Moral Spaces and Moral Panics: High Schools, War Zones and Other Dangerous Places — Patricia Molloy

On Wednesday, April 21, 1999, the ABC Evening News was broadcast live from Littleton Colorado, one day after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris seized Columbine High School leaving 15 people including themselves dead, their affluent Denver suburb in shock, and the world watching. As the school and its perimeter were considered still too dangerous, due to possible left-over bombs and explosives, anchorman Peter Jennings and crew set up their broadcast at the edge of Columbine’s campus. Surrounded by yellow police tape, adorned with balloons, bows, and wreaths of flowers, the crime scene, one day later, had already accelerated to a site of mourning. From here, Jennings delivered his broadcast featuring interviews with survivors and parents, teachers and grief counsellors, all with their own tale to tell and questions to ask, each with their own investment in its telling or asking. Who were these young men? Why were they so angry? How did they acquire the means to kill and maim in such proportions? Moreover, what could have been done to prevent it? How could their parents be so unaware? What can be done to make America’s schools safe? While Jennings stood on the grounds of Columbine High trying to sort through these questions, his camera crew escorted the viewer through the campus, the town, to the homes of the dead suspects, and back again through the halls and rooms of the school itself – reconstructed via computer graphics, the events of the day before recreated in temporal sequence for those out there who might want to know precisely ‘what happened.’

The aftermath of the Columbine High School killings was not the only story that ABC featured in the news that evening. Indeed, before cutting to a commercial midway through the live broadcast from Colorado, immediately following a segment about the minuscule budgets afforded school counselling and the need for more innovative programs that would ‘change the odds on violence,’ Jennings announced that ‘When we come back: the other news, the latest weapon in the war against the Serbs.’ The camera then panned to the American flag lowered half-mast. As promised, following the commercial break, Jennings, still surrounded by police tape in Littleton, directed the broadcast to Yugoslavia announcing the arrival of the Apache helicopters which, at $16 million a pop, are ‘one of the most lethal battlefield weapons in the U.S. army arsenal.’ Following that ‘other news,’ the broadcast switched back to Jennings still reporting live from Littleton, still seeking an explanation for the violence which unfolded the day before.

Referring to the war against Serbia as ‘the other news,’ would seem to imply, of course, that the occurrences in Littleton and Yugoslavia were disparate and discrete events, bearing no relation and offering no continuity. But the ease with which anchorman Jennings was able to separate the violence in Littleton and Yugoslavia is less than surprising given President Clinton’s televised address to the nation that morning in which he proclaimed ‘we must teach our children to settle their differences through words and not weapons’ and that ‘we have to take this moment to hammer home to all children in America that violence is wrong,’ while proceeding to continue the bombing of Belgrade that night. Whilst it is not my intention in this essay to ‘prove’ an easy causal link between the war against Yugoslavia and the Columbine shootings, it is my contention that neither event, nor the space of its occurrence and the manner of its telling, can be wholly separate/d from the other. Insofar as tales from both inside and outside the nation-state are regarded as separate and separable is, I suggest, rooted in an inability to recognise the contingencies of our spatial and moral locations. The separation of inside from outside (the ‘here’ and the ‘there’) allows a demarcation of the ‘safe and secure’ from the ‘dangerous and insecure’ (see Lisle, 2000). Indeed, what enables individuals, homes, schools, and nations to become a zone of safety or danger, is an assignation of ‘the dangerous’ as that which is outside, unknowable, foreign, different, Other.

As sites of violence, high schools and war zones are indeed dangerous places, their inhabitants ‘at risk.’ Other dangerous places, as many conservatives would (and do) argue, include the movie theatre, the music venue, the Internet – sites wherein one ‘learns’ violence and how to be violent. My intention here, however, is not so much to identify those other dangerous places but, rather, to examine how particular spaces become places of the dangerous Other. In this essay we shall see how the inhabitants of the high school, like those of the war zone, are both the subject and object of sovereign power and as such are governed in what Giorgio Agamben terms a state of exception, a suspension of law through which the exception becomes the rule. The life of the post-Columbine student, as with the war zone’s refugee, as I shall later argue, is lived as ‘bare life,’ included as excluded in a ‘zone of indistinction’ (see Agamben, 1998).

Moral Spaces and Moral Boundaries

I borrow the term ‘moral spaces’ from an anthology of essays entitled Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics(Campbell and Shapiro, 1999). Disturbed by the moribund literature of ‘ethics and international affairs’ which tends to disguise rather than contest the problematics of sovereignty, the volume’s editors call for an ethical theorizing which would in turn disturb the satisfactions of applying a singular ethical theory to investigate what are specific, and historically rooted encounters. A reinvestigation of the relationship between space, subjectivity and ethics, however, should reveal and demonstrate the ‘radical entanglement between moral discourses and spatial imaginaries.’ Moral spaces, write editors Campbell and Shapiro, are ‘the bounded locations whose inhabitants acquire the privileges deriving from ethical inclusion’ and which precipitate the need ‘to intervene in the dominant practices of intelligibility that enable geopolitical imaginaries at the expense of an ethics of encounter’ (ix). Drawing upon the insights of Emmanuel Levinas in particular, Campbell and Shapiro call for a supplanting of ethical theory with a recognition of the ethical relation, wherein our responsibility for the Other precedes the constitution of the self and is the basis for reflection (x). Neither the shootings at Columbine High and their aftermath, nor the bombing under the auspices of NATO’s ‘humanitarianism’ come close, to say the least, to an ethics of encounter. But how do they each participate in the ongoing mapping of the geopolitical as moral space? And moreover, how are the high school and the war zone related? The events of Columbine and Kosovo are both represented in popular discourse as a lapse, if not total collapse, of Western values. However, before we can determine their relation as zones of indistinction, it bears elaborating how they came to be separated in the first place.

