'They Were Just Like Everybody Else': The Columbine High School Massacre

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Columbine expert warns not to rush to judgment about motives of Aurora, Colo., shooter.

The shooting in Aurora, Colorado last week reminds of many mass murders in the past several decades. The suspect made his first court appearance on Monday, appearing at times dazed, and at other times unaware of his surroundings. The hearing did not answer any questions about his life leading up to the killings, but it has become clear how easy it is to assemble an arsenal of weapons and ammunition. However, jumping to conclusions about the motivations of the perpetrator would be a mistake. The killer is rarely who he seems.

So says Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, a New York Times best seller, who told MSNBC recently, "You've had 48 hours to reflect on the ghastly shooting in Colorado at a movie theater. You’ve been bombarded with “facts” and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it," he writes in an opinion piece for The New York Times. "You are probably wrong." Read the rest of the article,"Don’t Jump to Conclusions About the Killer."

Cullen, a reporter who covered the Columbine Massacre from the start, spent ten years researching the 1999 shootings and bombing, and focused specifically on the killers' motivations. He believes their motivations were largely misunderstood."To understand this tragedy, the key is letting go of our concept of 'the killers,'" he writes in the book."

Columbine, the book

Book cover: ColumbineOn April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed their evil plan, to blow up their school, located in Columbine, an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colorado, and kill hundreds of the 2000 students in attendance. They wanted to surpass the damage done at the Mura Center in Oklahoma City in 1995 when 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 6, were killed. Harris and Klebold, both 18 year old seniors at the high school, wanted to leave "a lasting impression on the world." In his journal, Harris called it ‘judgment day.” He also wrote, “I dream I am the last person on earth.” He bragged about topping what happened in Oklahoma City.

Cullen reports that their plan had three acts: bombs were placed strategically inside and out of school. They hoped a massive explosion in the school commons would kill hundreds of students during their lunch period. A fireball would start a fire The second act involved the killers repositioning themselves outside the school and firing their automatic weapons on the fleeing students, also using a supply of pipe bombs, carbon dioxide bombs plus Molotov cocktails, and knives Phase three would increase the horror because their cars in the nearby  parking lot were filled with explosives. They hoped the camera crews, families and others would be incinerated. Then they planned to die.

Twelve students were killed as well as a teacher Twenty-one other people were injured. Both of the killers committed suicide on the scene.

Columbine was the fourth-deadliest school massacre in United States history, after the 1927 Bath School disaster, 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 1966 University of Texas massacre, and remains the deadliest for an American high school. There have been more than ten school shootings in the U .S. since Columbine.

How it ended

A little after noon, a teacher, who had locked herself inside a break room with a student and library staff, overheard Harris and Klebold suddenly shout in unison: "One! Two! Three!" These words were immediately followed by the sound of gunfire: the duo had committed suicide: Harris by firing his shotgun through the roof of his mouth; Klebold by shooting himself in the left temple with his TEC-9 semi-automatic gun.

In the months prior to the attack, Harris and Klebold acquired two 9 mm firearms and two 12-gauge shotguns. A rifle and the two shotguns were bought by a friend at the Tanner Gun Show in December 1998. Through a friend, Harris and Klebold later bought a handgun as well.Two of their friends would serve jail sentences for purchasing weapons for the duo.

Using instructions acquired from  the Internet, Harris and Klebold constructed a total of 99 improvised explosive devices of various designs and sizes. They sawed the barrels and butts off their shotguns to make them easier to conceal. The perpetrators committed numerous felony violations of state and federal law, including the National Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968, even before the massacre began.

During the shootings, Harris carried a 12-gauge Savage-Springfield 67H pump-action shotgun, which he discharged 25 times and a Hi-Point 995 Carbine 9 mm carbine with thirteen 10-round magazines, which was fired 96 times.

Dylan KleboldKlebold (pictured at left) carried a 9 mm Intratec TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun manufactured by Navegar, Inc. with one 52-, one 32-, and one 28-round magazine and a 12 gauge Stevens 311D double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. Klebold's primary weapon was the TEC-9 handgun, which was fired 55 times.

”They sought murder on a grander scale. They planned first to set off bombs in the school cafeteria to kill perhaps 600. Then they would shoot the survivors as they fled. Then their cars, laden with still more bombs, would explode amid the rescue workers and parents rushing to the school. It all might have come off if they had not mis-wired the timers on the propane bombs in the cafeteria."

