This article is the second in a series comparing the attacks on Columbine and Sandy Hook. Read the first here.
Shmuley Boteach, another Orthodox Jewish writer, came out with an article about a week or so ago called “The Angry American Male”. Similar to Liza Long’s piece, his article claimed to be motivated by making the national dialogue around the Sandy Hook massacre less simplistic, but then went on to use no facts or solid arguments. He implied that the cause of mass killings in this country is broken homes and “angry” people. Ironically, he simplified the discussion about school shootings even further.
The biggest dysfunction in our national dialogue, whether it’s about mass shootings or anything else, is a tendency towards simplistic thinking. Boteach was guilty of that with his article, and Liza Long was guilty of that in her own. It’s time that the conversation got deeper.
In that vein, this piece is meant to take a deeper look into the rabbit hole of the world of Columbine, and to use that information to give us a more complex view of school shootings, evil, and Sandy Hook.
To do that, we’ll need to look at Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold.
Perhaps the most pervasive myth surrounding the Columbine massacre was the belief that both Dylan and Eric had the same motives. All the theories, from revenge to racism, lumped the two together as if they weren’t distinct individuals.
The truth was, however, that Dylan’s motives were completely separate from Eric’s.
While Eric was turned on by the idea of killing his schoolmates, Dylan was motivated by something completely distinct.
He just wanted to escape the pain.
While Eric Harris’s website and journal were filled with words like “hate”, according to author Dave Cullen, “Love was the most common word in Dylan’s journal.” Dylan was always searching for love. Whether it was the girl he had a desperate crush on, and dreamed of being with, or trying to contemplate the love of G-d, Dylan was always trying to reach higher.
For a while before the killings, Dylan tried to improve his life. “He tried deleting the Doom files from his computer, tried staying sober,” but nothing worked. Instead, he would just spiral further and further into depression.
As he said one day in his journal, “I have no happiness, no ambitions, no friends, & no LOVE!!!”
And soon, Dylan decided to end it.
But not by the way most people imagine. He didn’t plan to go out in a blaze of glory, or to kill anyone, as much as he pretended to go along with Eric.
No. He just wanted to die.
“He enjoyed the banter but privately said good-bye. He expected his August 10 entry to be his last. Dylan was planning to kill himself long before [the Columbine massacre].”
In other words, Dylan wasn’t interested in killing. He was interested in dying. As his mother famously explained in a beautiful article she wrote years after the massacre, “Dylan wasn’t homicidal. He was suicidal.”
So what happened?
From Suicide to Homicide
Dylan’s journal marks a progress towards murder that was completely unlike Eric’s. While Eric was singularly focused on his attack and it success, Dylan rarely spoke of murder.
At first it was just a blip. He wrote that perhaps his friend, “can get me that gun I hope, I wanna use it on a poor SOB.” He immediately disregarded the idea and moved on.
As time went on, the idea’s seed began to germinate in his mind, making an appearance every now and then.
And while, even very close to the massacre, Dylan didn’t truly believe he would take part in it, there was something else happening. Something that slowly, steadily, assured his destiny.
That something was Eric.
Eric knew that Dylan wasn’t completely behind him. Eric seemed to take every chance to prepare for the massacre, but Dylan was a mess.
“Each killer left hundreds of pages of writings and drawings and schedules in their day planners, and Eric’s are riddled with plans, logs, and results of experiments; Dylan showed virtually no effort. Eric acquired the guns, the ammo, and apparently the material for the bombs, and did the planning and construction.”
Eric wasn’t worried about Dylan’s lack of effort or enthusiasm. Instead, he worked on “encouraging” Dylan into joining his attack.
Slowly, Eric desensitized Dylan to murder. During their senior year, Eric and Dylan took a video production class, the perfect situation for Eric to encourage Dylan to go from, as Cullen puts it, “fantasy to reality, one step at a time.” In the films (warning: disturbing video), Eric and Dylan acted out their murderous fantasies. This allowed Dylan to feel the power of killing almost as if it was real. Soon, he was hooked.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Eric manipulated Dylan. It would be fairer to say that he helped Dylan take the extra steps he needed to go from suicidal to homicidal. He turned all the anger Dylan felt against himself and helped him direct it outwards. He convinced Dylan that the world was full of “zombies”, mindless idiots who deserved to be killed, if at least to grant them the mercy of escaping their own sad existences.
