Every time a mass shooting shows up in the news I become obsessed with wondering why. If the 60’s and 70’s birthed the rise of the serial killer, what is it about our generation that makes our psychopaths choose mass shootings? What makes someone choose terror to begin with and is there any way to stop them from becoming a terrorist?
Like most people my age the Columbine high school massacre was my first introduction to terrorism. I watched the gruesome drama play out on television from my eighth grade classroom. Later on, I learned that Columbine students who were trapped in the building that afternoon were watching the same news coverage I was.
This month I read Dave Cullen’s in-depth analysis of the massacre, Columbine. I hoped it would answer those questions I ask every time another shooting happens. Here are some of the most interesting things I learned along with some thoughts about what we (regular community members watching TV in horror every time this happens) might learn from it.
What Cullen really wanted to get across was how different the actual details of the Columbine high school massacre were in fact versus in the collective imagination of the country. In a rush to cover the story many myths rose out of earlier media coverage that were never true, but weren’t corrected for months and even years in some cases.
The tl;dr is as follows: The Columbine massacre was intended to be a mass casualty bombing on the scale of Oklahoma City. Eric Harris was a psychopath who planned the attack for over a year and a half. Dylan Klebold was a depressed friend of Eric who went along with the massacre, but wouldn’t have done it on his own. The attack was never about a trenchcoat mafia, bullies, or targeting specific individuals, the pair wanted as many casualties as possible, whoever it was. Also, neither student “snapped”, they were troubled boys who exhibited warning signs and people in the community (including police) knew they were a problem.
[*] There was never a trenchcoat mafia and Eric and Dylan weren’t bullied. In fact, they often bullied other kids and hated other people in general. They considered themselves to be superior to pretty much everyone they met. They bullied kids with special needs, were racist, wrote violent rape fantasies in their journals, and idolized Hitler.
[*] Jocks were never targeted. Most of the shooting was done in the school’s library, not a classic jock hang out. The kids who were killed and the kids who were spared were random. Eric and Dylan were barely even paying attention to who they killed. They expected their bombs in the cafeteria and in their vehicles (where they thought people would gather after fleeing the school) to take out hundreds of their classmates indiscriminately. The real target of the Columbine attack was the rest of the country watching on TV. Eric and Dylan wanted to be bigger than the unabomber and the purpose was to make the rest of us fear.
[*] Even calling Columbine a school shooting feels weird considering that Eric and Dylan looked down on school shooters. They intended their performance of violence to be much bigger and much, much deadlier than it ended up being.
[*] “No one could have stopped the shooting.” Plenty of people knew that these boys could be dangerous. Their parents were warned by other parents and by at least one teacher at the school. Their sons were in trouble with the police and were eventually placed in a juvenile diversion program to avoid a felony charge for one of their crimes.
[*] There exists more than enough explanation of why Eric and Dylan planned for over a year to kill as many of their classmates as they could. They exist in the form of a series of explanatory videos shot by the pair in Eric’s basement. Eric and Dylan also both kept journals in which they documented preparing for the shooting as well as what their lives were like, their emotional states, and what they hoped to accomplish. The police thought the material was disturbing and didn’t release it, leading the media to form and dispense many objectively wrong hypotheses instead of relying on source material.
[*] The story about Cassie Bernall being a Christian martyr has now been chalked up to error in eyewitness testimony (which is common, as eyewitness testimony is often unreliable). A real moment did happen to Columbine student Val Schnurr when Dylan Klebold asked her if she believed in god and she responded “Yes. I believe in God.” and then “Because I believe and my parents brought me up that way.” Dylan got distracted and didn’t shoot her again, though she had already been randomly shot through the top of the library tables when the shooters first walked in.
[*] The media coverage while the shooting was still in progress MAY have helped the killers. Every classroom in Columbine had a TV in the classroom. The media showed images of students hiding, locations of SWAT teams, and where people were in and outside of the building to the killers, if they’d cared to stop and watch. A news station had a live call with a student, hiding under a desk in a classroom. The news station asked the student for information, to which the student replied that he had their station on and was trying to figure out what was happening himself.
[*] Eric and Dylan killed 15 people (including themselves) in under an hour but the building was locked down for four hours. Two or Three hundred students and staff were trapped during that time. They hid in classrooms and closets, and in plain site under tables in the cafeteria.
[*] Students tried to use the media to bring attention to those who needed medical rescue. They brought a white board to a window and prayed people would see their message and act on it. The board read “1 BLEEDING TO DEATH.”
[*] Something small that usually isn’t mentioned is that no one turned the fire alarm off the entire time. If you’ve been in a modern school building those alarms are extremely loud and piercing and accompanied by strobe lighting. Students and teachers trapped in the building injured and alive were subjected to this for hours while they prayed for their lives.
[*] A good example of how many injuries happen even when people did not come into contact with the killers: a teacher tried to escape the building by crawling into the ceiling and tunneling their way out. They fell through the ceiling tiles and ended up needing medical rescue.
[*] Danny Rohrburgh was shot down on the sidewalk outside of the school. He laid in that spot for 28 hours despite his father’s request to move the body or at least cover it up with a blanket or tarp.