Our inability to connect the dots, as it were, between Littleton and Yugoslavia is, to a large degree, due to the arbitrary separation of the domestic from the international which undergirds political realist accounts of the way the world ‘is.’ Briefly, realism’s state-centric ontology holds that the international comprises a system of independent, sovereign and potentially hostile states competing in their own self/national interest. Matters of state, thus, usually pertain to the securing, maintenance and defence of sovereign power in the face of the threats which emanate from beyond, from the elsewhere. In focussing exclusively on the relations (e.g. conflict) between states, realism loses sight of practices within the bounded spaces of the sovereign state, pushing domestic matters to the realm of unimportance. Indeed, the actual lived realities ‘inside’ political communities are deemed by realist political theorists as ‘of peripheral importance to the serious business of capital and state. To engage with the local is to be sidetracked into the trivial’ (Walker, 1993: 152-3).

Furthermore, the exclusionary logic of state sovereignty is such that the territorial borders of the state, which separate inside from outside, the here from the there, map out and seek to contain identity, wherein identity is measured against difference. The making of maps is always already an exclusionary and hence a moral practice. Morality ’emerges from the boundary-drawing and place-naming practices that construct the map’ (Shapiro, 1999: 60). Thus, drawing a boundary around a collective self is at the same time a practice of exclusion. The map of the modern states system ‘represents the production of others‘ (Shapiro, 1999: 60; my emphasis). ‘As a necessary counterpart to delimiting its own space, to fashioning a domestic self-image, the nation simultaneously projects libidinal images of other spaces and other nations against which to define itself and its own frontiers’ (Shaun Irlam qtd in Shapiro, 1999: 60). Space itself, then, is but a ‘neutral grid’ upon which cultural difference, historical memory, and societal organization are inscribed (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992: 7).

This carving out of space which assigns selves and Others to their own separate/d zones is contingent upon a hierarchical discourse of danger, a fear of difference itself. Notions of who ‘we’ are are dependent upon an understanding of who ‘we’ are not and who ‘we’ fear (Campbell, 1993: 26). And whilst this has long been the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy, a void in the post-Cold War enmity has accelerated the search for new and dangerous threats by which to measure and secure a cohesive American political identity (see Campbell, 1992 and Shapiro, 1997). And if these ‘threats’ don’t exist, they have to be invented. In recent years, the drug ‘war lord,’ the religious ‘fanatic,’ the ‘evil’ Iraqi and ‘the Serb’ have all served as a reminder of what ‘America’ is not, or at least is not to tolerate.

But in addition to the list of menaces to the American ‘way of life,’ the identifiable threats which emanate from the outside, is the ‘enemy within’ whose insidiousness poses as much, if not more, of a dangerous presence. The idea of the insider/enemy, however, is not a competing discourse to the discourse of danger that I’ve just described. Rather, it operates within the same frame of the moral boundaries which manage and contain identity by exposing and seeking to eliminate the differences among ‘us’.1 Indeed, ‘moral panics’ occur usually within the bounds of the national space, close to home as it were. Moral panics serve to clarify and police the moral boundaries of a given community and in so doing illustrate the limits to how much diversity can be tolerated in a society (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994: 29). Moral panics are thus a regulated and regulating practice of exclusion and normalisation. The ‘normalised community’ depends upon both conformity and deviance to reinforce its moral boundaries (Lucas: 1998, 158). To be sure, ‘without deviance, there is no self-consciousness of conformity and vice-versa’ (M. Davis, qtd in Lucas, 1998: 158). And within the bounded space of the nation, moral panic has perhaps been most successfully realised in the demonization of youth.

Folk Devils, or Just Plain Evil? The Birth of the Superpredator

A number of theorists have described how the moral construction of place is linked to notions of deviancy and difference (see Lucas, 1998: 158). Written in the context of the eroding welfare state of post-war Britain, Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers is a seminal text in the study of how an orchestrated public fear of youth violence, independent of its likelihood, constructs particular people in particular places as dangerous. The Teddy Boys, Skinheads, Mods, Rockers, the Hells Angels and Hippies have all at some point or another been singled out as deviant or delinquent, the billing of which legitimated not only changes in social and legislative policy, but in social definition (Cohen, 1980: 9). Sub-cultural groups such as the Mods and Rockers are identified not only in terms of their participation in particular events (such as student demonstrations) and behaviours (drugs and violence), but also as ‘social types.’ ‘In the gallery of types that society erects to show its members which roles should be avoided and which should be emulated, these groups have occupied a constant position as folk devils: visible reminders of what we should not be’ (Cohen, 1980: 10). Folk devils, it would seem, are in constant demand and never in short supply. But what is significant is the acceleration of the supply. Whereas the previous decade seemed content to produce only the Teddy Boys, the 1960s saw a rapid oscillation from one folk devil to another (Cohen, 1980: 11). The 1960s ushered in a whole new era in adult-child relations and also served to blur traditional class boundaries. Clashes between Mods and Rockers – over-reported, highly distorted and fuelled by the mass media – came to symbolize the dangers of an overly ‘permissive society’ which let its youth run wild. The constant parade of new and emergent folk devils was thought to be the logical outcome of ‘a coddling Welfare State’ whose youth don’t appreciate the good things in life when they are granted them so freely. The image of gangs of roving youth with nothing better to do than get into trouble was no longer that of the traditional ‘slum lout’ whose position in the margins of the social register rendered ‘delinquent’ behaviour as pretty much inevitable and (given that inevitability) to a degree even tolerable. The folk devils, however, these demon spawn of an affluent leisure class, hit too close to home. Traditional class barriers came tumbling down with the emergence of a teenage culture whose behaviour literally knew no bounds (Cohen, 1980: 191-5).

