Sometimes I’m wrong. I try to admit it as often as possible, because I think people are often too scared or arrogant to admit being wrong.

I was wrong about the Columbine school killings. Deeply wrong. I probably had a more thoughtful, nuanced view than the average person, but still I was wrong on many things. I am 150 pages into David Cullen’s book, Columbine, which just came out this year (I guess for the 10th anniversary of the killings – April 20, 1999).

The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were outcasts. Wrong. They had plenty of friends, who they hung out with frequently. They were involved with a lot of social activities, such as school plays, producing videos for the school’s TV channels, and sports teams.

They were bullied, and acted out of rage at being excluded and harassed. Wrong. At least according to the book so far, they (or at least, Eric) were more like the bullies. They weren’t excluded; in fact, they had quite a circle of admirers, and Eric was quite a schmoozer, picking up chicks easily. They also had no vendetta against jocks – as already mentioned, they were quite fond of sports themselves, and had some jock friends. But they tended to look down on the “dumb jock” types, that much is true. They took pride in being smart. But that had nothing to do with what happened.

They were part of the Trench Coat Mafia. Surely that was true – they wore trench coats, didn’t they??? Wrong. The whole TCM thing had kind of faded away by then, and although they were friends with some of those people, they weren’t really part of what was really just a circle of friends who wanted to look cool anyway. And other than the black trench coats, there wasn’t much that was “Goth” about them.

Their parents were negligent and uninvolved. Wrong. I wasn’t certain on this one; I didn’t want to pass judgment without knowing about their actual parents, but I thought there was more truth to this than there actually is. The book has only touched on the parents briefly, but from what I’ve seen, they were caring parents who spent plenty of time with their sons, and did their best to provide order in their homes, providing thought-out punishment (Eric’s father would take a few days to decide the penalty, discussing the decision, which could range from grounding to taking away his computer, with Eric and making sure he understood why and admitted responsibility.) Dylan’s parents may have spoiled him some, though.

Their minds were warped by neo-Nazi, racist beliefs. Wrong, at least partially. Dylan’s mother was Jewish, and their family incorporated some Jewish practices into their lives, if not in a regular, organized way. (They also incorporated elements of his father’s Lutheranism.) Eric admired German bands and authors and would spike his high-fives with “Seig Hail.” But they had close friends who were Asian- and African-American. I’m not entirely clear on the extent of Eric’s fascination with Nazism and/or German culture; the book hasn’t touched much on this. But again, this had little to do with the actual events.

The biggest misconception about those killings is that they are not really comparable to other school shootings. Their plan behind that day was much bloodier and more elaborate: bombs that would kill hundreds of people inside the school. The shooting would only come in as the people tried to escape. They expected to die, but if they didn’t, they planned to joyride around, blowing more stuff (and people) up.

In short, they didn’t target minorities, jocks, or Christians. They killed whoever they could.

I am really embarrassed at my thoughts of the killers. I felt more sympathetic towards them than their victims, because I felt I could identify with them, with their pain and feelings of frustration. Now I am appalled to find how off my ideas were.

Eric Harris seems like he was a megalomaniac sociopath. According to video tapes and witnesses, he shouted things like “This is so cool! Freaking awesome!” Before that day, he would talk about how he would like people to be dead very matter-of-factly (without necessarily showing signs he would actually act on those ideas). His utopia seems to be a Beckettian land in which he is the last person alive and the landscape is a near void:

“…he was suspended inside a small dank room, like the interior hull of a ship. Futuristic yet decaying old computer screens lined the walls, covered with dust and mold and vines. The moon provided the only light, trickling dimly in through the portals, shadows creeping all around. A vast sea rose and fell monotonously. Nothing happened. Eric was overjoyed.” (p.135)

Now, I like my solitude, but that to be sounds more like a nightmare than a dream come true.

Dylan, on the other hand, was very quiet and passive, and non-confrontational. He was given to unpredictable outbursts whenever criticized or frustrated, but for the most part avoided trouble. He can be clearly seen on video watching students fleeing while he had clean shots at them, not shooting, and turning away. He was by himself when that happened. He only fired his guns five times. Eric fired his forty-seven times.


One Response to Wrong

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    After reading your partial review of the new book on Columbine, I am interested in the psychology of Eric Harris (“a meglomaniac psychopath,” in your words), and his relationship with the “quiet and passive” Dylan Klebold.

    A few months ago, The New Yorker published an article called “Suffering Souls: In Search of the Roots of Psychopathy.”

    The article describes the research of Dr. Kent Kiehl on “…psychopathy, the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population. (Female psychopaths are thought to be much rarer.) Psychopaths don’t exhibit the manias, hysterias, and neuroses that are present in other types of mental illness. Their main defect, what psychologists call ‘severe emotional detachment’—a total lack of empathy and remorse—is concealed, and harder to describe than the symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This absence of easily readable signs has led to debate among mental-health practitioners about what qualifies as psychopathy and how to diagnose it.”

    Kiehl believes that this controversial and difficult-to-treat diagnosis is due to a defect in the paralimbic system, the network of brain regions that processes emotion, inhibition, and attentional control. He is in the process of adminstering fMRIs to hundreds of prison inmates in an attempt to isolate the affected areas of the brain and develop treatments.

    “…Kiehl and his students use the revised version of the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL-R, a twenty-item diagnostic instrument created by Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, based on his long experience in working with psychopaths in prisons.”

    Go to the following link to read the article:


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