The killers kept extensive records of their plans to explain their actions. Schedules, budgets, maps, journals, and video and audio recordings were left behind. Harris was infatuated with Nazis.


The aftermath

Cullen says that myths still exist about the event. Even the motivation of the killers is misunderstood by many in the public. “It wasn't about the jocks, Goths or the Trench Coat Mafia. The killers didn't even see themselves as school shooters: their primary focus was the bombs.… Their personalities were poles apart, like the motives that drove them. Eric Harris was the callously brutal mastermind, and Dylan Klebold, the quivering depressive who journaled obsessively about love and attended the Columbine prom three days before opening fire.” He also concludes that their parents are not to blame for what happened—victims like many others.

Harris is described by Cullen as having “A preposterously grand superiority complex, revulsion for authority and an excruciating need for control.” He said, “I feel like God.” Harris, the experts determined, killed for two reasons: to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it,” writes Cullen. "Unfortunately, there is no treatment for a psychopath. Nothing works.”

There were many signs of dysfunction. In the two years prior to the event, the killers committed petty crimes, including hacking into the school’s computer system and breaking into student lockers. They were caught and suspended from school. Their parents grounded them and forbade contact with each other for times.

Eric HArrisHarris (pictured at left)  launched a website and his blog referenced bombs and guns he had acquired and contained threats towards, students, teachers and society. One student was singled out for death threats. His parents found out and notified the police. Police at one point were going to conduct a search of his home, but the matter got sidetracked and never happened. The affidavit that was prepared by the police was never presented to a judge for approval. The file on the case was allegedly lost and the subject of great controversy. A search could have uncovered bombs and weapons in their rooms.

Harris and Klebold were soon arrested for breaking into a parked car. They were charged with three felonies. They were taken to county jail and released to the custody of their parents. They pled guilty to the felonies and were placed on probation and sentenced to a juvenile diversion program. They did so well in the program they were released early. Harris’s counselor predicted he would go on to a successful life.

In one of his scheduled meetings with his psychiatrist, Eric Harris complained of depression, anger and of having  suicidal thoughts. As a result of this, he was prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft. He subsequently complained to feeling restless and to experiencing a lack of concentration to his doctor, and in April, he was switched to a similar anti-depressant drug— Luvox. At the time of his death, Harris had therapeutic Luvox levels in his system. Some analysts have argued that one or both of these medications may have contributed to Harris's actions. They claimed that side-effects of these drugs include increased aggression, loss of remorse, depersonalization, and mania. A subsequent study conducted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices identified Luvox as being 8.4 times more likely than other medications to be associated with violence.

Cullen wrote, “Mr. Harris kept a sort of journal for an entire year, focused largely on his plan to blow up his school and mow down survivors with high-powered rifles. Mr. Klebold kept a more traditional journal for two years, spewing a wild array of contradictory teen angst and deep depression, grappling seriously with suicide from the very first page.

“Audiences are never surprised by the journal of Mr. Harris. It’s hate-hate-hate all the way through. He was a coldblooded psychopath, in the clinical use of that term. He had no empathy, no regard for human suffering or even human life.

“Mr. Klebold’s journal is the revelation. Ten pages are consumed with drawings of giant fluffy hearts. Some fill entire pages; others dance about in happy clusters, with “I LOVE YOU” stenciled across. He was ferociously angry. He had one primary target for his anger. Not jocks, but himself. What a loathsome creature he found himself. No friends, no love, not a soul who cared about him or what became of his miserable life. None of that is objectively true. But that’s what he saw.

“Psychologists describe depression as anger turned inward. When that anger is somehow turned around, and projected outward, watch out.

“A vast majority of depressives are a danger only to themselves. But it is equally true that of the tiny fraction of people who commit mass murder, most are not psychopaths like Eric Harris or deeply mentally ill like Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech. Far more often, they are suicidal and deeply depressed. The Secret Service’s landmark study of school shooters in 2002 determined that 78 percent of those shooters had experienced suicidal thoughts or attempts before mass murder.”

The parents of Harris and Klebold thought to have contributed to the  horror.  Few saw them as victims of this tragedy. Polls on the subject reported that the vast majority of the public blamed the parents for what happened. Cullen writes that the parents thought they were in touch with their son’s needs and were as shocked as everyone else at the depth of their problems.