If we flash forward and across the pond to Littleton we see a similar panic wherein a stunned citizenry made much ado that ‘this sort of thing’ shouldn’t happen ‘here.’2 This spatial shift in fear from the inner city to the suburban youth, from the working class to middle class, is at the same time highly racialized. That ‘it could happen here,’ wherein that ‘here’ is an affluent white suburb and not the ‘there’ of an economically deprived and ‘racially diverse’ inner-city school, means that teen violence in America is no longer the sum property of the gun-toting boys in the hood. With Columbine the demarcation of moral space collapses as the ‘there’ is brought ‘here,’ and the panic heightens as we conclude that no place is safe, not just for ‘our’ children but from ‘our’ children.3

Whilst I don’t want to diminish the magnitude of the violence perpetrated by Klebold and Harris or suggest that there is no cause for concern about teen violence, it is the shape that that concern takes and the questions it raises for what constitutes responsibility that I want to consider. For example, while the early 1990s saw a decrease in overall violent crime in America, the homicide rate for youths between the ages of 14 and 17 jumped by 16 percent inciting experts to warn of a ‘new generation of “superpredators”‘ and a ‘bloodbath of teenage violence … lurking in the future’ (see Zoglin, 1996). In accordance, the National Criminal Justice Commission reports that the 1990s has seen federal expenditure on crime fighting increase three times faster than that of defense spending, with the teenaged Superpredator replacing the evil commie of old as the new enemy within. As a prison reform activist writes: ‘The spectre of 10 and 11-year-olds dressed in camouflage, toting rifles as they stalk their peers, serves as the new “Red menace” for a prison-industrial complex that is coming to rival the military-industrial complex. This time the enemy is among us — our own children’ (Templeton, 1998: non-pag.). What advocates for tougher measures against young criminals fail to point out, however, is that children are still more likely to be murdered by adults than the other way around (Templeton, 1998: non-pag). Moreover, the large majority of the American public seem unaware that the Superpredator is now in retreat. Indeed, whereas a 1996 Rand Corporation survey found that American adults hold juveniles responsible for 50 percent of violent crime, the FBI reported in the same year that only 10-15 percent of all violent crimes are committed by juveniles. And in March of 1997, in the same week of the Jonesboro shootings, the FBI reported a 30 percent drop in the juvenile homicide rate over the previous three years (Templeton, 1998: non-pag). Even Newsweek‘s coverage of Columbine (which featured an article on the ‘science of teen violence’ complete with brain scan images of ‘normal’ and ‘violent’ teenaged brains) included an inset of figures indicating the decline of teen violence since the early 90s. Fewer than one percent of homicides involving school-age children actually occur within school space, and fewer and fewer kids are packing pistols with their lunch boxes.

Tracking Danger: From Guidance Counsellors to Guidance Systems

As I have discussed, the type of moral panic which precipitated and has escalated since the Columbine shootings is located within an existing discourse of danger by which American political identity is continually reaffirmed. To put it crudely, nothing seems to pull Americans together better than a ‘good war,’ be it within or beyond the nation’s territorial bounds. Even prior to Columbine, one 17-year-old male predicted that World War III would be the ‘war against teenagers’ (Templeton, 1998: non-pag ). Labelling domestic crises as ‘wars,’ while problematic, is not entirely off the mark however. As with the ‘war on drugs,’ the ‘war on poverty’ and the ‘war on terrorism,’ the ‘war on teenagers’ mobilizes the mass media and utilizes electronic surveillance devices to identify perceived ‘threats’ to school (and by extension, national) security.

Thus, despite the drop in violent youth crime, in the wake of Columbine the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced that it was working with a ‘threat-evaluation company’ (Gavin de Becker Inc., whose clients include the CIA) to introduce a computerized tracking system to assist guidance counsellors, teachers and administrators in identifying ‘dangerous students’ at more than 20 American high schools. According to an Ohio high school principal, ‘Columbine forever changed things for all of us’ (Steve Dackin, qtd in Clines, 1999: 16). And while he acknowledged that his school, like most in the nation, has not witnessed any gun violence it has nonetheless ‘suffered very real waves of post-Columbine panic and concern for safety’ (Clines, 1999: 16; emphasis added). Or, in the words of an assistant superintendent: ‘School people in my situation must respond to this new reality differently. … It used to be a platitude, but no longer, [it’s] about creating an environment where students and teachers are safe and feel safe (Aron Ross, qtd in Clines, 1999: 16).

