Black Trenchcoats After Columbine

by Ray Deonandan

Nov. 23, 1999

This article was written immediately after the massacre at Columbine high school in Colorado. (It was originally intended as a freelance piece for The Toronto Star, but I never got around to submitting it, fool that I am). Thus, a couple of the refences may be outdated, such as professional wrestlers Sting and The Undertaker toting trademark trenchcoats.

Mass media and higher education are supposed to have made us a more reasonable, logical and pluralistic society. Weve grown beyond the book-burning ignorant days of the Cold War, havent we? Back then, for example, simply suggesting a relationship with communism was sure to bring the wrath of the mob down upon any disliked individual.

We arent so ignorant anymore, no longer so ruled by a knee-jerk scape-goating reflex. Or so I had hoped, until recent developments in the wake of the Colorado shootings shattered my hopes.

In Colorado, two gunmen in black trenchcoats, purportedly individuals who enjoyed a so-called “Gothic” lifestyle, murdered many innocent victims. The Star, to its credit, was quick to print a large feature redeeming Goth culture, rightly concerned that the mob would turn its fickle finger of blame to point squarely at anything seemingly “dark” and otherworldly.

In the same week, The Star reported that a Toronto pre-teen was suspended from school for having come to class bedecked in a black trenchcoat. Admittedly, the foolish boy had been uttering Colorado-esque threats, so undeniably deserved severe punishment. But one has to wonder how much of the reaction he provoked was due to his black trenchcoat alone.

Indeed, the brother of a friend of mine was recently chastised by his mother for having brought home a magazine whose cover photo was from the movie The Matrix: gun-toting Keanu Reeves wearing a black trenchcoat. And the distributor of The Basketball Diaries, a film about the life story of poet James Carroll, pulled copies of the movie from video stores across the U.S because of a scene featuring a gunman in a black trenchcoat.

Furthermore, in the world of professional wrestling this week, the two largest federations featured performers Sting and The Undertaker conspicuously without their trademark black trenchcoats. And the Washington performance of the a capella singing group called “The Trenchcoats” has been cancelled, even though no one in the group actually wears trenchcoats.

As the owner of a black trenchcoat, Im reticent to wear mine in public these days. This hesitancy has little to do with my genuine respect for the memory of those who were murdered, and more to do with a fear of mob revulsion. This is a new kind of compelled political correctness, I fear, one that benefits from the highest form of spurious justification: that aesthetic choices may represent not only questionable values but actual violent behaviour.

60 Minutes reported this week that the family members of a murder victim are pursuing legal action against the makers of The Basketball Diaries, claiming that the gunman scene inspired a real life killer. One is reminded that the murderer of John Lennon claimed to have been driven to his crime by reading J.D.s Salingers Catcher In The Rye. One is also sadly reminded of the short-lived movement thereafter to ban that classic novel from American schools.

We cannot allow the potential psychopathic sensitivities of a few to deny us the richness of a diverse and cultured society. Legal proceedings such as the aforementioned are less inspired by a desire to create a safe society than by a reflexive fear of any behaviour or image that strays too far from the conventional. I fear that a homeostatic dogmatic agenda belies this new conservative attitude, and find it interesting that no one has ever tried to ban the Bible for its depictions of torture, murder, rape and incest.

It is, of course, understandable for a traumatized people to seek someone to blame for such mindless violence; we all turn first to our primal instincts for emotional comfort, not to our logical forebrains. But the provision of convenient scapegoats –whether fashion choices, sub-cultures, music, books, movies or ethnic groups– is not only unfair, but serves to tarnish the search for a genuine cause.

Ray Deonandan is an owner of The Podium. His personal website is at