If it hadn’t been for Eric, Dylan would have probably committed suicide. With Eric, Dylan became a killer.
The Influence of Evil
The danger of discussing evil is that it quickly becomes a black and white discussion. Commentators stick their nose into the discussion and begin to portray every killer as evil, every terrorist as demented, everyone they disagree with as a caricature, like some sort of cartoon villain that rubs his hands gleefully as he imagines his minions destroying the world.
That truth is just as wrong, and just as dangerous, as assuming there is no such thing as evil at all.
Dylan Klebold wasn’t evil. He was a confused, horribly depressed kid that needed help. Help that the people around him didn’t provide, despite the numerous chances they had. (Despite Dylan writing a profoundly disturbing story about mass murder just months before the massacre. The story prompted his teacher to report it to his school counselor and parents. No one took action to help him. As Dylan’s mother herself wrote, his parents weren’t responsible for the attack on Columbine, but they were responsible for their lack of awareness of Dylan’s desperate internal pain.)
Dylan’s situation is a microcosm of the way evil works in our world. Not every evil action is done by an evil person.
People as evil as Eric Harris are rare. But their actions spread like viruses. Eric Harris didn’t just commit one evil action that ended there. No. First of all, he sucked in Dylan Klebold. In addition, another student in Columbine, inspired by Eric and Dylan, planned another attack, but was caught. A mother of one of the injured students committed suicide.
Looked at this from an even wider perspective, other mass murderers, like Seung-Hui Cho (the killer behind the Virginia Tech attack), who currently holds the record of most students killed in an attack on a school, have mentioned the attack on Columbine as an inspiration for their attack. Cho, by all measures, wasn’t like Eric or Dylan. He wasn’t a psychopath and he wasn’t just a normal depressed kid, but rather seemed like someone with many severe mental health ailments, such as psychosis and possibly schizophrenia. As he lost his support network when he transitioned from high school to college, his psychosis got from bad to worse. With the idea of mass murder planted in him, Cho, unwatched and unsupported, killed 32 people and injured 17 others.
The point here is that Eric Harris’s machinations directly and indirectly effected, and continue to effect, the world in a profoundly negative way. Even worse, the evil actions done by others are construed as actions done by evil people, when they clearly aren’t.
Evil is a seed that’s planted. But the vast majority of horrific acts done in the world aren’t committed by evil people. They’re simply humans effected by evil.
Who is a School Shooter?
The biggest myth, then, that is perpetuated by articles like “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and “The Angry American Male” isn’t that they are denying or blindly perpetuating the idea of evil.
Their biggest sin is that they spread the idea that their is a single profile to a school shooter. That Adam Lanza is a copy of Eric Harris and Eric Harris is a copy of Dylan Klebold, etc. That only one kind of person, whether mentally ill or evil, chooses to go on a shooting rampage.
As an FBI report conducted after Columbine states:
“One response to the pressure for action may be an effort to identify the next shooter by developing a ‘profile’ of the typical school shooter. This may sound like a reasonable preventive measure, but in practice, trying to draw up a catalogue or ‘checklist’ of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous. Such lists, publicized by the media, can end up unfairly labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous or even lethal.”
In other words: there is no profile. There is no one kind of person that does a school shooting.
A better way to think of school shootings, as crude as it may sound, is as art. Interestingly, Cullen even describes Eric’s plan as such:
“For Eric, Columbine was a performance. Homicidal art.”
Like art, school shootings are done for various motives and to spread various messages. Each killer sees his own goals as being fulfilled through his “performance”.
If we are to learn any lesson from these attacks, it is that it is both wrong and dangerous to provide a single motive to any breed of killer, or even to any evil action.
And if our country actually wants to evolve and grow, we won’t do that by paying attention to the mainstream voices that flood the airwaves and internet the moment after these horrific situations. Rather, we need to take our time to grieve, and then only afterwards slowly try to understand each situation based on its own details, and then to quietly, calmly, take the steps necessary to save lives in the future.
Reading articles like Long’s and Boteach’s may give us temporary relief, but in the long run, they only lead towards ignorance and danger. As a society, we deserve better than that.