But whilst the ‘enemy’ in prior moral wars against drugs, poverty and terrorism (black and Hispanic youths, single mothers, people from the Middle East) was relatively easy to identify, the desired targets of the new school surveillance are more difficult to grasp. While, on the one hand, critics of the Mosaic-2000 program argue that the behaviour of a child who wants attention and one who is seriously troubled is difficult to distinguish with any certainty, a federal firearms official says school administrators need tools to counter the complex threat of ‘good students’ who may resort to violence if they feel ‘victimized by bullies’ or the school system itself. To be sure, ‘its easy to pick out the gang members with tattoos. Its these other people that kind of surprise administrators, and these are the ones they really need to identify’ (Andrew L. Vita, qtd in Clines, 1999: 16). Here again, then, we see the moral panic as an exclusionary and racialized politics of space and place. For education theorist Henry Giroux, ‘representations of violence are largely portrayed through forms of racial coding that suggest that violence is a black problem outside white suburban America’ (qtd in Lucas, 1998: 152). Moral panic, says Giroux, is synonymous with ‘white panic,’ and, as I suggested previously, when teen violence shifts from the inner city to the sanctity of the white suburb, the panic heightens as the violence ‘whitens.’ Metal detectors and armed guards may have been deemed sufficient to handle the problem of inner-city school violence, but when white kids start shooting other white kids, school surveillance goes digital.

The Mosaic-2000 software comprises a series of questions assembled by some 200 experts in law enforcement, psychiatry and ‘other areas’ and derived from case histories of students who have committed violent crimes, with identifiable risk factors ranging from reports of ‘alarming behavior’ and known access to guns (including knowing someone who owns guns), to whether a child has a history of abusing dogs and cats (Lucas, 1998: 152). What has not been revealed, however, is whether the criteria for identifying the post-Columbine dangerous (white) student includes questions of sexual orientation, the ownership of websites, or how a particular student dresses (say, the sporting of black trench coats).

But irrespective of Columbine, and before the introduction of metal detectors, video cameras and armed guards, the school has historically been a site of surveillance. The legacy of Columbine is what Foucault knew all along: that the school is the vehicle par excellence for the modification and disciplining of bodies and social space (see Foucault, 1979). School spaceis national space, thus the regulation of young bodies and young minds can not be thought of as lying outside the realm of sovereign power. Nor can the space of the media, which as mentioned above is another crucial front upon which the ‘war on kids’ is waged. But as with the home and the school, the media is seen to occupy its own distinct sphere, outside of the political space of the nation and the sovereign gaze. Even arguments of the-state-controls-the-media versus those of the-media-controls-the-state, wherein one impacts upon the other, go to suggest that these are separate and separable zones rather than mutually constitutive ones.4

The News on Violence and Violence on the News

Conservative media critics have long espoused the supposed dangers that television viewing has upon children while their detractors counter with demands for verifiable proof, arguing instead that young people should be given more credit for their own ability to evaluate the difference between the real and the fake. The recent warning labels on compact discs about violent language, onscreen classification of television shows, and devices which block certain television channels from youthful eyes are all indicators of the fear that representations of violence in popular culture are as harmful as violent acts themselves, if not being directly responsible.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the days following the Columbine killings saw the gaze of this particular discourse of responsibility zoom in on Hollywood. Films such as Heathers and The Basketball Diaries were especially targeted for their portrayal of revenge-killing rampages in high schools while Warner Brothers delayed broadcasting an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Buffy thinks she overhears a fellow student planning to shoot up Sunnydale High. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and the more recent The Matrix also came under fire in the mainstream press for their depiction of excessive violence by young adults, with the hero of the latter bedecked in a black trench coat. Whether Klebold and Harris had actually seen any of these films seems to be inconsequential to the matter at hand: America’s is a culture of violence, and violence begets violence prompting the Clinton administration to hold a conference in May, 1999, on the ‘relationship’ between the entertainment industry and youth violence. Absent from the agenda was the violent content of the evening news, e.g., the continuous coverage of Clinton’s own policy of meeting the violence of a ‘bully’ in Yugoslavia with an even bigger display of state-sanctioned violence. Thus absent from the debate on who must bear responsibility for violence ‘at home’ was any question of the impact that a policy of violence in ‘the international’ might have on why and from where children get the idea to make bombs and blow up schools when they feel intimidated by ‘bullies’.5

The irony of the White House conference, however, was not lost on David Geffen, who wrote in the New York Times just prior to the conference that ‘America is bombing Yugoslavia; it’s on every day. It’s not a movie, it’s real.’ But while media critics and politicians, movie producers and educators continue to argue about whether and how well young children can distinguish between what they see in the movies and what is real, we must recognize that the line which ostensibly separates the real from the fake, the news from entertainment, is not terribly solid to begin with. For many Americans the Gulf War and the ‘crisis in Kosovo’ happened only as media events, spectacles to be consumed from the comfort of home (see Stam, 1992). In the society of the spectacle, in the century of cinema, as ‘news’ war is not merely waged but staged. And it is as spectacle that ‘Columbine’ is both news and entertainment, invariably a war and a movie. Indeed, when Harris and Klebold shot their first victim outside the school, one eye-witness thought that they were making a video, as the boys often did (Bai, 1999: 27). And more than one survivor commented afterwards that what occurred within the school was ‘like a movie.’ One student said that it was only later that ‘you get by yourself and start realizing it’s more serious than just a movie (Landon Jones, qtd in Cullen, 1999a: non-pag.). At the same time, a multitude of broadcasts and headlines wrote Columbine as a war zone. More specifically, one writer described the students at the scene as ‘walking around the school area with blank, vacant stares, looking a little like the Kosovar refugees arriving in Albania’ (Cullen, 1999a: non-pag.).

