trappings of their lives: One of them drove a BMW. They played computer games. They had access to the abundance of the metropolitan area that sprawled around them."

You can't understand the America that produces children like these without pausing to weigh the secret, craven plea running under this line of thought: What more could they want? It's a profoundly debased question, and the answer ought to be obvious: Children want to be seen--really seen--and acknowledged, to know that there is a place for them in the world, and to be prepared for their journey. This is a thankless job for even the best parents, because the whole of modern American life conspires against it. And children come to know the score at an early age. They see very quickly to the heart of things, because they haven't yet learned not to look too closely, and because they find far more meaning in actions than in words. There's no bullshitting them about what you believe in and what you value; it's there in the sum of what you do, and they will find you out.

And what the society around them values--well, there's a term that enjoys considerable vogue right now in therapeutic circles: "attachment disorders." You may have seen it used in some of the news sidebars about the Littleton shooters. The phrase refers to the various ways in which one comes to experience oneself as wholly alone, unable to feel or to draw sustenance from connection to other people. It's the defining characteristic of the sociopath and, nowadays, the upstanding American. For that is what the religion of the marketplace, from Reagan on down to Clinton, really amounts to: You are entirely on your own; let the winners win and the losers fall by the wayside. No more safety net, no more lip service to democratic values, no more guilt, no more memory. Decency? Dignity? Loser talk. Get with the program. And most people, out of terror or greed or both, have done just that.

Perhaps this sounds arch, or even hysterical, but it's the plain truth. Attachment disorders? The newspaper is littered with stories of corporate takeovers and restructurings that throw countless thousands of people out of work, very often for the sole end of profit-taking by a handful at the top. HMO executives sit around scheming about new and legal ways to make sure they won't end up providing health insurance to those who need it most, and receive obscene bonuses for their trouble. A president pretends empathy for the disadvantaged and suppresses a report by his own administration that his welfare plan will throw another million kids into poverty; he mounts limited military actions more and more nakedly calculated to serve his own domestic political advantage. Six years ago I sat aghast in front of the TV one Saturday night and watched coverage of the newly elected President Clinton's first bombing run against Iraq. It was a tidy little affair, over in a couple of hours. On NBC's wrap-up of the day's events, Garrick Utley and Andrea Mitchell puzzled over the president's motives. What kind of signal was he sending? Was it partly a response to criticism of his posture toward gays in the military? They cheerfully agreed that it was. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, a dozen or so Iraqi civilians lay dead in the streets. It occurred to me at the time that I had not always lived in a country where bombing strikes against other nations were discussed as if they were sporting events. But the generation born since the start of the Reagan era has always lived in such a world; it's all they know--that, and the anxious, preoccupied look in their parents' eyes as they scurry to or drag themselves in from work.

It's a familiar American conceit to suppose that children of privilege might grow any less soul-sick in the face of such inhumanity than all the rest. But kids, all kids, can see that life is cheap and getting cheaper. They see that money and power are the things that matter. And they see that their parents approve of all this, or feel powerless in the face of it--which, from a child's perspective, usually comes to the same thing: That's the way the world is. Nothing I can do about it.

From the premise that money and power are more real, more salient, than human life and human dignity, it takes no great leap to arrive at the conviction that it's reasonable to use any means at one's disposal to take out whatever, or whoever, proves a source of frustration. ("I am the law," Eric Harris wrote on his website in 1998, "and if you don't like it, you die. If I don't like you, you die.") Certainly there was nothing new in the caste animosities that existed at Columbine High School. The casual cruelty of children, their tendency to forge identities for themselves by ostracizing anyone who's different, is a story that goes back as far as any of us can remember. What's new is the degree to which they feel themselves lost and isolated, and the secret belief harbored by so many of them that life--theirs, their classmates', yours, mine--just isn't worth much. Any child would rage at this. Most, to the world's great relief, will turn the rage inward and damage themselves. But there is always the occasional exception. "They weren't racists," an acquaintance of the killers wearily demurred to a reporter the next day. "They hated everybody."

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