[*] SWAT team members who had seen the carnage in Vietnam cried after seeing the inside of Columbine.
[*] Some families were informed of injuries or death by the Denver Post calling and asking for a comment on it.
[*] Eric and Dylan’s guns were bought for them by friends at gun shows, where sellers legally don’t have to do background checks.
[*] Tom Klebold suspected his son when a friend called and said the suspects were wearing trenchcoats. Tom went to Dylan’s bedroom and discovered his trenchcoat gone. He then phoned the police.
[*] Wayne and Kathy Harris were private and unhelpful to police from the start. While their son was still alive inside Columbine they retreated to their home and refused entrance to the police. To this day they have never spoken to the press.
[*] Wayne Harris was described as a strict disciplinarian who kept a notebook of things Eric did wrong and the punishments Wayne doled out.
[*] There was a long history of both Eric and Dylan talking about their plan (which they referred to as NBK after the movie Natural Born Killers) for a year and a half before it happened. Both their journals and video tapes they made confirm that they are the only people behind the plot and none of their other friends or acquaintances were involved.
[*] Eric Harris was on the anti-depressant Luvox and remained on a full dosage through the massacre.
[*] Like many terrorists, Eric Harris wanted to create “performance violence”. The staff and students at the school didn’t matter. Even in his journal he referred to “the audience” as his real victims.
[*] Leading up to the massacre Eric and Dylan committed plenty of small crimes: underage drinking, making and exploding pipe bombs, illegally buying guns and ammo, and stealing a van. The van charge amounted to a felony and both boys were placed in a juvenile diversion program designed to help them expunge the charge from their records in exchange for good behavior. During a meeting with his parents, Eric filled out a form claiming one of his problems was “homicidal thoughts” Both boys passed the program early.
[*] Throughout the book Cullen emphasizes that Eric Harris was a psychopath who was the force behind planning and executing the attack. Dylan Klebold was his majorly depressed sidekick who went along with it because he didn’t value his own life and hated pretty much everyone.
[*] Both boys kept journals. Eric’s was about how many people he wanted to kill. Dylan’s was covered in hearts and was about how he wanted someone to love him.
[*] Eric liked to play with firecrackers and start fires as a kid.
[*] Eric had a stay at home mother and a scoutmaster father.
[*] Eric had a website where he talked about his sexist and racist worldviews, how much he hated everyone, death threats, hints about his future plans, and at one time, even the name and address of a classmate he encouraged others to bully. The classmates parent’s contacted the police and a file was created for Eric Harris. Though little action was taken, the classmate’s parents continued to complain to police for a year and a half before Columbine that Eric was a “criminal in bloom”. This information was not released by the police to the media for five years.
[*] Both boys were popular at school and had many friends. They weren’t the most popular, but they weren’t outcasts. The Saturday before the shooting, they were at prom. With dates.
[*] For a time, there was a clique at Columbine called the Trench Coat Mafia. Eric and Dylan were not members. They later purchased trench coats which they occasionally wore and chose to wear for the shooting for practical purposes (concealing guns).
[*] One of Dylan’s teachers called his parents and his guidance counselor a few months before the attack to tell them she was worried about a creative writing assignment Dylan turned in that featured a protagonist violently murdering civilians. No one took it seriously. Dylan brought the short story with him to Columbine the day of the murders.
[*] The night before the attack the boys went to Outback and bought themselves steaks.
[*] Anne-Marie Hochhalter was shot twice in the massacre, one bullet leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. 6 months later her mother went on a mid-morning trip to a pawn shop to purchase a gun and lost her long battle with depression right there in the store. Columbine was not the sole cause of her mother’s suicide, but it does show how very difficult the aftermath was for all involved.
[*] Mark Manes was sentenced to the maximum allowed punishment for selling guns to Eric and Dylan, 6 years in prison.
[*] The following school year at Columbine was gruesome: a boy was murdered and his body left in a dumpster near campus. Two students were killed at a restaurant near the school on Valentine’s day. A basketball star took his own life. The school made extra counselors available and said that at any given time 15 students were suicidal (that they knew of).
[*] Columbine’s principal was diagnosed with a stress related heart condition.
[*] Columbine won the state football tournament the year following the massacre.
[*] No gun control laws were passed as a result of Columbine.
I don’t know that strong gun laws would have helped in this case, though I do think there are a lot of things we should do to make guns harder to get for bad guys while protecting the second amendment for average citizens. Eric and Dylan wanted as many casualties as possible and were relying on homemade bombs to do most of the work.
What strikes me about this massacre is how many people were aware that Eric and Dylan needed help.
The police, their parents, their teachers, even their friends and employers all knew something was wrong at different points in time. The boys were in a a diversion program that was supposed to help troubled teens transition into good adults. Why didn’t it do anything?
I think we need to investigate the failure of this program, but also figure out what we can do about psychopaths. Eric was a skilled liar and whatever he did in life, he was always going to be someone who enjoyed terrorizing others. If we can’t cure psychopathy for people like this, what do we do with them? There has to be a better option than waiting for them to explode.