Who Is A School Shooter?

This is the second in a series comparing the attacks on Columbine and Sandy Hook. Read the introduction here and the second post here.

Shmuley Boteach, another Orthodox Jewish blogger, 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 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 because of broken homes and “angry” people.  Ironically, he simplified the discussion about school shootings even further.

The biggest disfunction 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 for her own. It’s time that the conversation got deeper.

In that vein, this piece is meant to take us deeper into the rabbit hole of the world of Columbine, and to use that information to give us a more complicated view of school shootings, evil, and Sandy Hook.

To do that, we’ll need to look at Dylan Klebold.

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 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 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 he was acting it out. 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 give 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, a story that 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 do 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 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 affected, and continues to affect, 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 affected 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 there 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 done 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, 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 slowly afterwards 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.





18 responses to “Who Is A School Shooter?”

  1. Devorah Milecki Avatar

    Can a person be born pure evil (Eric)?

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      At least in terms of psychopaths, the evidence seems to point to the fact that it is genetic. Most psychopaths exhibit symptoms at very young ages. It definitely makes sense in terms of Jewish theology, but I think many people are afraid of labeling children as evil or even psychopathic.

      Here’s a pretty interesting article on the subject: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/magazine/can-you-call-a-9-year-old-a-psychopath.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

      And another: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/5979198/Psychopaths-are-born-not-bred-according-to-a-new-study.html

      1. Devorah Milecki Avatar

        Wow, thanks. Great article, by the way. So now to be proactive: to find enough time/resources/knowledge/tools to recognize these signs….

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          Agreed. But I think it’s not just about the “signs” but also learning how we contribute to this culture. Just my opinion, but I think by the media and the audience feeding so much into school shootings, we create a bigger platform for these people…

  2. Manny Avatar

    If you have the time to read a 600 pager, I strongly suggest John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. With many biblical underpinnings, Steinbeck describes what pure evil is through a woman named Cathy. He also shows how it is passed on to the next generation. However, he shows that even those with “the evil gene” can lead normal, healthy and wholesome lives. The struggle for them is just greater than the average person who does not have such a natural drive towards evil. Regardless, he shows the nature of evil and that it does exist. One of the greatest novels I have read.

    1. Rivki Silver Avatar

      I second that recommendation. It is an absolutely amazing read.

    2. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. RabbiDan Bortz Avatar

    But in Columbine & Sandy Hook, the profile of obsessive killing video game players, together with a lack of sensitivity to others was apparent to many..I’m not saying this should be published by schools or profiling enforced, but studies should be done to see if there are certain warning signs that connect in the shootings

  4. psychcare613@gmail.com Avatar

    I spend my days evaluating and treating people with mental health problems.   As disturbing is the horrible slaughter of innocents I like the metaphor of (murder) art because it takes the issue to a whole new level of accuracy without the simplification.
    Just as one somehow finds himself in the role of an artist, often by exclusion of many other roles that don’t fit,  it is completely fruitless to
    seek the common denominator of artists.   It is the differences that give them notoriety, fame or popularity.    Then there are the issues of execution,  elegance and the power of expression.    This follows the earlier stages of development and formation of the artist, his media and style.
    Of course there is a risk of sounding callous or unsympathetic to the victims when the brutality is elevated to something as sublime as art that is usually considered “harmless.”  In reality art can appear so but actually has great power to influence and form values.   This is another aspect you allude to, the influence on the “state of the art,”  our appreciation of their craft and the horizons it may open for us (in this case the opening of evil).
    Contrary to the struggling artists trying to make their mark, our murder artists get instant recognition, and “fame.”   Yet our sqeamish sensitivity to evil and its reality makes it nearly impossible to speak of these things on their own terms.    We do hear in passing the evil Austrian flunked out of art school leaving him to seek recognition in other mediums.     
    There are many other models of violent crime being tossed around, like viral loads, and the epidemiology seems to show some promise in deepening our understanding but loathe as I am to say it,   the gun seems more powerful and immediate than the brush.     There is also much less certainty of success and more competition in the creative arts.
    Murder is, thanks to the widening influence of the media,  such a big seller even if the final act rapidly dwarfs once the smoke clears leaving  the survivors to grapple with their misery.    Yet the secret society of alienated and impressionable souls are waiting for the inspiration, and preparation to make their way to upstage the ones who thought they were finally getting it right.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Wow, love this. I think this subject could really become a series of its own.

