Friday, May 22, 2009

Columbine revisited

I wasn't planning to post today, but I came across this insightful piece about the Columbine shootings. I'm way late to the party, but Dave Cullen is an incredible writer, and he does a much better job explaining this stuff than I'm able to, so I'd like to share it.

Everyone probably remembers the horrific story of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two "school shooters" whose names were etched into my memory as a high schooler. But I had never been aware of the true story of the tragedy, one that is much more complex than the media led me to believe.

I'll leave the details of their intended exploits for you to read, but I do want to highlight a few sections. The first point is that while Klebold was apparently indeed "just" an angry young man, all clues point to Harris being a psychopath. Take note of the last parenthesized section in particular:

Diagnosing Harris as a psychopath represents neither a legal defense, nor a moral excuse. But it illuminates a great deal about the thought process that drove him to mass murder.
It begins to explain Harris' unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they're actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they're facing one. It's like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)

Lest you worry that "empathy" is merely a touchy-feely word used to usher in the Age of Aquarius, here we have a poignant example of where the ability to understand another's viewpoint serves a vital purpose.

What else does it suggest? If the current views on psychopathy are correct, then the shellacking Harris' parents surely received -- presumably for being lousy role models -- is exceptionally cruel. Imagine living an honest life, having earned several meritorious service and commendation medals in the USAF. You spend 18 years trying to impart some wisdom unto your progeny, and your first reward is a particularly clever son:

Klebold and Harris had avoided prosecution for [a] robbery by participating in a "diversion program" that involved counseling and community service. Both killers feigned regret to obtain an early release, but Harris had relished the opportunity to perform. He wrote an ingratiating letter to his victim offering empathy, rather than just apologies. Fuselier remembers that it was packed with statements like Jeez, I understand now how you feel and I understand what this did to you.

"But he wrote that strictly for effect," Fuselier said. "That was complete manipulation. At almost the exact same time, he wrote down his real feelings in his journal: 'Isn't America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I'm free, I can't deprive a stupid f---ing dumbshit from his possessions if he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his f---ing van out in plain sight and in the middle of f---ing nowhere on a Frif---ingday night. NATURAL SELECTION. F---er should be shot.' "

After discovering the inconceivable nightmare he has wrought, your next prize is 85% of Americans blaming you and lawsuits up the wazoo. Oh well; at least you can rest soundly at night, knowing that the vast majority of your peers are holier than thou.

As for Klebold, well, who knows what might have happened had he not been drawn into that lethal partnership? There are plenty of angry, depressed teenagers with gentler destinies.

The psychiatrists can't help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.
Eric, a lost soul whose neurons could never hope to orchestrate the symphony of intimacy so many of us take for granted. Dylan, who couldn't be rescued from his own pain despite a glimmer of hope: he had blamed himself for his problems. And their parents, who we can only hope were left with enough sanity and courage to carry on, without the support their fellow countrymen couldn't see they both needed and deserved.

If I were more clever, perhaps I could have motivated a tidier conclusion. Maybe some hints about who to blame and who to absolve. Instead, I can only manage to gape in awe at the intricate weave of causes and conditions shimmering just under the surface.


  1. Joakim ArfvidssonMay 22, 2009 at 9:19 AM

    Nice. I like the purely practical need for empathy in the hostage situation.

  2. Thanks for finding the Slate piece, Aditya. It amazes me that it's still out there, finding people, or vice versa.

    I learned a lot in the five years since then, and published a book on it last month. The essence of both Eric and Dylan is the same, but I came to understand their evolution much better, especially Dylan's. And I focused half the book on the survivors.

    I love the title of your blog, BTW.

  3. Hi Dave! Thanks for posting and for the kind comments.

    I'm always inspired when time and care are taken to really make sense of tragedies like this one. It seems that too often all we (the public) want are quick, pat explanations, so I applaud your search for the truth!

    I've added your book to my Amazon wishlist.