It is this intertexuality that interests me here. For as much as the events of Columbine and Kosovo were separated in media and official discourse, they are also described and understood in terms of each other. In the next two sections, I will examine in more depth what I think is crucial in the link between the high school and the war zone as sites of sovereign power; their inhabitants at the limits of sovereign jurisdiction. More specifically, through the work of Agamben we will see more clearly how the life of the teenager, like that of the refugee, is ‘politically unqualified,’ laid bare to the most extreme forms of a biopolitical ordering of human life and a stripping away of the rights of citizenship.

The Biopolitics of Bare Life

Building upon Foucault’s work on biopolitics and Schmitt’s writings on sovereignty, Agamben regards the juridical order of Western political life as founded not upon a distinction between friend and enemy, but between bare (biological) life and political existence (zoe and bios), inclusion and exclusion. As the fundamental structure of metaphysics, politics ‘occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized.’ And it is in the politicizaton of bare life that the ‘humanity of man’ is decided (Agamben, 1998: 8). For Agamben, therefore, Foucault’s understanding of modern politics and State power needs correction. Modern politics is characterized not so much by the inclusion of zoe(biological life) in the polis nor the fact that life itself becomes the principal object of State power. Rather, for Agamben ‘the decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life – which is originally situated at the margins of the political order – gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction’ (Agamben, 1998: 9). As these boundaries begin to blur, bare life becomes both the subject and object of political order. Included as excluded, the bare life of the citizen is the one place for both the organization of state power and emancipation from it (Agamben, 1998: 9).

It is not, then, as Foucault would have it, with the beginning of the modern era that natural or biological life becomes entangled with the machineries of state power. The production of bare life is not the outcome but the originary activity of sovereignty (Agamben, 1998: 83). Sovereignty, in other words, is the ‘originary structure in which law refers to life’ wherein this relation is not an application of law but an abandonment from it, a suspension of law itself (28-9). Sovereign power therefore maintains itself in its capacity to suspend law in a state of exception which constitutes itself as a rule. What Agamben refers to as the sovereign ban, or state of exception, is the extreme form of relation by which something is included solely through its exclusion (18). And the sovereign ban which produces bare life is most fully realized in the figure of homo sacer (‘sacred man’) who, under ancient Roman law, is included in the juridical order solely on the basis of his exclusion – his capacity to be killed (8). Homo sacer, more precisely, is he who may be killed yet not sacrificed, murdered without the commission of homicide (82-3). The bare life of homo sacer is a life that is expendable, politically unqualified, not worthy of being lived. In sum, it is upon the body of homo sacer and in the realm of bare life that state power is organised and exercised. Sovereign violence, says Agamben, is ‘founded not upon a pact but on the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state’ (107).

But it is also in the realm of bare life that homo sacer is emancipated, with the birth of democracy and the demand for human rights. Indeed, for Agamben, ‘the declaration of rights is the originary figure of the inscription of bare life in the juridico-political order of the nation-state.’ It is in the form of rights that politically unqualified bare life now fully enters into the structure of the state and thus becomes the very foundation of the state’s legitimacy. Natural bare life as such vanishes into the figure of the citizen in whom rights are preserved (Agamben, 1998: 127). Put differently, rights are available onlyto the citizen; accomplished in the passage from a divinely assigned royal sovereignty of the ancient regime to the form of national sovereignty we associate with the modern state. In the process of the new state order, the subject is transformed into a citizen thereby severing the distinction between ‘the principle of nativity’ (simple birth, or bare life as such) and ‘the principle of sovereignty’ (the politicization of bare life through biopolitics) which had been separated in the ancien regime. The principles of nativity and sovereignty are now united in the body of the ‘sovereign subject’ which becomes the foundation of the new nation-state. ‘Birth’, says Agamben, immediately becomes ‘nation’ such that there is no longer a distinction between the two terms.

In Agamben’s analysis, the most extreme (and logical) consequence of this ‘hidden difference’ between birth and nation in the twentieth century appeared in the form of Nazism and fascism, as ‘two properly biopolitical movements that made of natural life the exemplary place of the sovereign decision’ (128-9).6 Foucault’s formulation of biopolitics was therefore an incomplete project, accounting for the asylum and the prison (as well as the school), but stopping short of the concentration camp as the paradigm of sovereignty, the ‘absolute space of exception,’ in which bare life and the juridical rule enter into a threshold of total indistinction (Agamben, 1998: 20, 174). The camp, Agamben writes, is the very paradigm of political space. ‘Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp was also the most absolute biopolitical space ever realised, in which power confronts bare life without any mediation.’ The camp constitutes the space at which ‘politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer is virtually confused with the citizen’ (171).

For Agamben, therefore, the birth of the camp is the decisive event of modernity, produced at the point at which the modern nation-state decides to assume directly the care of the nation’s biological life. The camp becomes the hidden regulator of the inscription of life in the juridical order. Thus it is not insignificant that the concentration camp appeared alongside new laws on citizenship and the denationalization of citizens (175).7 The state of exception, once a temporarysuspension of the juridico-political order, now becomes a new and stable spatial arrangement inhabited by the bare life which can no longer be inscribed within it. The political system, says Agamben, no longer orders forms of life in a determinate space but rather ‘contains at its very center a dislocating localization that exceeds it and into which every form of life and every rule can be virtually taken’ (175). The camp, then, as the paradigmatic structure of modernity, the camp as ‘dislocating localization,’ is the ‘hidden matrix’ of the politics in which we are still living and which metamorphosizes into detention zones in our airports and city outskirts. A camp, in other words, can (and will) appear anywhere. And the camp has reappeared in the territories of the former Yugoslavia with an attendant dislocation of populations and human lives (176).

