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The Truth About Columbine

[What follows is a combination of two posts published earlier on the blog.]

The Notebooks

Several hundred pages of notebooks belonging to the Columbine killers have now been published online. I spent some time going through them today. Much of the material relates to the planning and carrying out of what Harris called “the rampage.” I wasn’t primarily interested in the details of their plan. As with any horrible event, what I wanted to understand, if possible, was why?

Based on what I already knew of the killers from press accounts, I was expecting the frequent references to DOOM and the increasingly violent and obscene rants that fill the boy’s diaries. I fully expected it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make any sort of sense of whatever drove them to their actions. I was wrong.

These kids were clearly insane, but their insanity isn’t the inscrutable variety. On the contrary, it now seems quite clear what brought them to that fateful day. It wasn’t Marilyn Manson albums, nor was it gun culture. In fact, I can’t proceed without mentioning that Michael Moore will have a hard time reading these diaries. In them we find that one of the only times Harris shows enthusiasm for anything but killing is after watching a program on the Discovery channel about high tech radar, satellites and airplanes. Far from being what drove Harris to kill, these products of the military-industrial complex may have been the only thing that came close to dissuading him. [page 92] No, what really drove these boys to their horrible deeds goes much deeper than guns and video game violence, as you’ll see.

What follows are just a few telling excerpts, primarily from a long section of Eric Harris’ stream-of-consciousness diary entries. I’ll present them in the order they appear in the diary. First an image of the entry itself, then my typewritten version of what it says in blockquotes. Finally my own thoughts are interspersed.

The first thing that caught my attention was this scribbled note:

columbine-page-69.jpg

Why would I give a f**k what Jesus would do???
[page 69]

A few pages later, I was struck by this violent fantasy image:

columbine-page-76.jpg

I blew off his head
with one shot. I am god. he died

BLACK

I am purity. Darkness. Romanticism. Proffesionalism.
Existence. Complacence. Power. Pain. Everything is
black. I am everything.
[page 76]

It’s a power trip of messianic proportions. By all accounts, these kids were outcasts. They clearly hated being at the bottom rung of the social ladder. It filled them with rage. Part of what made these kids different was that they sought to justify that rage, to make it reasonable:
columbine-page-84.jpg

I have something only me and V have, SELF AWARENESS.
call it existentialism or whatever the fuck u
want. we know what we are to this world
and what everyone else is.
[page 84]

Perhaps this seems a bit cryptic. What does he mean by “what we are to this world”? The word “existentialism” is a clue. And notice also that the excerpt above this one contains the word “existence.” We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Having established his “self awareness” Harris moves on to denigrate those who, in his view, lack this trait:
columbine-page-85.jpg

sometime when someone tells you something
ask “why?” eventually they will be stumped and can’t
answer anymore that’s because they only know
what they need to know in society and school, not
real life science. They will end up saying words
?? “because! Just shut up!” people that only know
stupid facts that aren’t important should be shot
what fucking use are they. NATURAL SELECTION.
Kill all retards…
[page 85]

In the passage above, Harris begins with what philosophers call “iterative skepticism.” It is a valid, if annoying, form of skepticism. Simply keep asking “why?” until your opponent is exhausted. By its nature, the course of iterative skepticism is upward toward ultimate questions. It leads necessarily to the ultimate “why?” A question that Harris will come to in a moment. But here, Harris gives a hint of his own answer to the question in his reference to “NATURAL SELECTION.”

As his rant continues, Harris’ formulates his alienation from humanity in grander and grander terms. It’s no longer a dark fantasy. He is now stating outright that he is “like God”:
columbine-page-86.jpg

I feel like God and wish I was
having everyone being OFFICIALLY lower than me
I already know that I am higher than almost
anyone in the fucking welt [Dylan liked German, in honor of Hitler it seems] in terms of universal Intelligence.
[page 86]

Now Harris approaches the ultimate “why?” from the point of view of morality:
columbine-page-88.jpg

just because your mommy and
daddy tell you blood and violence is bad, you think it’s a
fucking law of nature? wrong, only science and math are true,
everything, and I mean every fucking thing else is man made.
[page 88]

At last he states the core belief around which everything else orbits. If only science and math are true, then morality is imaginary. This is one of the key insights of the existentialists. If God is dead, everything is permissible.