      And yeah, I think if we understand the essence of what art is, it makes a lot of sense. It’s not callous at all, but an understanding of how these people work and why they choose to act out the way they do. Because it’s not really about the killing. It’s about the effect it has on the rest of the world.

  5. Matt Klassen Avatar

    Very insightful! Cullen’s book is now on my “to read” list. I’m still extremely curious to hear how you would define “evil” the noun. Part of the problem I have with “accepting evil” is that I don’t know if we are talking about a metaphysical force, a spiritual entity, a cultural value or if evil conforms to a certain rubric.

    1. Concealed Courier Avatar

      An interesting train of thought. We see “evil” traditionally through the lens of religion. In that light, we sought to remove the concept of evil as we secularized. But perhaps evil is something else altogether, and our ancestors could only understand it through their religions. I think its time to rethink the true source of evil. It may very well be from a source we haven’t even considered yet.

  6. Simone Cumberbatch Avatar
    Simone Cumberbatch

    You mean humans affected by evil. You used it incorrectly every time, I think.

    “It’s actually pretty straightforward. The majority of the time you use affect with an a as a verb and effect with an e as a noun.”

  7. Amy Avatar

    This isthe best series on both Columbine and Sandy Hook that I’ve read. Thanks for your insight. Really hits home.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Wow, thanks so much. Glad to hear it.

  8. Hudson Luce Avatar

    “Furthermore, let’s consider that almost all the school shooters in our time were either ignored or bullied. I personally know from a classmate and neighbor of Adam Lanza that he was brilliant, odd and severely bullied. We as leaders and educators have to watch out for humiliation. The Torah says that when we humiliate a person, it is like killing them. I believe this to be the underlying cause behind mass shootings. I know that many states have anti-bullying laws, and we should make sure we can sanction schools that refuse to intervene to a case of children tormenting classmates.” http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/newtown-rabbi-gun-control-anti-bullying-policies-are-vital

    The operative sentence here is “I personally know from a classmate and neighbor of Adam Lanza that he was brilliant, odd and severely bullied.” He was withdrawn from school in 10th grade and homeschooled by his mother, which is a fairly common response when children are bullied in school and the school does nothing about it. Now, consider that he still had to live in the community where this took place – a small town where his bullies still lived. Is it any wonder that he would not come out of his house and would not communicate with anyone if he could possibly avoid it?

    Bullying is a commonplace thing in American schools, and so is the lack of a real response on part of school administrators. For example, see this article and comments: http://www.kansas.com/2011/10/02/2041713/a-renewed-battle-against-bullying.html One of the comments: “My nephew has been continously bullied in school for years. It finally took an email sent directly to Mckenna to get something done about it. The principals and counselors dont do anything. No punishments are issued to the bullies themselves. Maybe some of these bullied kids and their parents should take out PFA’s on the bullies then we can see what the bullies parents and the school will do when they have to keep them a few yards away from our children.”

    Now, add in the following: ‎”Violence, especially of the kind that Adam Lanza committed, is a response to suffering that cannot be contained within one’s body and nervous system. The suffering, as Gilligan describes in his meticulous description of one murderer after another he had worked with as a prison psychiatrist, is the result of shame, most often shame related to the very experience of being human, sensitive, and having vulnerable needs. Gilligan talks about soul murder, which he believes has happened to all the people he interviewed in his 25 year career in the Massachusetts prison system. Unlike me, he speaks with the authority of countless encounters.” http://www.alternet.org/speakeasy/tikkundaily/adam-lanza-and-all-us?page=entire

    Before blaming Lanza for being evil, perhaps you should take a look at the broader situation. Often there’s more to a story than is reported at first…

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      “Before blaming Lanza for being evil, perhaps you should take a look at the broader situation. Often there’s more to a story than is reported at first…”

      Please read the piece carefully. I never blamed Lanza for being evil, but rather wanted to simply allow it to be a possibility. If you read the next section of this series, that will be made even clearer.

  9. […] Update: Read part three here. […]

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