Let's say it's all true: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold posted their plans online, laid it all out for us, fed their anger on Doom and Quake until it burst in the hallways of Columbine High School. How many kids like Harris and Klebold has the Net saved? Say these two boys did find out online how to make a bomb. How many teenagers have gone online and defused their personal bomb-making potential?
I am mourning for the dead of Littleton, but not least for Harris and Klebold, because carrying around that kind of nihilism and despair in their teenage bodies for the months it took them to get to this point means they were in hell long before their guns and your kind wishes sent them there.
Where do you put that kind of pain? The Littleton killers invested theirs in apocalypse. But for many—most—others, the Net brings relief. When your parents are too busy searching your room for drugs to hold a conversation, when your teachers are trying to remember which one of their hundreds of students you might be, when your circle of friends is defined by who's talking about whom behind whose back, you can do worse than venting in an AOL chat or posting something on Bolt or React. (And anyone who ever kept a diary and simultaneously hid it and imagined what That Certain Someone would think if they read it understands exactly where the average teenage Web-page confessional comes from.)
I'm not claiming that the Net is a wonderful substitute for happy in-person relationships. But honestly, is there a time in life that sucks worse than high school? (I'll give you a hint: I know one teenager who defines "outcasts" as "people who wear their shirts tucked in.") Did you have a happy prom-queen adolescence? If so, fuck you. I wanted you dead at my feet in high school. I cut class and hung out in cemeteries and smoked and waited to blow out of town. And as a matter of fact I did own a trenchcoat.
I was a seethingly angry child, but I lived. The only semi-out gay kid in my class survived, despite the fact that his wrestling-coach father denied to the skies that his boy was "that way." Our beautiful and kind valedictorian only nearly died of anorexia. The slightly wild girl whose father had been raping her since elementary school escaped. The "slow" boy with the lisp who wore the same brown pants for weeks at a time—yeah, he tried to stab a jock with a pencil one day, but he got over that (and over the art teacher mocking him for crying when the jocks taunted him into doing it again).
My school was small, and I knew these kids so well that I still remember their middle names. It didn't help. The pressure was horrific then, and it's now overwhelming—and nowhere worse than in the airless confines of the 'burbs. How many kids have taken their hands off the gun or the razor and put them on a keyboard instead? If you feel like someone in this world is listening, even if that person is only manifested as words on a screen, isn't that better than nothing?
On the Bolt site last week there was a poll asking the (primarily teenage) audience if one of their classmates could be a killer. Forty-eight percent said yes; 39 percent said maybe. Admit it, parents: Those stats make a bigger impression on you than one kid saying, 'I want some new sneakers, and can I go to Janey's party, and this guy in my class is a loser freak, and can I have some money, and YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING I WANT!!!' (In that list, the only thing that doesn't sound like an action item is someone else's freaky kid. Yours are freaky enough.)
There's little adults can say to a teenager that's strong enough to serve as a lifeline without that teenager's own faith that yes, adolescence will pass. There are, however, secret and oblique things that teenagers say to each other. More and more, they say them online.