Michael Moore: If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine or the people in that community, what would you say to them if they were here right now? 

Marilyn Manson: I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.

From Bowling for Columbine (2002)

***

When I heard the news that there was a shooting rampage going on in a high school in Littleton, CO, I was sitting at my desk in a basement on Pearl Street in Boulder. Confused by what I was hearing, I did what everyone else did, I stared bewildered at the repetitive footage until all of a sudden, it sank in. It was Columbine. Columbine.

Scott and I left work early and drove straight to Littleton. Parked the car outside of an apartment building. Climbed the stairs.

The apartment belonged to our friends, Kevin and Kerry Parker, leaders at the time with an organization called Young Life. Over the course of the previous year or more, I had been unofficially and sporadically volunteering alongside them with their clan of nearly 100 high school kids from that school. It was goofy fun and it reminded me of my days in the youth group. It felt good. I loved the kids.

The scene I walked into that night will never leave me. Those kids that I loved—they were everywhere. And over the course of the night, they just kept pouring in.

There were some tears, but mostly there was a lot of pale silence. People spoke in hushed tones, some recounting what they had seen, while others sat with arms around friends or holding their hands. For most of the night, I sat on the stairs leading up to the loft and listened to their stories as they came and went.

They talked about where they were when the shooting started and where they had hidden. They told us they had crouched in janitors’ closets and behind bookcases. They told us what it was like to watch Dylan and Eric walking in their trench coats with guns exposed through the school parking lot as they hid in their car before the first shots were ever fired.

One girl told me she wished she knew kung fu like I did so she could have stopped them. I remember staring at her, horrified to think she thought that I could have done a damned thing against an automatic weapon.

Their leader, Kevin—who is today a Washington State Rep—had been there with them that day. He had spontaneously decided to meet some of the guys for lunch. When the shooting started, he was in the cafeteria. Today he tells of a janitor saving his life. There was another boy, too, who called his name, causing him to correct his path just as the wall behind him was showered with blood.

Over the next couple of years, I watched as Kevin and Kerry gave their time to be with those kids. They kept their front door open for them to come hang out when they needed a place to be. They went to track meets and held them when the starter gun made them crumple. They answered the phone late at night and talked kids through their nightmares. They held them. Comforted them. Played goofy games with them. And through it all, they listened to them.

When Marilyn Manson sat balancing on two legs of a folding chair across from Michael Moore and said the lines that would become famous for being possibly the most intelligent thing anyone has publicly said about the Columbine shooting ever, I—like many others—was moved. “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, he said when asked what he would tell the surviving students and community of that high school. “I would listen to what they have to say.” I wanted to hug him when he said that. Kiss that one creepy white eye.

Maybe it sounds a little crazy, but when he said that, for the first time I got him. I understood him.

Here was a man who has taken a lot of flack for that shooting. After all, he sings some pretty controversial lyrics. Writes some pretty controversial music. He dresses up in costumes that make him look about 3 weeks dead and has now come back to go all Hieronymous Bosch on every last one of us.

Yes, even your grandmother.

Thing is, to Marilyn Manson—born Brian Hugh Warner and educated in a nondenominational evangelical Christian school—accepting a standardized culture of what’s right and wrong is scary.

“I think everyone is afraid of being possessed,” said Manson in one interview, referring to the movie The Exorcist. “Growing up I was afraid of being possessed by the devil. As an adult, I am afraid of being possessed by the world and being possessed by ignorance and not holding onto my beliefs and what I feel strongly about.”

Like him or not, he strives to make people think. He challenges people with lyrics like, “The beautiful people, the beautiful people, it’s all relative to the size of your steeple,” or, “I never hated the one true God, but the god of the people I hated.”

And I’m not saying that his method is not a bit, well, horrifying, but there’s also something about it that philosophically makes sense to me.

In a theoretical sense.

Like, with my eyes closed like a little girl kind of sense.

Look. The dude’s a devangelical. To the extreme.

Thirteen years later, a lot has been published on the Columbine shooting. A lot of folklore that popped up soon after the shooting has been laid to rest. Rachel Scott wasn’t shot for saying she believed in God. Eric and Dylan were not dressed like Marilyn Manson and running the halls shouting how they loved his music. (In fact, they preferred Rammstein and were dressed more like Steven Segal.) They weren’t kids who snapped overnight for having been bullied by the popular kids (turns out, they had a history of being bullies, themselves).

The politicians and the outraged religious groups and the general public came up with every reason under the sun for what happened, including a long list of culprits from video games to rock music to Satan to gun laws to trench coats. In the end, what we saw was that the people in charge reacted. They prescribed. And most of all, they helped spread panic.

Whether you agree with his methods or not—when Marilyn Manson projects those fears on stage, he is showing exactly the kind of fears so many of us have. The fear of hell. The fear of failure. His music is screaming for people to deal with these and to turn them on their heads. He’s not saying: be this way. He’s saying: we are this way. Stop covering up the truth of our nature by sweeping it over with a nice, neat layer. We’re not simple creatures. We don’t have simple answers.

Which is why trying to summarize what happened at Columbine with a simple answer doesn’t work. The answer to what happened at Columbine is so much bigger than that.

It’s none of us. It’s all of us.

Which is why, at the end of the day, our job as a society is to love each other, to be there for each other, and more often than not, to just shut up and listen.