Finally Harris challenges the “little twits” around him to try and emulate his awareness. Writer Eric Vogelin classified materialistic views of the world as a type of gnostic religion. That certainly seems to be true in Harris’ case. The following passage, which he thought important enough to underline, returns again to the ultimate question:
columbine-page-88b.jpg

anyone who doesn’t think like me is just
bullshitting themselves. Try it sometime if you think
you are worthy, which you probably will you little twits,
drop all your beliefs and views and ideas that have
been burned into your head and try to think about why
your [sic] here.
[page 88b]

Harris finally applies his special gnosis about the world to literally everything of value. It’s this message of ultimate futility and meaninglessness that he wants to pound in to everyone’s consciousness through the coming act he calls “the rampage”:

columbine-page-91.jpg

all you fuckers should die! DIE! what the
fuck is the point if only some people see what I am
saying, there will always be ones who don’t, ones that are
to dumb or naive or ignorant or just plain retarded. If I can’t
pound it into every single persons head then it is pointless.
X fuck mercy fuck justice fuck morals fuck civilized fuck
rules fuck laws… DIE X manmade words — people think
they apply to everything when they don’t/can’t. there’s no such
thing as true good or true evil, it’s all relative to the observer.
its just all nature, chemistry, and math, deal with it. but since
dealing with it seems impossible for mankind, since we have
to slap warning labels on nature, then…you die, burn melt, evaporate, decay, just go the fuck away!!!! YAAAAA!!!
[page 91]

What is really real is “nature, chemistry and math.” Harris was an existentialist. It was this belief which both fueled and justified his rage.

A few pages later, Harris is explicit about the source of his ideas. As I’ve already said, it’s not Marilyn Manson and it’s not Boeing:

columbine-page-98.jpg

Woohoo, I’ll never have to take a final again! feels good to be free. I just love Hobbes and Nietzsche. Well tomorrow I’ll buy 9 more 10 round clips for my carbine. I’m gonna be so fucking loaded in about a month…
[page 98]

In light of what happened, I can’t think of a more chilling rebuke to Hobbes and Nietzsche than these lines. It’s clear (at least to me) that Harris saw himself as Nietzsche’s Superman, the man beyond good and evil. The man whose existence and will to power was all that mattered. The man who had no pity for the weak.

Later on, as the day of the rampage drew nearer, Harris talks about suppressing his emotions. He wants to be all instinct and reason. As we’ve seen, reason tells him that life is without purpose. But human nature abhors a vacuum. So Harris follows his instincts to the one purpose that moves him: planning revenge on the people who made him an outcast.

Conclusions

I hadn’t expected to find more than a few cryptic hints of the killer’s motivations. Instead I think it’s quite clear how these boys justified their actions to themselves. Nothing is real but chemistry and math. Those that know this are superior. Those that don’t are beneath you to the point of insignificance. Philosophically, it’s hard to see how this is very different from something Daniel Dennett might write. Indeed, I imagine Harris would have liked referring to himself as a “bright.”

Were they insane? Clearly they were unbalanced and filled with rage, nevertheless their murderous actions follow in a chillingly logical way from their stated beliefs. They “saw what they were to the world” and what everyone else was too. They were nothing. Everyone was nothing. I don’t think we can doubt that they really believed both things to the end.

There is a final irony in all this. Harris repeatedly refers to people around him as “robots”, robots who are unaware that they are merely machines. Yet in the end it was he and Klebold who became cold and calculating and machine-like. The “rampage” wasn’t a random act, it was a statement of the truth as they saw it. And the truth was this: Man is just chemistry and math. [According to the autopsy report, Eric Harris was wearing a t-shirt which read "Natural Selection" on the day of the shooting. Like everything else about that day, this was a choice made with forethought.]

This dehumanizing view of mankind when mixed with their rage and their fascination with violence and guns became a toxic combination. It led them to ponder a horrible question: If I am a machine, why not be a terminator? It’s a question we need to be able to answer if we hope to keep other bright but awkward social outcasts from following in their footsteps.

The Basement Tapes

In addition to the notebooks which I analyzed in the post linked above, the killers also made a series of “basement tapes” in which they discussed their plans on camera. Though the tapes haven’t been released because of a court order, partial transcripts were distributed as part of the official Columbine Report. Here is an excerpt from those transcripts in which the killers recapitulate some of the same themes highlighted in Eric Harris’ notebook:

Dylan: “I don’t like you, Rachel and Jen, you’re stuck up little bitches, you’re fucking little.. Christian, Godly little whores!”

Eric: “Yeah.. ‘I love Jesus! I love Jesus!’ — shut the fuck up!”

Dylan: “What would Jesus do? What the fuck would I do..?” (he acts like he’s shooting the camera with his hand, with sound to accompany it)

Eric: “I would shoot you in the motherfucking head! Go Romans! Thank God they crucified that asshole.”

Eric and Dylan: “Go Romans!” “Go Romans!!” “Yeah!!” “Wooo!”

You can click here to hear an audio excerpt of those last four lines. The Rachel mentioned in the first line is Rachel Scott, the first person to die in the killings on this day in 1999.

