In addition to being Hitler’s birthday, April 20 also is the anniversary of the Columbine shootings, which happened 10 years ago. People are still searching for answers as to why it happened, and whether it has any lasting societal significance.
I’m not sure such questions can really be answered. Columbine is one of those horrible incidents — like, say, Jonestown — that will cause some talking heads to draw immediate, sweeping conclusions about entire generations but that don’t seem quite so profoundly defining after the years have passed. Fortunately, there wasn’t a wave of mass school violence in the wake of Columbine, just as there was no glut of religious cult suicides after Jonestown. To be sure, Columbine has caused parents, school administrators, and concerned citizens to focus on school violence and security, to examine the impact of bullying, and to consider how to connect with outcast students. At bottom, however, Columbine was simply the product of two deeply disturbed, disengaged kids who were eager to make some kind of twisted statement and leave some kind of perverse legacy. They failed. Ten years later, how many people remember their names, or their stories?
Today is my birthday. It also happens to be the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Der Fuhrer would have been 120 years old today, had he not blowns his brains out in the Fuhrerbunker as the Soviet Army closed in and then somehow had survived for another 64 years.
It’s a bit weird sharing a birthday with one of history’s great racists, fanatics, and mass murderers. When I was a kid and found out that Hitler was born on my birthday, I was both repelled and fascinated. I read everything I could find about him. He seemed to be surrounded by questions. How could a person become so anti-Semitic that he would launch the Holocaust? How could someone with an interest in cultural things like art and architecture also be a mass murderer? Why did many Germans find his oratory spell-binding, designate him as The Leader, and follow his will unquestioningly? How, in the 20th century, could an obvious madman become the leader of a major industrialized nation and provoke a world war that killed millions? I’m not sure that these questions have been, or ever will be, satisfactorily answered. As a youngster I wondered: could whatever have happened to Hitler to make him into such a horrible person happen again?
We shouldn’t forget Hitler — in particular, we should remember the obvious lessons to be learned from his career, such as the need for citizens to stand up for the rights of others and for countries to show courage in facing down tyrannical dictators who threaten the world order — but it is nice to see him recede in the rear view mirror a bit. After all, Hitler isn’t the only person who was born on April 20; other notables include Mohammed (possibly), Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court, and George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek. I have friends who seem normal (although one admittedly is a Michigan fan) who also were born on this date. More recently, for reasons apparently lost in a haze of cannabis smoke, April 20 has become “420” and is an excuse for college students to go outside and smoke even more marijuana than usual. It’s not much, but it beats Hitler anyday.