Killing in the Suburbs: The New Suburban Menace

You always seemed so sure
That one day we’d be fighting
A suburban war
your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore

But by the time the first bombs fell
We were already bored
We were already, already bored

— Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs”

In the Spike Jonze directed video for the Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” a group of white adolescent teens bike around their local planned suburban community engaging in the kind of teenage horseplay so commonly associated with bored middle class kids. Despite the stereotypical banality of this suburban existence, Jonze imbues a sense of menace; military units conduct sweeps of various houses placing the suburb’s residents under the watchful eye of government authorities.  Shrouded in bright lights and shadows, a tension between two of the boys emerges, ending in one brutally assaulting the other while locked inside a closed fast food restaurant.  No one dies, but the spectacle of their three mutual friends watching the beating from outside the glass encased restaurant remains troubling and discomforting.

The odd discomfort of suburban life, as epitomized by the aforementioned Arcade Fire’s 2010 album (The Suburbs), seems to dominate cultural productions.  Movies like Donnie Darko (perhaps more existentialist than most and with a catchy ’80s soundtrack) and American Beauty assailed the suburbs for their conformity and underlying hypocrisy.  Better Luck Tomorrow explored the lives of middle class Asian Americans in Southern California, several of whom describe their rather comfortable lives as “hell.”  In each, the culmination of the character’s actions results in acts of lethal violence.  If movies about inner city life like Menace to Society, Boyz N the Hood, and Juice portray Black working class existence as a constant maneuvering of potentially life threatening circumstances, suburban dramas like those already mentioned lull viewers to sleep, shocking them to attention with sudden unexpected bursts of white hot violence.

There’s violence in them there pages young Donnie

Yet, the stereotype of suburban life as the economic “good life”; an ultimately safe if boring homogeneous existence no longer rings true. These examples and others point to a growing unease about suburban existence much different from previous decades. Writers like David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) and William Whyte (The Organization Man) feared the growth of the suburbs not for flashpoints of violence but because of social alienation and the further privatization of American life.  Instead today, middle class economic pressures, ranging from steady unemployment to rising health costs to increased college tuition – pervade suburban life.  The fall from middle class respectability to a harder scrabble working class reality feels all too real for many suburbanites.  Economic insecurities form only part of the broad anxiety afflicting suburbs.  Fears over gunplay and like violence – driven by media images like the Columbine Massacre and federal government policies like HOPE VI housing reforms –appear to be rather new considerations that when juxtaposed with traditional conceits about suburbia provide a striking contrast.

High School Ain’t High School Anymore

Walter: I have made a series of very bad decisions and I cannot make another one.

Gus: Why did you make these decisions?

Walter: For the good of my family.

Gus: Then they weren’t bad decisions. What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family.

Walter: This cost me my family.

Gus: When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.

In a recent piece for Grantland, writer Chuck Klosterman argued that the A&E drama Breaking Bad outpaced rivals Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire for best television show of the last twenty years. For Klosterman, the evolution of the show’s main character Walter White —  from an unassuming and decent but frustrated science teacher to an aggressive and corrupt violent meth cooking prodigy — stemmed from White’s own decisions. “Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters’ morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame,” writes Klosterman. “Instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice.” Sure, initially White believed he was dying of cancer so in order to provide for his family, he turned to cooking. However, with the cancer in remission, White never really retreated, instead continuing haltingly, crossing one moral hazard after another.  White’s moral corruption, buried beneath the placidness of suburban Albuquerque, proves invisible in this context.  His employer Gus, a man as efficiently brutal as he is fastidious, cuts an even more innocuous figure: the proprietor of a chain of fast food chicken restaurants and local philanthropist. Hannah Arendt’s observation regarding the “banality of evil” may not be totally analogous here, but it sounds right.   Yet, White’s action and those of his boss, in part, stem from the spine of traditional suburban life: the patriarchal household. That White turns to more violent means than observers have grown accustomed to suggests that perhaps the context of suburbia for an increasingly pressured middle class has changed.