Though the tapes have never been released to the public, Time magazine did a high profile story on the content of the tapes in December 1999. Time had access to all the tapes for their story. While the story rambles on for seven pages, it never mentions the killer’s atheism or their targeting of Rachel Scott because of her beliefs. The section of the tapes quoted above was not published by Time.

The “Myth” of Martyrdom

One important side story which can’t be ignored in this discussion involves what supposedly happened to Columbine victim Cassie Bernall. Shortly after the killings, a story was circulated saying that one of the shooters had pointed a gun at Cassie and asked “Do you believe in God?” She reportedly said yes and was shot in the head at point blank range, becoming in effect a Christian martyr.

The story led to the publication of a book titled She Said Yes by Cassie’s mother Misty Bernall which repeated the story and became a nationwide bestseller. But in September of 1999, Salon broke the news that the exchange as reported in the book had never happened. Furthermore it appears Misty Bernall had been told by eyewitness Emily Wyant that the story was false prior to publication of the book.

Atheists were quick to jump on this revelation. In October of 1999, just a few weeks after the Salon story, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine wrote a piece based on the Cassie Bernall “myth” which absolved atheists en toto:

In reality, the story as it is reported is that the only targets of the shooters were athletes. The rest were just random shootings. Atheists are not to blame.

The statement that athletes were targets is false and was dismissed in the same Salon article which first raised doubts about the Cassie Bernall story. As already noted, Rachel Scott was mentioned in the context of her faith by the killers prior to the attack. So is the fact that she was the first to die that day part of “random shootings”? Finally, I agree that “atheists” are not to blame for the actions of Harris and Klebold. That said, atheism played a significant role as I’ve demonstrated in my earlier post examining Harris’ notebooks.

Shermer then goes on to suggest that the killers may have spared the person who actually expressed her faith that day:

In fact, the girl to whom the murderer actually spoke the words “do you believe in God?” Valeen Schnurr, said “yes” and she was spared.

She was spared?! This has to be one of the most despicable things anyone has said about Columbine. Here’s the reality of how “she was spared.”

Valeen and five classmates were in the library studying when Harris and Klebold came in shooting. “We dove beneath a table,” Valeen recalls, the slight quiver in her voice betraying her usually calm, purposeful demeanor. “My friend Lauren [Townsend] and I grabbed hands, and I began praying, begging God to help us. Lauren kept saying, ‘It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”‘

As the gunfire drew closer, Valeen felt a searing pain shoot through her. Then the force of the bullets knocked her out from under the table. “Oh God, help me!” she cried, looking up directly into the eyes of one of the gunmen.

“Do you believe in God?” he sneered, pointing his gun at her. Valeen thought about lying to him, but couldn’t. “Yes,” she said.

“Why?” he asked. “Because it’s what my parents taught me,” she replied. “It’s what I believe.”

While he stopped to reload, Valeen crawled back under the table. When the pair left the library, she knew it was her chance to escape. “Lauren,” she whispered to her friend, “we can go now!” Lauren didn’t respond. Valeen nudged her again, but still nothing. Guessing her friend had passed out from shock, and gravely injured herself, Valeen gathered her remaining strength and ran out of the library. She collapsed just outside the school and was eventually rushed to the emergency room.

Three days later, she learned that Lauren, her friend since preschool, had died. “Lauren was such a good person,” Valeen says. “Why did I live while she died? You can’t answer those questions. They’ll just eat you alive. I just try to accept that it happened and focus on what I can do in my own life.”

Her life since has been marked by a grueling routine of operations and physical therapy. The doctors told her parents that she had at least nine shotgun wounds and numerous shrapnel injuries in her chest, arms, and abdomen. “They said divine intervention must have saved my life,” she says.

Determined to attend graduation, Valeen left the hospital in time to walk across the stage to collect her diploma. She’s still facing more plastic and reconstructive surgery to remove the remaining metal fragments and try to smooth the 40 scars that cover her arms and stomach, yet it’s the emotional wounds that have proved hardest to heal.

A shotgun blast to the chest, numerous surgeries, the death of a close friend, not to mention the fear which remains with her. This is spared, Michael Shermer?

The reality is that the Columbine killers were motivated by their atheism. They felt it placed them above their victims. It’s also a fact that they targeted at least one of their victims because of her faith.

Finally, the “myth” of Cassie Bernall is used by Shermer (and many others) to insinuate that the Christian faith itself is a touching story which turns out not to be true. What they fail to note however — even outright lie about in Shermer’s case — is that the myth in this case turned out to be largely based in fact. The story wrongly attributed to Cassie Bernall was a story of faith in the face of imminent death. Would any rational person read Valeen Schnurr’s account of what happened that day and call it a myth?

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