Agamben thus argues that the point of political analysis is not to ask how such atrocities as occured under Nazism could be committed (such as predominates the ‘making sense’ of Columbine), but to investigate ‘the juridical procedures and deployments of power under which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime’ (171). While I wouldn’t suggest that the moral panic following the occurrences in Littleton approximates the horrors of a concentration camp, I do think we witness somewhat of a state of exception at work in the ‘zero tolerance’ policies of the post-Columbine school.8 Like the war zone’s refugee, modernity’s teenager lives in a limit zone, reduced to nothing but bare life, becoming both the subject and object of state power. Like the state-less refugee, the teenager inhabits a liminal space in a ‘landscape of exclusion.’9 Neither child nor adult, the adolescent is ‘lost in between, belonging nowhere, being no one’ (A. James, qtd in Lucas, 1998: 6). And as with the refugee, the teenager is deemed in need of protection, while at the same time their activities regulated if not altogether criminalized.

The Teenager, The Refugee and the Limits of Sovereign Power

One of the most arresting visual representations to emerge from the media coverage of Columbine was the image of its students pouring from the school with their hands behind their heads, as ordered by the SWAT team which surrounded and frisked them. Before the eyes of the world the shocked and traumatized survivors were given the full treatment reserved for the suspects who, presumably unbeknownst to the authorities, lay dead in the school’s library. Indeed, in this moment the survivors, no matter what their attire, age or gender, became the suspects themselves (setting the stage for the moral panic which ensued). In this moment the survivors were suspended in a zone of indistinction between innocence and guilt, between child and adult. Lacking any of the rights of citizenship and without voice, in this moment the kids’ political existence was denied, leaving them with nothing but bare life. In this sense the Columbine surivors did indeed (as prior remarked) resemble the ‘dazed’ Kosovar refugees, who in fleeing to the Macedonian border had been stripped of their vehicles, money and documents, ‘leaving them only in possession of their lives’ (Edkins, 2000: 16).

As Jenny Edkins points out, the refugee camps set up to accommodate the fleeing Kosovars were established not by the UN, but NATO. Refugees airlifted out of Macedonia had no say over their destination and were often housed in army camps and prisons. And whilst NATO forces erected tents and provided distilled water, they also erected wire fencing around the camps. Surrounded by high metal fences and barbed wire, the Kosovar refugees had nothing but bare life, they were ‘homines sacri‘ (Edkins, 2000: 17). NATO, says Edkins, thus emerges as the ‘new state’ with a claim to sovereign face and the sovereign ban. Indeed, the situation in Kosovo, she argues, was criminalized from the very start and reports of atrocities were solicited. ‘People arriving in the camps on the border were questioned in order to compile dossiers that could be used to bring criminal prosecutions. The emphasis on punishment was so great that the prevention seemed largely sidelined’ (18). As Agamben argues, and Edkins concurs, humanitarian organizations ‘can only grasp human life in the figure of bare or sacred life, and therefore, despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight’ (Agamber, qtd in Edkins, 2000: 18). Humanitarianism, in fact, plays as significant a role in the new political order as it did in the original colonial empires established through the sovereign ban ‘where the figure of homo sacer was a figure of the slave or native, a figure seen as outside either because of its childlike inability to govern itself, or because of its dark, outlaw capacity for atrocity and inhuman violence’ (Edkins, 2000: 18; my emphasis).

The refugee, then, resembles the teenager as much as the teenager resembles the refugee. Both are seen to be in need of ‘protection,’ but wherein the protected also become the persecuted and the punished. The zero-tolerance policy of the post-Columbine high school (adopted by 90 percent of the nation’s school systems) did nothing to prevent the more recent shootings Santana High School in Santee, California in March, 2001. But it did succeed in having 514 children arrested over the last year in Pima County, Arizona, for making comments perceived as threats; in having an 8-year-old in Arkansas suspended for pointing a chicken finger at a teacher and saying ‘pow;’ and a New Jersey 9-year-old suspended for threatening to shoot a wad of paper with a rubber band (see Zernike, 2001). In these instances, the zone of indistinction between adult and child, once reserved for the adolescent, becomes even further blurred as the category of the ‘dangerous youth’ exceeds the bounds of its own bounds. Before I return to this, however, it bears emphasizing that whereas NATO claimed sovereign jurisdiction for the Kosovar refugee, the American youth is subject to various arms of the nation-state from local and regional schoolboards and the Federal Department of Education, to the Secret Service and Federal Department of Justice. And none seem to be in agreement over the effectiveness, even the legality, of zero-tolerance policies. The same New Jersey school which suspended the aforementioned 9-year-old has since relaxed its policy due to public pressure. In February 2001, the American Bar Association resolved to oppose zero-tolerance policies on the grounds that they have ‘redefined students as criminals.’ Parents are also objecting to the increasing criminalization of their kids. When 50 children, mostly from kindergarten to the third grade, were suspended this past spring, parents in their middle-class New Jersey suburb of Manalapan hired lawyers to defend their youngsters’ civil rights (Zernike, 2001). And the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools has also taken a stand against the policies enlisting the help of the Secret Service to write a new handbook on ‘how to evaluate threats better’ (Zernike, 2001).

