Nothing, nihilism, and videotape

By Roberto Rivera*

February 2000 – This was definitely not what the people of Littleton, Colorado, wanted for Christmas. Eight months after the shootings that turned “Columbine” into a synonym for “massacre,” they had begun to put their lives back together. Columbine High School had defied the odds and won the Colorado high school football championship, and things had begun to return to normal.

Then along came Time magazine with what it dubbed a “Special Report.” The report was based on a set of videos shot by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the April shooting. In these tapes, the duo swigged Jack Daniels, brandished their weapons, and tried to explain why they were about to do what they did.

What emerged from the tape wasn’t a pair of raving maniacs or diabolical masterminds. Instead, we got a glimpse of pathetically screwed-up kids, made that way, in no small measure, by a popular culture that breeds Nihilism.

In the aftermath of the shootings, there was no shortage of explanations for why two middle-class suburban kids would set out to massacre their schoolmates. These included uncontrolled anger, bad parents and bigotry. Some people, most notably conservative commentator Arianna Huffington, even tried to pin the blame on Luvox, an anti-depressant being taken by Harris.

If the tapes are any indication, we – and I acknowledge my membership in the punditocracy – got it wrong. While Harris and Klebold were angry at the way they had been treated, you can’t label their anger as “uncontrollable.” On the contrary, it’s clear from watching the tapes that they had bided their time, waiting for the ideal moment to act. And as for Luvox, Harris stopped taking his medication so that he would be angry enough when the time came to pull the trigger.

And while the pair’s performance on the tapes was filled with racial hatred and invective, it’s also clear that they were equal-opportunity haters. They hated everybody: athletes, minorities, Jews and other whites.

Well, how about their oblivious parents? You know, the ones who were unaware of the bomb factory in the house? The pair absolves their parents. Klebold tells the camera “There’s nothing you guys could’ve done to prevent this…” He tells his mom and dad that they were “great parents,” and that he appreciates what they’ve done for him. As consolation, Harris offers a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “good wombs hath borne bad sons.” They then say goodbye to parents by saying “it’s what we had to do…”

But the tapes do tell us that at least one of the factors cited in the aftermath of the shooting bears mentioning: the role that American popular culture played in shaping Harris’ and Klebold’s worldviews. I’m not talking about the attempt to place blame on movies such as The Matrix or The Basketball Diaries. The role played by popular culture was both more subtle and more insidious.

Take the name that Harris chose for his shotgun: Arlene. He named it after a character in his favorite video game, Doom. Doom is a violent and gory game where the strategy is simple: if it moves, shoot it. And in case anyone missed the reference, Harris told the camera that the “shooting [was] going to be like… Doom.”

Can anyone seriously doubt the extent to which the hyper-violent world of video games had shaped the pair’s worldview?

An even more important indication as to how American popular culture shaped the pair’s understanding of the world can be found in their stated reasons for doing what they did. Harris and Klebold wanted the world to be clear on one point: They were not merely imitating other school shootings. Harris says that we should “ … not think we’re trying to copy anyone…” He and Klebold had thought of killing their classmates “…before the [other school shootings] ever happened.” What’s more, their motivations were entirely different from the likes of Kip Kinkel in Oregon, or the shooters in Paducah, Kentucky, who, according to Harris, “ …were only trying to be accepted by others.”

No, Harris and Klebold weren’t looking for acceptance. They were originals. They couldn’t be concerned with such trivial matters as whether people liked them or even considerations of right and wrong. They were after much bigger game. They wanted to be remembered as revolutionary figures, people who did something that changed the world.

Students of philosophy will immediately recognize the source of these pronouncements: The writings of Frederic Nietzsche. It’s striking just how much of what Klebold and Harris said owes to the nineteenth-century philosopher. For instance, like Nietzsche, the pair didn’t deny that what they were about to do was wrong. They understood that their actions would bring grief, not only to the victims and their families, but to their own families, as well. But that knowledge of right and wrong didn’t dissuade them, because they considered themselves as transcending such considerations. In Nietzschean terms, they were beyond good and evil. Likewise, their desire to be seen as doing something original comes straight from Nietzsche’s idea of the artist as a self-creator who is unconstrained by antiquated moral norms.

Finally, there’s the tone of the tapes. The word that comes to mind is “banal.” Yes, Harris and Klebold were angry, but they also approach their intentions with a matter-of-fact attitude. They were clearly tired of life, and convinced that there was nothing worth living for. “So,” they reasoned “why not stage our own Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)? At least we will be remembered for the audacity and originality of our final actions.”

The question is: How did Klebold and Harris come under the sway of a philosopher who died a century ago? They may have read his work, but the most likely answer is that they absorbed Nietzsche second-hand through American popular culture. And the best way to understand the influence of Nietzsche on popular culture is a new book by Thomas Hibbs, a professor of Philosophy at Boston College. Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld chronicles the trajectory of popular culture, in particular movies and television, over the past 25 years.

