The first set of shots rang out in a schoolhouse, their blood-curdling echoes caroming off of lockers and shelves and blackboards and desks, nearly drowning out the screams of horror and impassioned cries for mercy.

But mercy was not to be found this day. The shots ended up in the bodies of 38 people. Within hours, 15 of them were dead.

The next round of shots commenced almost immediately thereafter. Instead of bullets, these shooters fired bluster. They were seemingly everywhere, from the airwaves to the editorial pages, taking aim at all the familiar targets, the long-cherished ideals and long-feared bogeymen.

The shots haven’t stopped since.

In some of the public crossfire, a cynic could immediately detect the distinctive whiff of opportunism. The events in Littleton, Colorado may have no tangible link to handgun control or firearms safety locks, to school prayer or censorship of (take your pick) the Internet, video games, rock music, Hollywood films and rot-your-brain television. But that won’t stop the partisans on any of these issues from seeing in the Rorschach blot of Columbine High School exactly what they need to further their favored policy prescriptions.

But to dismiss it all as mere demagoguery is to go too far. Most people need to feel there’s a reason for the madness, because to see it as completely random is to concede that we are all powerless to stop it. And so, theories abound about childhood aggression and Marilyn Manson, about the interminable cruelty of high school cliques and the corrupting influence of Nazi iconography. None claim to have the whole answer. Trying to nail down an exact cause remains as elusive as trying to nail jelly to the wall.

We may never know exactly why Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris carried out their campaign of terror, but it shouldn’t be hard to see what made it possible. Though simple rage and festering resentment no doubt played a part, everyone has those feelings, and many have even momentarily fantasized about acting on them. What separates us from these boys is not emotions, but ideology. What made the Littleton massacre possible was an ideology that abandoned belief in good and evil. What made it possible was nihilism.

That Klebold and Harris were committed nihilists is obvious from everything we know about them. Media coverage tends to focus on the boys’ outsider status within the school caste system, but ignores that they likely chose to be outcasts. Moreover, seeing the way they indiscriminately cut down both students and teachers, athletes and scholars, band members and devout Christians, it’s hard to believe this was just about personal revenge. It was about expressing contempt for everything each of the victims stood for. It was, ultimately, an attempt to destroy the belief there could be anything worth standing for.

"I don’t care if I live or die," Harris wrote on his web site months before the shooting, and it’s now obvious that he meant that. Together, the pair systematically rebelled against and eventually rejected every values system in their lives: that being liked was better than being hated, success was better than failure, kindness better than cruelty, values better than nothingness. Given this pattern, it shouldn’t have shocked anyone they would ultimately reject the most universal value of all -- that life was better than death.

But how did they come to these conclusions? Social conservatives, who correctly surmise the boys lacked standards and values, invariably assume this to mean they were never taught them. But repeating legalistic dogma -- such as mandating school prayer or tacking up the Ten Commandments in every public classroom -- would not have miraculously solved the problem. People are not puppy dogs, and moral "training" is a poor substitute for moral inquiry.

To have any force, moral law -- whether secular or faith-based -- needs to be more than a set of oft-repeated axioms, or it will be rendered hollow, and will not withstand the intellectual scrutiny of even a couple of 17-year-old boys. What was missing is not a system that teaches values. Conservative rhetoric aside, we’ve always had that. What we don’t have is a system that defends them: engaging those who wish to learn, fostering critical thinking skills and demanding individual accountability for one’s actions.

This is a task for which the public schools are profoundly ill suited. As historian Joel Spring has demonstrated, as part of the cradle-to-grave American welfare-warfare culture, the system of government-mandated, government-sponsored and government-run schooling is structured simply as a means to provide willing, efficient drones for the Industrial State. Teaching children to think for themselves, engaging them in the Socratic method -- in short, doing the things that might have led these boys to see the flaws in their twisted world view -- has never been an option.

Indeed, given the prevalence of moral relativism in academia, among politicians, and even among the general public, it seems even the gatekeepers of moral standards tend not to believe the doctrines they advocate. Thus, Klebold and Harris could make a teacher-approved videotape for their government and economics class last fall, showing themselves as bloody hitmen out to wreak havoc on their classmates, and never receive a word of condemnation. After all, if morality is relative, then anything is permissible, because all assertions to the contrary are "culturally biased."

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery, a time to figure out who you are and what you believe in. But just as important, it is a time to learn accountability, and to accept responsibility for one’s own life. There have always been rebels. The difference today is that when an Eric Harris or a Dylan Klebold questions authority, authority never answers them back.

The public debate over Littleton is unlikely to ever turn to a serious discussion of nihilism and moral relativism. It’s much easier to quote pop psychology and blame faceless institutions like "the media" or "gun culture" than to point the finger at any flesh and blood person or the values they embrace. President Clinton has pronounced that "we are all responsible" for Littleton. That may very well be. But no one, it seems, is accountable.

If we are to take anything away from this awful chapter, it should be the concept that ideas matter. "Ideas," as the title of Richard Weaver’s classic book suggests, do indeed "have consequences." Let the graves in Littleton -- like the graves from Krakow and Dachau to Cambodia and Uganda -- stand as permanent memorial to the lesson we keep refusing to learn.