The growing dissatisfaction with and questioning of zero-tolerance policy in American schools has made its way into popular television programming as well. Where once the mass media was blamed for enabling if not creating the dangerous student, the post-Columbine moral panic and its attendant policy of zero tolerance has become the recent focus of television dramas ranging from crime shows such as Law and Order and Third Watch to David E. Kelley’s school yarn, Boston Public. In an episode of the former, police detectives confront their own racist tactics and presumptions in hastily arresting a black male youth following a school shooting before bothering to check his (air tight) alibi. And an episode ofBoston Public sees the school principal and teachers fighting their board’s decision to suspend a (white) male youth for (seemingly) threatening a female student who snubbed him. Citing the ‘real life’ case of a Canadian teenager arrested and imprisoned for writing a fictional story (for his drama class) about a bullied boy planning to bomb his school, the show, while openly criticizing zero tolerance, nonetheless diverts the blame for the suspension back onto the (fictive) boy himself for ‘not knowing better.’

The growing zero tolerance for zero tolerance itself does at least, however, begin to address the practices and mechanisms of power at play in the post-Columbine age. Yet, a danger lies in assuming the current panic a product of a discrete moment in time as opposed to following an historical trajectory. The demonization of youth, as I have earlier argued, has a tenacious history and the extent of its legacy is more than likely yet to be fully realised.10 The category of ‘youth’ itself is arbitrary and constantly exceeding its bounds, both spatial and temporal. As David Sibley writes, despite all the attempts to define it, youth is ambiguously wedged between childhood and adulthood. The child/adult illustrates a ‘contested boundary’:

The limits of the category ‘child’ vary between cultures and have changed considerably through history within Western, capitalist societies. The boundary separating child and adult is a decidedly fuzzy one. Adolescence is an ambiguous zone within which the child/adult boundary can be variously located according to who is doing the categorising. Thus, adolescents are denied access to the adult world, but they attempt to distance themselves from the world of the child. At the same time they retain some links with childhood. Adolescents may appear threatening to adults because they transgress the adult/child boundary and appear discrepant in ‘adult’ spaces… (qtd in Skelton and Valentine, 1997: 5)

Thus, although denied access to the adult world, youth are nonetheless subject to adult regulatory regimes of surveillance and ‘spatial and temporal curfews.’ Defined by a boundary of exclusion, teenagers on the street are perceived by adults as a ‘polluting presence – a potential threat to public order’ (Skelton and Valentine, 1997: 7). Here again the positioning of the liminal youth bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the errant refugee whose movements transgress and defy the conditions of territorially bound life and ‘irreversibly deteriorate into anarchy’ (Soguk, 1999: 19). Like the polluting teenager, refugees are also described in an imagery of contagion through vocabularies of ‘invasion,’ ‘flood,’ and ‘plague’ (Soguk, 1999: 16).11 Positioned outside the normal order of things, refugees and teenagers are described respectively as appearing in ‘waves’ and ‘swarms.’ And as Mitchell argues, efforts to contain the dangerous teenager have amounted to an ‘annihilation of public space,’ with the use of private security forces and closed circuit television cameras ‘to squeeze undesirable ‘others’ out of particular places (Soguk, 1999: 16).

But whereas the refugee and the teenager may share a spatial dislocation, for the teenager the threshold of child/adult is also a temporal dislocation. The category of youth is generally meant to describe people between the ages of 16-25, which bears no relation to the legal classifications of either childhood or adulthood. As James argues, the age of the physical body is used to define, control and order the social body. Such accounting is not only ineffective, but attempts to ‘tame time by chopping it up into manageable slices’ (Skelton and Valentine, 1997: 5). Moreover, the juridico-legal definition of human existence along a biological axis of age/time, I would suggest, also represents another aspect of the biopolitical ordering of the teenager. One has to be old enough, as opposed to mature or responsible enough, to get a driver’s licence, to vote, to go to war, to drink etc. That these rites/rights of passage to becoming a fully-fledged adult are attained at different ages, 16, 18, 21 etc. (and vary according to place), further indicates the arbitrariness and instability of the child/adult threshold and the vulnerability of its inhabitant. And, most obviously, this is especially critical in the constantly shifting criteria for determining at what physical age a child can be prosecuted as an adult. It is in this sphere especially that the juridico-legal apparatus coincides with the biological, where the juridical order most fully enters into, defines and threatens the child/adult (in)distinction. Had Klebold and Harris lived, they would almost certainly have been tried as adults. In certain states they might even have been executed. Nonetheless, there were an equal number of arguments that their parents be held accountable and legally liable for the crimes of their children. Hypothetically, had they been tried as adults, this claim would not have been able to be made. Klebold and Harris were literally at the limits of sovereign jurisdiction, had they lived.

Conclusion: Contested Space/s

To briefly conclude, I have in this essay discussed some of the articulations of sovereignty as a moral and spatial practice which simultaneously excludes particular people while including them as ‘dangerous’ to the moral order of the nation-state. Young people and refugees are but two expressions of homo sacer, sacrificial man, whose life is expendable, not worthy of being lived, and thus subject to a legal suspension of law and the rights of citizenship. Teenagers in particular, as I have argued, are positioned both inside and outside the ‘normal’ spaces of the sovereign jurisdiction. Teenage life, then, is but a struggle over space and identity; a struggle both to belong to the order which excludes them, and exclude the order which includes them. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were outsiders. Labelled as queer, perceived as freaks, they were taunted by their peers for being different, foreign, unknowable, Other – and dangerous. They were also insiders: white, privileged, Same – and dangerous.

The national panic which erupted following the killing rampage at Columbine High, as I have also argued, is neither novel nor unexpected given the historical trend to fear those figures who cannot be contained within ‘normal’ territorial bounds. As many theorists of youth culture have argued, young people are constantly engaged in acts of resistance to authority and authorized spaces. I will therefore end this paper with an example of such resistance.

