Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. I happen to be reading an excellent book on the subject, Columbine. The author is Dave Cullen, a journalist who has covered the massacre and its aftermath from day one and is considered by some the nation’s leading Columbine expert.
According to Cullen, almost everything we all thought we knew about that high school shooting turns out to have been wrong:
• Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn’t plan their crime as a school shooting. They intended it as a terrorist attack in which they hoped to kill up to 500 students, faculty and would-be rescuers with huge firebombs they planted in the school’s cafeteria and parking lot. And they would have succeeded, except that Harris incorrectly wired the bombs. The boys had carried shotguns, a rifle and pistols only to pick off survivors as they fled the bombed-out cafeteria. But when the bombs failed to ignite, Harris and Klebold decided at the last minute to enter the school and start shooting. As horrible as Columbine was, we’re lucky it wasn’t far, far worse.
• Harris and Klebold weren’t irate victims of bullying who were seeking revenge against jocks (or, for that matter, against minorities or Christians). Both boys were popular, were excellent students and were bullies of others, not the bullied.
• Neither boy belonged to the now-infamous Trench Coat Mafia. They wore trench coats to conceal their arsenal of small arms until the last possible moment.
• Cassie Bernall was the student who became the subject of a best-selling book by her mother. She became known in many circles a Christian martyr for having confessed her faith in Christ even as Harris pointed a shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. She almost certainly never said the heroic words attributed to her.
But for me, the most disturbing aspect of this case is that, contrary to mythology, both Harris and Klebold came from strong, supportive, intact families. Both had older brothers who were hard-working and widely respected. Both had parents who were active in their lives, who took them fishing, bought them computers, drove them to ballgames. Neither kid’s parents had any idea their son was planning violence. Neither set supplied their boy with firearms. The boys went to enormous lengths to deceive them.
It seems almost as if Harris and Klebold became evil because of errant brain chemistry, or else by direct intention, or by some combination. Authorities now think Harris was a psychopath, a cunning, conscienceless monster. Klebold, profoundly insecure and angry about what he considered his own failures, was easily manipulated.
Following the school murders, several prominent evangelical ministers in the area attributed Harris and Klebold’s actions to Satan. That’s always a possibility, I suppose.
Really, though, no one really knows why those two boys did what they did. They weren’t involved in a satanic cult. They weren’t bullied. They weren’t addicted to drugs. They weren’t the victims of child abuse or emotional neglect.
None of the clichés, none of the stereotypes, works here. The source of their evil is a mystery and will remain so. We always feel better when we can grasp onto an easy explanation. Here, there is no sure explanation.