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Don't Shoot the Messenger:

Analyzing the "Evil" Internet

by Catherine Deely

Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado. April 20, 1999. The nation knows the story only too well by now: teenage gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold burst into the school, toting almost unfathomable amounts of weaponry, and start firing. By the time the carnage has ended with the shooters' suicides, 15 people are dead. Twenty-five are injured, many severely. Over 50 bombs are found waiting in lethal silence within the corridors. The question is punctuated by anguish, tears, rage and utter despair: Why?

The answers have ranged from the detachedly academic to the volatile: blame the parents, blame the American educational system, blame Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, blame the NRA, blame the increasingly violence-centered entertainment industry. And then, the most inflammatory, controversial and (in this author's opinion) downright ludicrous answer of all: blame the Internet.

In the Littleton case, so-called "authorities" on the matter explain their finger-pointing at cyberspace in this manner: "They were, according to those who knew them, 'obsessed' with computer games and the Internet." This is an account mentioned in its self-righteous, yet wholly unsubstantiated, entirety in virtually every article covering the tragedy, from the Associated Press to the Boulder News. Yet what does "obsessed with the Internet" mean? Does it mean spending considerable time surfing, chatting, procrastinating over schoolwork, diving into intriguing sites on a daily basis?

If so, that makes me obsessed, it makes the majority of my friends obsessed, and it makes anyone who utilizes the Internet in the pursuit of entertainment and knowledge guilty of the same obsession. According to a recent poll in USA Today, over 67% of American adults spend three hours or more on the Internet on an average day. Doesn't that mean all of us, like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, are "obsessed" with the Internet, exposed to the same dangerously diverse and uncensored content that they were, and therefore likely to go on a similarly devastating rampage?

If you've looked at the scenario I've just given and felt only outrage, you have captured the essence of the argument that I, and countless other Internet aficionados, are making. To call the Internet "evil," to blame it for murder and hatred and the oft-lamented "decay of moral values," is to call the majority of our society "evil" and similarly guilty. In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, it was revealed that Eric Harris had maintained his own Web site, on which he had posted a graphic barrage of hate-filled epithets and malicious declarations. (Harris' Web site provider, AOL, has since taken the site off-line, but a mirror copy is still available for viewing.) More controversially, Harris' site also featured a lengthy and detailed tutorial on how best to create such devices as pipe bombs and napalm. It was this aspect of the site that created the "Internet as evildoer" battle cry, igniting a series of admonitions that, had the Internet not existed, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and virtually any other troubled individual would likely have failed in their brutal intentions, or would never have conceived of them at all. Time Magazine columnist Daniel Okrent opined in his May 10, 1999 cover story: "…the wonder and the horror of the Web is not that it takes you out into the world; on the contrary, it brings the world-in all its glorious, anarchic, beautiful, hateful variety-into your home."

So are we, the educated, informed, nonviolent and presumably "sane" American public, to believe that it really is the Internet that opens so many doors to carnage and chaos? Why, then, do we not ban books? Newspapers? Magazines? Television shows? Documentaries? These, too, can certainly be accused of "bringing the world, "in all its glorious, anarchic, beautiful, hateful variety," into our homes.

If Eric Harris, or any angry, unbalanced young person like him, had been denied access to the Internet-or if there were no Internet at all-he still could have made his bombs. All he would have had to do would be to visit his local neighborhood bookstore or library, pick up a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook or a similar publication produced in the name of rebellion and revolution. Or he could have asked around, heard from a friend of a friend of a friend who had figured out pipe bomb-making on his own. I had this conversation recently with two of my roommates-both male, both relatively well-adjusted despite their enjoyment of "violent" video games, both constantly on the Internet and with their own personal Web sites, just like Eric Harris. "It's so easy to make pipe bombs," commented Paul (who, incidentally, is graduating this month, sansany criminal record, and will be starting his new position as a software engineer, not a mass murderer, in the fall). "My best friend's older brother showed us how in fifth grade." On another note: when Paul was in the fifth grade, it was approximately 1987. In technological terms, this was light years before the advent of the Internet.

The fact remains: the Internet is not evil. It is a tool, much like a piece of writing paper, meant to foster and feature the expressions, ideas and works of people around the world. Just like books, magazines, even personal letters, yes, the Internet can be used to communicate thoughts of rage, cruelty, or even homicide. But, just as none of us would advocate the culpability and subsequent banishment of writing paper, how can we justify doing the same to the Internet? Though the Internet can reach a wider audience than its print counterparts, it is only as guilty-as "evil," if you prefer-as the people who write on it.

Professor Joohan Kim of the Boston College Communication Department has both an extensive background, as well as a genuine interest, in studies concerning the Internet and modern perception of it. His take on the current "damn the Net" phenomenon: "Here's the basic line of argument: people tend to fear something new, like the Internet, if they don't understand it. Plainly speaking, if the shooting happened in a school, why don't they ban all the schools? People may use the phone to plan certain crimes, but nobody seems to blame the phone."

The Internet, Kim emphasizes, is, just like the telephone, the newspaper and the television screen, a mere mechanism of the media. "Media instruments are ethic-neutral," he says. "The Internet is not something good or bad…it is technology. We should blame the contact, the person who creates the content, not the means."

Perhaps the root of the current determination to blame the Internet for acts of human madness lies in denial. It is beyond what we are able-or willing-to accept to think that some human beings are so tormented, so desolate, that they become capable of walking into a school and opening fire. Perhaps we find it more disturbing to recognize that there are some things about human nature we will never understand than to pinpoint reproach on a human invention that cannot answer back.

On a last, and altogether sobering note: the Internet, so maligned, so condemned in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, may well have provided the single best chance to prevent it. Eric Harris posted his rage, his plans, and his final intentions online, in full public view, for all the world to see: "God I can't wait till I can kill you people…I'll just go to some downtown area in some big…city and blow up and shoot everything I can. I don't care if I live or die in the shootout. I just want to kill and injure as many of you as I can."

Surely a kid who was intelligent enough to hide his rage and instability from his parents and teachers, to maintain an A average while spending a year plotting an intricate blueprint of death, to customize his own computer games while displaying a remarkable degree of Internet savvy, did not post this grave warning unknowingly. It was a cry for help, and it was deliberate. Somehow, in the midst of his hatred and growing madness, Eric Harris chose to give forewarning of what he was planning, advertising it in the most accessible display case in the world.

Perhaps if someone-anyone-had seen this and recognized it for what it was, had trusted the Internet as an indispensable implement rather than an irresponsible promoter of bloodshed, Columbine High School would be as anonymous today as it was on April 19, 1999.

For further reading on the debate over Internet culpability, visit one of the following links:

Catherine Deely is currently completing her junior year at Boston College, where she is a Communication major specializing in WWW and Digital Media. In addition to being a certified Net addict, she holds high hopes of finding "THE dream job"-combining writing, media, and research for an online publication. Catherine can be reached at


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