On August 16, 1999, the doors of Columbine High reopened with a Take Back the School rally attended by 2500 students, parents, teachers and alumni. But the event was marked by a controversy over the memory of those who would no longer occupy Columbine’s space. Whereas the parents of the victims wanted the opening ceremony to include a moment of silence in commemoration of the dead, the students themselves wanted the rally to focus on the living. Pop music was played, cheerleaders danced, chanting ‘We Are Columbine.’

A limited number of press officials were invited to witness the ‘taking back’ of the school. In fact, a human shield of parents and alumni was formed outside to provide a ‘safe zone’ for the students as they entered the building to reclaim it as their‘Columbine.’ As Cullen writes, so far it has been the media who have ‘owned’ Columbine turning ‘their home into a national symbol of mass murder and youth violence’ (1999b: non-pag.). However what Cullen describes as the ‘battle for ownership’ was not just over the school’s image, but for its space. Plans to overhaul the school’s structure, in particular the library where most of the killings (including Harris and Klebold’s suicides) occurred, was demanded by parents of the victims yet met with resistance by survivors. Students were adamant that no changes be made, that any significant modification would be conceding victory to the killers (Cullen, 1999c: non-pag.). In taking back the school, in re-seizing what was seized in violence, the students were recolonizing space, refusing the dangerous. But in remembering the dead, students erected a row of crosses on the Columbine campus: four pink crosses for the young women, nine blue for the men, and off to the side were two black crosses for Klebold and Harris. The killers’ inclusion with the killed was thus both a belonging and a separation: they were insiders and outsiders in death as in life.


1 As fully evidenced most recently with the accelerated erosion of Muslim and Arab-American citizens’ civil liberties in the name of ‘Homeland Security’ following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon. The sort of racial profiling directed at Americans of Middle Eastern descent is legitimated through proposed anti-terrorist legislation not only by virtue of their threatening difference from ‘us,’ however, but their sameness to each other. The success of the rhetoric surrounding the Arab American as the insidious ‘enemy within’ depends upon the distinction made in both official and popular discourse that there are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims and Arabs and that they are indistinguishable from each other, such that all Muslims/Arabs become the object of fear and panic. As I argue later in the paper, this undetectability of ‘good’ from ‘bad’ in the context of youth (particularly white youth) allows and prompts the vilification of all young people as dangerous and is legitimated through the extreme measures of ‘zero tolerance’ school policy. Thus the current ‘war on terrorism’ is not ‘America’s New War’ (as described on CNN’s banner headline) but follows an historical trajectory. For more on the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ see ‘The Terrorist Discourse: Signs, States, and Systems of Global Political Violence,’ in James Der Derian (1992) Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War, Cambridge, MA and Oxford, UK. For an excellent analysis of the scapegoating of the Muslim and Arab American in the wake of Sept. 11 see Larry George, ‘9-11: Pharmacotic War,’ forthcoming in Theory & Event.

2 Again we see this echoed in the wake of Sept. 11 when the sort of terror inflicted upon the U.S. was described in both official and popular discourse as something that just doesn’t happen ‘here.’ But whilst the magnitude of the attack was certainly unprecedented on American soil, it is also without precedence elsewhere.

3 Or even, their children. To be sure, the title of the May 3, 1999 issue of TIMEMagazine reads ‘The Monsters Next Door,’ with the words ‘next door’ in slightly larger type.

4 For a comprehensive analysis of the debate, see Piers Robinson (1999) ‘The CNN Effect: Can the News Media Drive Foreign Policy?.’ British Review of International Studies 25:2 (April), 301-309.

5 This is no less true today in the context of Sept. 11. Indeed, it is perhaps even more pertinent given the number of violent assaults on Muslim and Arab Americans in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

6 Agamben argues that Nazism’s racism and eugenics are comprehensible only in the context of the birth-nation link which had lost considerable force by the time of the First World War, and has led to the demand for human rights. He writes:

On the one hand, the nation-states become greatly concerned with natural life, discriminating within it between a so-to-speak authentic life and a life lacking every political value. … On the other hand, the very rights of man that once made sense as the presupposition of the rights of the citizen are now progressively separated from and used outside the context of citizenship, for the sake of the supposed representation and protection of a bare life that is more and more driven to the margins of nation-states, ultimately to be recodified into a new national identity. (1998: 132-3)

7 This, he says, is true not only of the Third Reich’s laws on citizenship at Nuremberg, but also laws on denationalization in almost all Europeans states, including France, between 1915 and 1933.

8 Zero tolerance was originally applied in the context of gun possession when President Bill Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act in 1994. In the wake of Columbine, many schools (90% across the country) adopted the same stance towards the issuing of ‘threats.’

9 Sibley writes of ‘the way in which group images and place images combine to create landscapes of exclusion’ in Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (qtd in Lucas, 1998: 148).

10 Whether zero-tolerance in schools will relax or intensify in post-9/11 America can only be speculated at this point. However, it stands to reason that ‘threat evaluation’ procedures will be redirected upon the bodies of Muslim and Arab-American youth.

11 Fear of contagion is evident in the panic which erupted when several aid workers contracted tuberculosis from Kosovar refugees airlifted to Canada. At issue was the risk and ‘danger’ the refugees posed not only to health care workers but also the Canadian public. Missing from the analysis was any consideration of the involvement of the Canadian forces in the NATO attack which fuelled the flight of the refugees, endangering their health and safety.


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