Inside beats the heart of a killer

White’s meth production serves as the new boogeyman for more than suburbanites.  Authors like Philipp Meyer in American Rust, noted the proliferation of meth production and use in small town America and the economic and social consequences cascading from crank. Still, among the decay of steel mill PA, meth seems almost appropriate.  Scattered within planned New Mexico suburbs, well that seems less likely. Obviously, the sharp lack of congruity between the image of the suburbs as a boring but safe haven from drugs and violence serves as the main reason that these kinds of stories draw our gaze.  However, in recent years, one wonders if suburban realities have changed.  To be fair, Breaking Bad’s White embodies the very pressures afflicting middle class families.  If not for profits from his meth production, White never gets the cancer treatment he desperately needed and his family would have been bankrupt as he careened toward death.  Moreover, White repeats the need for building upon his ill gotten gains to pay for his children’s college tuition.

Unfortunately, Breaking Bad, as far as television goes, remains rather exceptional. It finds ways to address these issues with nuance and style, avoiding pedantics, while still provoking real thought. However, one event in particular, prior to all of the movies, television shows, and songs mentioned here, seems to have impacted how we see suburban life and how it’s conveyed to us.

Colorado Tragedy

In his 1992 work, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, John Findlay attempts to unpack the design, layout, and meaning of postwar Western metropolises.  Findlay focuses on “magic lands” like Disneyland, Stanford Industrial Park, and the Space Needle, employing them as windows into the larger working of Western suburbanized urbanization. “Magic lands,” like Disneyland or the Seattle Center, provided residents and cities with identifiable landmarks and personalities. Since Western cityscapes often lacked a central business district, residents had to form their own personal social world and cognitive maps “in terms of individual’s particular orbits rather than in terms of fixed places or a single political entity.” (283)  As one can imagine, outside of these “magic lands,” this left fewer sites of overlap for fellow residents, meaning how one envisioned their city and the people within it often depended on their particular use of the city.   Few spaces provided a common site from which all residents would have a relationship, meaning institutions like schools gained greater social and political currency.  In the case of one high school near Littleton, Colorado, its significance ballooned to national proportions.

In 1973, Jeffco County Colorado constructed three high schools.  Though few people lived there at the time, officials and local developers expected an influx of newcomers, largely a result of integration policies which led to what journalist Dave Cullen labels an “avalanche of white flight out of Denver.”   To be fair, for some the suburbs association with segregation undermined its moral foundation.  In Edge Cities: Life on the New Frontier, Joel Garreau addresses this very issue noting that environmentally and racially suburban growth proved problematic, “cars were inherently Evil and our attachment to them Inexplicable; that suburbia was morally wrong – primarily a product of White Flight.”

Outside of Denver, subdivisions popped up everywhere. The area known as Littleton, a nebulous title applied to a tract of land of 700 square miles, filled up quickly, topping 100,000 by 1995.  Fearing government regulation and interference, the 100,000 residents refused incorporation.  While the suburb of Littleton sat several miles away “across the South Platte River, in a different county with separate schools and law enforcement,” this new development to the West lacked any real designation or identifying characteristics.  “The 100,000 new arrivals filled one continuous suburb with no town center,” writes Cullen, “no main street, no town hall, town library, or town name.   No one knew what to call it.” (21) The post office may have slapped Littleton on mailing addresses but few residents identified their town this way.  Instead, people tended to gravitate toward the “hub of suburban school life,” high school.  This meant that newly refurbished Columbine High School served as the de facto identity and namesake for the 30,000 residents living near it.

Columbine’s emergence and the growth of these related neighboring communities also proves illustrative of processes of urbanization that the aforementioned Garreau argues encapsulates America’s late 20th century. Garreau dubs places like Irvine, CA and Tyson Corners, VA “Edge Cities.”  Multinodal, car oriented, white collar, and decentralized, “Edge Cities,” according to Garreau, serve as the new reality: both suburban and urban.  However, despite their technological sophistication, upper income employment, and impenetrable optimism these places lacked history and in turn struggled to build community.  Often in places like Irvine, CA, local institutions such as evangelical churches and schools provided a means to create belonging.  Though not technically an edge city, Columbine shared many of these characteristics, perhaps increasing its symbolic value in the eyes of horrified observers.

Though for some, the events that unfolded on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School may have receded in personal memory or been overshadowed by the trauma of 9/11, the Columbine Massacre reshaped suburban narratives.  Yet, even our public understanding of events there fail to match up to reality. According to media reports, two members of a persecuted goth clique referred to as “the Trench Coat mafia,” tired of being bullied and perhaps ashamed over their closeted homosexuality, targeted jocks, homosexuals (one can assume this motivation was chalked up to self loathing had the two boys been gay), and minorities in a ruthless shooting spree.


