May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

What happened at Columbine High was a tragedy, an unearthly glimpse into hell — but it was not Marilyn Manson’s fault. Nor was it caused by Rammstein or the videogame Doom. Yet cable news channels and network newsmagazines have filled hours with the ”Violent movies-music-TV shows did this!” argument in special reports with names like ”High School Terror” (20/20). It’s no surprise. We are by nature afraid of things we can’t control. When something inexplicable like Columbine ambushes us, our natural response is to talk at it, cover it so thoroughly with theories and blame that it can’t leap out at us again.

But does pointing the finger at violence in entertainment ever work? Does it stop kids from blowing each other away? No. Not after Pearl, Miss. Not after West Paducah, Ky. Not after Jonesboro, Ark. After each of these instances we wailed, wept, and decried the influence of pop culture. And nothing changed.

Why? Because while graphic images can affect us — desensitize us, even — they do not, cannot, create dangerous urges in people who don’t already have those urges inside them. A well-adjusted kid who watches Natural Born Killers over and over — as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold reportedly did — is not suddenly going to feel the need to commit a murderous act. Movies simply don’t have that much power.

Relax. I’m not letting Hollywood off the hook. I believe that a diet of violence exacerbates and inflames the antisocial, nihilistic, and even murderous emotions of kids who are mentally disturbed. It is irresponsible for entertainment aimed at children to glorify, glamorize, or diminish the impact of guns, violence, sex, etc., because there’s always the chance that an unstable youngster will somehow glean — and act on — the wrong message. But what makes more sense: abolishing entertainment that may negatively influence vulnerable minds, or working harder to identify teens in need of help? Thousands of kids play Doom; only two of them went on a shooting rampage in Colorado. Is vilifying the videogame really the answer?

For the Datelines of the world, yes. There’s only so much footage of weeping teens and bloody victims available; blaming Marilyn Manson means you can slap a clip of the shock rocker on screen. Condemning The Basketball Diaries is even better — producers get to run an image of Leo DiCaprio. It fills time, it looks provocative. More important, it feels good to place blame. But it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the horrific event. Maybe nothing will. One Columbine student, asked why this happened, just shook his head: ”There’s no why.”

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