According to Hibbs, the worldview that best characterizes contemporary movies and television is nihilism, which Hibbs defines as a “state of spiritual impoverishment and shrunken aspirations.” And this nihilism comes to us courtesy of Nietzsche, whom Harvard’s Harvey C. Mansfield calls “the philosopher of our times.”

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. Not in a literal sense, but in what Hibbs describes as “the growing sense that no religious or moral code is credible.” This sense, which Nietzsche calls “pessimism,” is a “preliminary form of nihilism.” Nihilism leads to the belief that all definitions of good and evil are “arbitrary,” which in turn, “deprives us of any common vision.”

This represented an about-face from what people had believed for at least 2,000 years. Hibbs describes two possible responses to the knowledge that God is dead. The first is a despair which leads to a “stagnation of the creative will.” The second is an embrace of “creative boldness” that declares its independence from outmoded notions of right and wrong. According to Hibbs, both responses are present in much of today’s television and movies.

In the case of creative boldness, the past 25 years have witnessed the emergence of an unprecedented character whom Hibbs calls the “demonic anti-hero.” Examples of this type are Cady, the character played by Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, and Hannibal Lecter, the role that won Anthony Hopkins his Oscar in Silence of The Lambs. Unlike the classic hero, or even the flawed hero of film noir, the demonic anti-hero revels in his freedom from moral restraints and invites the audience to celebrate his liberation. Recall Lector’s last line in Silence of the Lambs. Looking at his old nemesis, he tells Clarice, “I’m having an old friend for dinner” – in other words, “I’m gonna kill him and eat him.” Did you laugh? I did.

The demonic anti-hero is the emblem of a worldview increasingly portrayed in movies where, as Hibbs writes, “…ultimate justice is elusive, where we are tempted to see the underlying force as malevolent and punitive …[This world sees] violence and ineradicable guilt as the underlying truth about the human condition…” In other words, no one cares, no one is in control, no one is innocent, and even if they are, there’s no one around to vindicate their rights. This is the worldview not only of the films I’ve already mentioned, but of virtually every horror film, and of shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.

The other response, that of despair, is more subtle, but no less corrosive. As Hibbs’ subtitle tells us, this response is best embodied in the definitive comedy of the nineties: Seinfeld. Have there ever been four more spiritually impoverished people than Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer? Did you ever see four people who aspired to less? From the start, the writers of Seinfeld followed two important rules: no hugs and no learning. The result was a world without any pretense to virtue, or even sentiment. A world where earnestness was nowhere to be found and where the surface was all there was. The only posture that makes sense in such a world is detached irony, that is, be like Jerry. (And like all successful shows, Seinfeld spawned its imitators. Shows like Friends are basically “Seinfeld lite.” They are trivial and superficial, but they lack the guts to go all the way and embrace the “no hugs, no learning” rule.) Which is exactly the kind of world you’d expect to find if God was dead and people didn’t have the ambition to be Hannibal Lector.

The nihilism of popular culture matters because, in a world where the influence of institutions such as the family and the church has diminished, popular culture has become an important source of values for many kids. Which brings us back to Harris and Klebold. If you have been intravenously fed Nietzsche through what you watch and what you listen to; if you’ve come to believe that life is meaningless, then, as Hibbs might tell you, you’ve got two choices: You can be George Costanza or Hannibal Lector. Which would you choose?

I know what you’re thinking. “I watched Seinfeld. I saw Silence of the Lambs. I’ve never even thought of harming my classmates.” That’s almost always true, but it’s important to understand that the nihilism in pop culture affects different people in different ways. A lot of people are temperamentally incapable of perpetrating violence. Instead, they manifest the effects by becoming depressed and indifferent. Or, they adopt a posture of irony (what Hibbs might call “the Seinfeld syndrome”) where they embody the superficial, always seeking to be amused, and passive creatures – creatures Nietzsche called “the last man.” Sound like anybody you know?

If you’re fortunate, the corrosive effects of our nihilistic popular culture have been countered by the values you learned at home and in church. While the culture may have been declaring “God is Dead,” you know that God is very much alive. In an ironic way, Harris and Klebold themselves proved how powerful an antidote this kind of belief is. When they stopped to ask prospective victims “do you believe in God,” it was as if they were saying “if we did, we wouldn’t be here.” Even having embraced darkness, they recognized light when they saw it.

And it’s this light that’s our best hope against what happened in Littleton. In the end, believing in something – in particular, the One whose birth we celebrate this time of year – is the best way to not succumb to the nihilism caused by shows “about nothing."  undefined

* Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His reports on the culture appear monthly in Boundless, an Internet magazine. (