In his 2008 work, Columbine, David Cullen blows up this media crafted story, arguing that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were anything but bullied homosexual outcasts.  According to Cullen, the two boys enjoyed reasonable popularity, frequently bullied others, and gave no signs of homosexuality.   Instead, Cullen found a psychopath (Harris) and depressive (Klebold).  The two boys formed what researchers refer to as a dyad, defined as “murderous pairs who feed off one another.” (244) Far from targeting specific groups, Harris and Klebold had hoped to emulate the domestic terrorism of Timothy McVeigh.  Fortunately, most of the bombs they had planted failed to ignite, thus, what had originally been designed as a mop up job following detonation, turned in to Harris and Klebold’s sole act of violence: firing on unarmed, terrified high school students. Even when detectives connected the dots and ditched the “targeting theory,” the media refused to let go.  “[The Media] saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks,” argued Cullen. “They filtered every new development through that lens.” (124) In fact, generally, when it comes to school shooters, there is no typical attacker. They hail from all “ethnic, economic, and social classes,” notes Cullen.  Very few had criminal records or any documented history of violence. What about family dysfunction? Most came from reliable two parent households.   The idea of loners suddenly snapping due to emotional instability also proves a myth. “A staggering 93 percent planned their attack in advance,” argues Cullen, who cites a FBI report that suggests “the move toward violence is an evolutionary one with signposts along the way.” (323)

To be fair, other institutions besides the media failed. Cullen notes the ineptitude of Jeffco Sheriff John Stone who continually made inaccurate pronouncements that media reports magnified, increasing the ignorance and misinformation surrounding the massacre.   With this in mind, one might forgive famed filmmaker Gus Van Zant for his 2003 movie Elephant.  The film served as Van Zant’s interpretation of Columbine in a leafy Portland setting. Bordering on cinema verite, Elephant eschews professional actors or any real script.   The interior lives of characters remain blank slates, though through brief flashbacks, the movie suggests the shooters – Eric and Alex – were bullied by the school’s jocks, enjoyed watching Nazi movies, played violent video games and practiced their marksmanship in the garage.  Moreover, just before embarking on their massacre, the two boys shower together, sharing a kiss before dying if you will.   When they do execute their Columbine like strike, the shooting itself serves as their main activity, here Van Zant lifts dialogue straight from news reports and the writings of the Columbine pair as Alex instructs Eric “to remember to have fun.”  When Eric corners school administrator John Lewis in a hallway, letting him go only to execute Lewis moments later, he leaves the administrator with the following warning, “You know there are others out there like us too, and they will get you if you fuck with them like you did with me and Alex.”  An odd warning given to a man that Eric murders in the moment.

Van Zant deserves credit for attempting to deconstruct the events of Columbine.  Yet though Elephant displays an elegiac beauty and won critical acclaim, the movie gets many of the facts wrong. Eric and Dylan did not purchase their guns over the internet; rather, they convinced a third party, a young girl interested in Dylan to purchase the weapons at a gun show.  What about the affect of bullying on the two boys? Hard to say, since neither suffered from it.  If anything, the two boys bullied other kids.  Moreover, in their private diaries and writings, both expressed sexualities typical of heterosexual teenage boys with few if any signs or even interest in experimentation.   For Eric, whom Cullen labels a sociopath, relationships appear to me more about power than actual sex anyway, while Dylan, the depressive, constantly prattled on about girls and “true love.”   Perhaps most crucially, as Cullen notes, the shooters never intended Columbine to be a targeted shooting gallery as portrayed in the film, but as noted previously, a terrorist act inspired by Timothy McVeigh and OKC. The broader public’s ignorance of this fact, facilitated by media distortions and misinformation from local law enforcement officials, distorts the meanings attached to the tragedy and established a fundamental misunderstanding of the “new suburban menace.”

Some Suburbs do Struggle

While crime rates in large cities stayed flat, homicide rates in many midsize cities (with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million) began increasing, sometimes by as much as 20 percent a year. In 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group surveying cities from coast to coast, concluded in a report called “A Gathering Storm” that this might represent “the front end … of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.” The leaders of the group, which is made up of police chiefs and sheriffs, theorized about what might be spurring the latest crime wave: the spread of gangs, the masses of offenders coming out of prison, methamphetamines. But mostly they puzzled over the bleak new landscape. According to FBI data, America’s most dangerous spots are now places where Martin Scorsese would never think of staging a shoot-out—Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Reading, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee.

