Columbine Book cover

 

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

 

I’ve never taken much interest in the Columbine massacre or other school shootings, partly because they’re so depressing and partly because I don’t like that media coverage makes celebrities out of murderers. However, when I saw Janet Reid’s review of this new book about Columbine, I had to read it. It appears that most of what we think we know about Columbine is wrong.

The myth of Columbine is that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullied outcasts who got revenge on the jocks and popular kids. So they were meting out a kind of misguided, vigilante justice.

Turns out, it’s not true. Eric and Dylan were not outcasts; they appear to have had average popularity. They did not lack friends or social contact. Their journals contain no accounts of being bullied. They do contain much bragging about how they themselves picked on “freshmen and fags.” Eric and Dylan also routinely went on “missions” where they vandalized the homes of kids they didn’t like. Eric and Dylan weren’t bullied. They were the bullies.


When a tragedy like Columbine happens, we want to explain it in terms that make sense. The shooters were bullied outcasts getting revenge. Violent videogames twisted their minds. Bad parenting sent them down the wrong path. If we can assign the tragedy an external cause, then we feel a sense of control. We can prevent future tragedies, if only we implement some anti-bullying programs, or ban violent video games. Unfortunately, the root cause of Columbine appears to be something not readily controllable. The root cause is that Eric Harris was born a psychopath.

 

Psychopaths (synonymous with sociopaths) are born without the capacity for love. Conscience and empathy arise out of love, so psychopaths don’t have those either. They have an extremely limited emotional range, consisting of anger, frustration, and rage. They don’t feel love, grief, sorrow, hope, fear, or despair. As the author says, “Even an earthworm will recoil if you poke it with a stick. A squirrel will exhibit frustration if you tease it by offering a peanut, then repeatedly snatching it back. Psychopaths make it that far up the emotional ladder, but they fall far short of the average golden retriever, which will demonstrate affection, joy, compassion, and empathy for a human in pain.”

Dr. Hare, who studies psychopathy, once submitted a paper analyzing the EEGs of psychopaths to a scientific journal. The journal rejected it, saying “Those EEGs couldn’t have come from real people.” The brain activity of psychopaths is so abnormal it doesn’t look human.

Eric, with his videotapes and journals and website, left behind tons of information about his inner world–enough to make it clear he was a textbook psychopath.

Dylan was more complicated. He was not a psychopath. He was emotionally volatile and suicidally depressed. He was obsessed with a girl at school he had never spoken to. He wrote her love letters and never gave them to her. He talked in his journal about either finding love with her or killing himself. It appears he died without ever approaching her. He seems to be one of those suicidal types who lacks the initiative to do anything, even kill himself, so when Eric offered him a way out, he took it. Eric did all the planning, made the bombs, and bought the guns and ammo. Dylan participated, but during the shooting, he didn’t fire his gun very much. Without Eric’s influence, Dylan might eventually have recovered, or he might have killed himself, but he wouldn’t have orchestrated a massacre.

After reading this book, I feel a little bit sorry for Eric’s and Dylan’s parents. It’s unclear how much blame they deserve, if any. They have refused to grant interviews, except for one, the results of which are sealed until 2028. Eric’s parents should not be blamed for his psychopathy; research indicates that psychopathy is inborn and not caused by bad parenting. It does seem bizarre that Dylan’s parents would not have noticed his suicidal depression, or that Eric’s parents wouldn’t have noticed his stockpile of bombs and guns. Yet both boys had reasonably involved parents.

 

In particular, Wayne Harris, Eric’s father, clearly knew his son had problems, and was trying to intervene. He’d caught Eric building pipe bombs and vandalizing things, and had punished him in ways that seem appropriate: grounding, removal of privileges. (What else can a parent do? Not much.) He also found his son a therapist. All of this sounds like normal things a parent would do with a troubled child. Unfortunately, none of it works on a psychopath. Therapy just makes psychopaths worse (it teaches them new tricks for manipulating people).

Then Eric and Dylan got caught stealing electronics from a van, which was a felony. Since they were juveniles, they were permitted to apply for a Diversion program that would allow them not to be charged and instead do community service, therapy, etc. Both boys showed up at court with their mothers and fathers. They were clean-cut and well-spoken and obviously intelligent (both boys were gifted), so the court let them into the Diversion program. That was the big mistake right there, because the police were, at the time, sitting on a search warrant to search Eric’s house. If they’d executed the warrant, they would have found pipe bombs and other worrisome things that would probably have kept Eric out of the Diverson program and landed him in jail instead. But they didn’t do anything with it.

It’s unlikely that serving a few years in jail would have stopped Eric from becoming a murderer. He was probably destined for that anyway. Most psychopaths are not violent, just amoral and manipulative, but Eric was also sadistic, and that combination often becomes a serial killer.

It’s also interesting to note that Columbine wasn’t meant to be a school shooting at all. It was a bombing that failed. Eric’s intention was to blow up the whole school. But he was a pathetic bomb maker, and all his bombs failed, so as a backup plan he and Dylan ran around shooting people. Interestingly, they seemed to get bored of it after a while. They passed up classrooms full of kids and opened fire on empty classrooms. They murdered 10 or so people in the library, then left the other 30 or so alone. The body count could have been much, much higher than it was.

The cause of the Columbine massacre appears not to have been bullying, videogames, or bad parenting, but psychopathy–something rather harder to control. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that some people are born evil and unredeemable. Unfixable. The book says, “Dr. Hare summarized the research on a century of attempts [to treat psychopathy] in two words: nothing works. It is the only major mental affliction to elude treatment.” It’s possible to identify psychopaths by their abnormal brain activity, but once you identify them, what do you do with them? Our current method is to wait for them to commit a heinous crime, and then jail them. How can you stop them before they commit the heinous crime?

There is one bit of hope. A juvenile treatment center in Wisconsin has developed a program that appears to produce improvements for psychopaths–a study found that juvenile psychopaths in the program were 2.7 times less likely to become violent than similar kids in other programs. The program acknowledges that “psychopaths will remain egocentric and uncaring for life, but will adhere to rules if it’s in their own interest.” So the kids were rated every night on adherence to rules and rewarded with privileges the next day. There is no cure for psychopathy, but it may be possible to manage the condition and prevent it from exacting too high a cost from society.

Great book. It goes into far, far more detail than I was able to go into here. I highly recommend it.