In her first public comments on the subject, Eric’s mother, Susan Klebold, wrote in 2009:

“For the rest of my life, I will be haunted by the horror and anguish Dylan caused. I cannot look at a child in a grocery store or on the street without thinking about how my son's schoolmates spent the last moments of their lives. Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love. I think I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble. My maternal instincts would keep him safe. But I didn't know. And my instincts weren't enough. And the fact that I never saw tragedy coming is still almost inconceivable to me. I only hope my story can help those who can still be helped. I hope that, by reading of my experience, someone will see what I missed.”

Read more form Susan Klebold: "I Will Never Know Why" at oprah.com.

David Brooks of The New York Times interviewed the parents of Klebold. Brooks wrote,

“My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them. Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior. Now his parents have been left with the terrible consequences. I'd say they are facing them bravely and honorably.”

Read the rest of the opinion piece, "Columbine: Parents Of a Killer," at nytimes.com.

The massacre sparked debate over gun control laws, the availability of firearms within the United States and gun violence involving youths. Much discussion also centered on the nature of high school cliques, subcultures and bullying, in addition to the influence of violent movies and video games in American society. The shooting resulted in an increased emphasis on school security, and a moral panic aimed at Goth culture, social outcasts, gun culture, the use of pharmaceutical anti-depressants by teenagers, teenage Internet use and violent video games.

On the fifth anniversary of Columbine, the FBI's lead Columbine investigator and several psychiatrists went public with their conclusions in a news article. They believed the plan was masterminded by Harris, who they thought had a messianic-level superiority complex and hoped to illustrate his massive superiority to the world.

The attack had been planned for more than a year, which included acquiring the firearms and building bombs. Some of the material would later be found in their homes. A shotgun was in the closet of Klebold’s room. Harris's journals, in particular, show methodical preparation over a long period of time, including several experimental bomb detonations

One significant change took place in how police handle similar situations.  It led to the  the introduction of the Immediate Action Rapid Deployment tactic, used in situations with an active shooter. This tactic calls for a four-person team to advance into the site of any ongoing shooting. "The active protocol has proved successful at numerous shootings during the past decade. At Virginia Tech alone, it probably saved dozens of lives," writes Cullen.

Hope Columbine Memorial LibraryThe HOPE Columbine Memorial Library, left,, has replaced the library where most of the massacre unfolded

The shooting resulted in calls for more gun control measures. In 2000 federal and state legislation was introduced that would require safety locks on firearms as well as ban the importation of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Though laws were passed that made it a crime to buy guns for criminals and minors, there was considerable controversy over legislation pertaining to background checks at gun shows. In 2001, K-Mart, which sold ammunition to the shooters, announced it would no longer sell handgun ammunition, action encouraged by and documented in Michael Moore's film “Bowling for Columbine.”

In his farewell video for his parents, Harris quoted Shakespeare: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”

On the website for his book, Columbine Online, Dave Cullen provides resources (Teen Depression 101) for helping depressed teens and urges parents and teachers to get involved.


Visit your local library for these resources:

Dave Cullen, (2009).
Drawing on interviews, police records, media coverage, and diaries and videotapes left behind by the shooters, Cullen examines the killers’ beliefs and psychological states of mind.  Cullen goes beyond detailing the planning and execution of the shootings, delving into the early lives of the killers as well. He explores the aftermath for the town of Littleton, Colorado: survivors’ stories, investigation into how the sheriff’s department mishandled the crisis, several ongoing legal issues, exploitation of the shooting by some religious groups and sensationalists, and the school’s battle to regain its identity. Cullen debunks several Columbine myths, including the goth angle and a martyrdom story of a girl who proclaimed her belief in God before she was killed. Graphic and emotionally vivid; spectacularly researched and analyzed.Excerpt of review by Vanessa Bush first published April 1, 2009 (Booklist).

Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion After Columbine.
Elliot Aronson, (2001).

Columbine: A True Crime Story
Jeff Kass, (2009).

Others Unknown: The Oklahoma City Bombing Conspiracy, (2001).


Image credits:

Article illustration:
Screenshot: Harris (left, carrying 995 carbine and sawn off shotgun) and Klebold (right, carrying TEC-9) as captured on Columbine High School's security cameras during the massacre.

Eric Harris

Dylan KLebold

Hope Columbine Memorial Library


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