— Hanna Rosin, “American Murder Mystery,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008

In the July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin explored the disturbing dynamic of inner ring suburban violence that had emerged in mid-sized metropolitan regions like Memphis, Tennessee, Orlando, Florida, and Reading, Pennsylvania.  Increasingly, inner ring suburbs and the mid-sized cities they orbit, reported increasing crime rates and social dysfunction. However, unlike the image of Columbine or the violence offered in movies like Donnie Darko, crime in these places emerged from the pressures of poverty, new public housing policies, and overwhelmed municipalities.  Violent outbursts occurred not because of bullying but the stress of demographics.

North Memphis Troubles

As has been widely documented by now, federal HOPE VI public housing policies have simply shifted the very crime and poverty that had savaged many inner city communities to “inner ring suburbs.” In cities like Memphis and other mid-size metropolises, poverty reconcentrated itself in these outlying suburbs, resulting in spiking crime rates and unprepared police forces. This proves especially true in urban areas with tight housing markets such as Washington D.C., where crime has bulged into adjacent suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.  While HOPE VI succeeded in deconcentrating poverty in many of these inner city neighborhoods, it failed to account for new developments in surrounding suburbs.  Now smaller municipalities, never designed or funded to meet the needs of most public housing residents found themselves overwhelmed by their new obligations. Rosin summarized these effects succinctly, “What began as an ‘I Have a Dream’ social crusade has turned into an urban-redevelopment project. Cities fell so hard for the idea of a new, spiffed-up, gentrified downtown that this vision came to crowd out other goals.”  Much like Alexander Von Hoffman’s observations several years earlier, (“High Ambitions: The Past and Future of Low Income Housing,” 1996 – it can be googled and downloaded) deconcentrating these pockets of agglomerated poverty sounded good but even under earlier less ambitious programs like Section 8 or the Moving to Opportunity Program, the results proved less convincing.  Alienation, lack of transportation, and competition with more qualified suburban workers meant many of these new suburbanites suffered economically, socially, and emotionally. Moreover, for all the evils of inner city public housing, residents formed support networks for child-care, transportation, and sociability; their suburban environs lacked these very necessities. Employment proved no easier as transportation issues, low wages, and even competition with higher income, better educated suburban workers combined to limit opportunity.

How does this relate to Columbine and the cultural productions that followed in its wake?  Columbine continues to overshadow very real developments in America’s suburbs that demand the attention of local and national governments alike.   Focusing on Columbine, especially through the myopic lens provided by the media and others, leads observers to think of suburban violence in a very racialized and almost uncontrollable manner.  Sure, campaigns against bullying remain noteworthy and undoubtedly deserve to be promoted, but they fail to get at the actual cause of either Columbine or the struggles of inner ring metropolitan suburbs.

The realization that suburban existence by itself will not solve poverty, crime, or violence, regardless of income levels, serves as a useful reminder of the limits of planning.  Even in “law abiding” places like Columbine, violence can emerge from the most unlikeliest of sources.  The privileging of suburbia for suburbia’s sake no doubt has absorbed some hits. Additionally, as the riots in the French suburbs illustrated, American ideas of suburban life and the growing untidy reality seem to have more in common with European metropolitan regions.

In his 2003 work Empire Falls, acclaimed writer of New Hampshire mill town life, Richard Russo employed the very Columbine like trope discussed here in his novel’s conclusion. The daughter of main character Miles Roby, finds herself amidst a violent high school outburst by an emotionally disturbed student she had attempted to befriend.  Of course, Russo frames the violence much in the vein of Columbine, a twisted deranged white kid from a dysfunctional family snaps, plunging into a school-shooting spree. In this way, Russo suggests that the kind of suburban violence of bullying and alienation proves pervasive, oozing into the lives of more rural populations.  Though school shootings had long been in decline, including at the time of the Columbine Massacre, the violent, mentally ill adolescent male shooter remains the primary avatar of suburban violence.   This kind of dominant image does very little to solve the very issues that drive real and increasing violence and social dysfunction in inner ring suburbs.  Instead, we focus on the neurosis of white male angry suburbanites, thus marginalizing communities that have found themselves actual victims of the new suburban menace. It also obscures very real economic and social pressures buffeting middle class suburbanites of all colors and ethnicities.  Sure, the Columbine Tragedy, much like 9/11, led to significant changes in how we monitor or police high schools and their students.  This has been on the whole positive, but one day we all graduate and whose to say where these social and economic pressures take us then.

Ryan Reft