Afterword: The Columbine Effect on Culture, Policy, and Me

Published date01 August 2019
Date01 August 2019
Subject MatterAfterword
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2019, Vol. 35(3) 357 –372
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986219840238
Afterword: The Columbine
Effect on Culture,
Policy, and Me
Glenn W. Muschert1
This afterword considers the cultural effect of the 1999 Columbine High School
shootings. I bring together the aspects of a traditional academic review with my
personal reflections as a scholar who spent the past two decades researching its
cultural and policy ramifications. Columbine is a noted milestone in the American
cultural lexicon, and one that has become an important reference point for discussions
of school violence and other social problems concerning youth. Columbine often
serves as an inaccurate exemplar of the broader problem of youth violence, and this
so-called “Columbine Effect” means that extreme cases exert a disproportionately
strong influence on public discourse about the problem. Over the past 20 years, the
net effect has been the acceleration of punitive anti-violence school policies that
include policing, surveillance, and zero-tolerance policies. I consider my experience
as a researcher in this area and conclude with modest suggestions for guiding policy
development to mitigate the problem of violence in schools.
Columbine, school violence, anti-violence policy
Columbine, as a shorthand for the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20,
1999, is a noted entry in the American cultural lexicon, and thus can be examined as an
important referent in public discourse. Specifically, Columbine entered the broader cul-
tural field (Bourdieu, 1984), and serves as a reference point to understand youth social
problems and violence in educational institutions. The effect of Columbine is substan-
tial, not only on anti-violence policy in schools, but also as a cultural touchstone.
1Khalifa University of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Corresponding Author:
Glenn W. Muschert, Professor of Sociology, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Khalifa
University of Science and Technology, P.O. Box 127788, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
840238CCJXXX10.1177/1043986219840238Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeMuschert
358 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 35(3)
Columbine attained the rare status as a milestone moment where people can pinpoint
exactly when they heard about the shootings. Regardless of how Columbine is memo-
rialized, when we speak about “Columbine,” we are not really talking about what hap-
pened in that incident in 1999, but rather its reverberations that continue to this day.
This afterword combines aspects of a traditional academic review with my personal
reflections as a scholar who has spent the past two decades researching the cultural and
policy ramifications of Columbine. The academic and more professional aspects of
this piece examine the entry and evolution of Columbine in the American collective
memory, ultimately reflecting on the ways in which Columbine has become an influ-
ential touchstone for how the culture conceptualizes and responds to the threat of
violence in schools. My reflections explore my personal connection with Columbine
as a graduate student in Colorado and my subsequent work studying the legacy of
Columbine. I conclude by bringing these themes together to consider future work. As
I intersperse my personal reflections in the text, personal reflections appear in
Columbine in American Collective Memory
The shared memories and subsequent meanings of the 1999 Columbine High School
shootings are a noted aspect of contemporary American cultural life. A tragic event
undoubtedly occurred on April 20, 1999, yet the lingering poignancy of it has become
more abstract in the collective American psyche. The concept Columbine is one that is
distinct from the concrete facts or historical context of the events that actually occurred,
and its salience arises from shared memories, or what sociologists would call the
nation’s “collective memory” (see Olick & Robbins, 1998). It is in this shared memory
of Columbine that generates what may be its most significant legacy.
The study of collective memory is distinct from history. Collective memory exam-
ines how shared memories of past events are created and sustained, and in turn influ-
ence contemporary social relations. As such, this sociological perspective focuses on
detached, evaluative, and shared aspects of memories (Zerubavel, 2003). “Sociologists
of memory stress the importance of social contexts including the historical, cultural,
subcultural, and political environments in which memories are generated and to which
they refer” (Song & Muschert, 2013, p. 17). In collective memory studies, individual
memories are subjective frames of reference through which individuals interpret the
social realm and attribute meanings to the contemporary notion of the past (Zerubavel,
1996). Collective memories also are a part of the ideological sphere, which provide a
shared sense of a social group’s origins. As such, collective memories serve as orien-
tating concepts that groups can use as they negotiate and interpret contemporary or
future challenges. The social dynamics of memorializing the past help solidify the
collective identities of social units, including communities, nations, and generations.
One additional reason that Columbine serves as a particularly relevant historical
point of reference is due to the crime-conscious nature of American society (see
Reiman & Leighton, 2013). Americans share a fascination with crime and justice,
which often captures the public imagination (see, for example, Chermak & Bailey,

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