T Nation

Columbine Character Profiles


This was an interesting piece I just came across.

The Depressive and the Psychopath
At last we know why the
Columbine killers did it.

By Dave Cullen

April 20, 2004

Columbine Killers
Five years ago today, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School. Most Americans have reached one of two wrong conclusions about why they did it. The first conclusion is that the pair of supposed "Trench Coat Mafia outcasts" were taking revenge against the bullies who had made school miserable for them. The second conclusion is that the massacre was inexplicable: We can never understand what drove them to such horrific violence.

But the FBI and its team of psychiatrists and psychologists have reached an entirely different conclusion. They believe they know why Harris and Klebold killed, and their explanation is both more reassuring and more troubling than our misguided conclusions. Three months after the massacre, the FBI convened a summit in Leesburg, Va., that included world-renowned mental health experts, including Michigan State University psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg, as well as Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI's lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist. Fuselier and Ochberg share their conclusions publicly here for the first time.

The first steps to understanding Columbine, they say, are to forget the popular narrative about the jocks, Goths, and Trenchcoat Mafia?click here to read more about Columbine's myths?and to abandon the core idea that Columbine was simply a school shooting. We can't understand why they did it until we understand what they were doing.

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School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as "collateral damage."

The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after?Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term?they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.

Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the "worst school shooting in American history." They set their sights on eclipsing the world's greatest mass murderers, but the media never saw past the choice of venue. The school setting drove analysis in precisely the wrong direction.

Fuselier and Ochberg say that if you want to understand "the killers," quit asking what drove them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were radically different individuals, with vastly different motives and opposite mental conditions. Klebold is easier to comprehend, a more familiar type. He was hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal. He blamed himself for his problems.

Harris is the challenge. He was sweet-faced and well-spoken. Adults, and even some other kids, described him as "nice." But Harris was cold, calculating, and homicidal. "Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people," Fuselier says. Harris was not merely a troubled kid, the psychiatrists say, he was a psychopath.

In popular usage, almost any crazy killer is a "psychopath." But in psychiatry, it's a very specific mental condition that rarely involves killing, or even psychosis. "Psychopaths are not disoriented or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders," writes Dr. Robert Hare, in Without Conscience, the seminal book on the condition. (Hare is also one of the psychologists consulted by the FBI about Columbine and by Slate for this story*.) "Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised." Diagnosing Harris as a psychopath represents neither a legal defense, nor a moral excuse. But it illuminates a great deal about the thought process that drove him to mass murder.

Diagnosing him as a psychopath was not a simple matter. Harris opened his private journal with the sentence, "I hate the f---ing world." And when the media studied Harris, they focused on his hatred?hatred that supposedly led him to revenge. It's easy to get lost in the hate, which screamed out relentlessly from Harris' Web site:

"YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? Cuuuuuuuuhntryyyyyyyyyy music!!! . . .

"YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? People who say that wrestling is real!! . . .

"YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? People who use the same word over and over again! . . . Read a f---in book or two, increase your vo-cab-u-lary f*ck*ng idiots."

"YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? STUPID PEOPLE!!! Why must so many people be so stupid!!? . . . YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? When people mispronounce words! and they dont even know it to, like acrosT, or eXspreso, pacific (specific), or 2 pAck. learn to speak correctly you morons.


It rages on for page after page and is repeated in his journal and in the videos he and Klebold made. But Fuselier recognized a far more revealing emotion bursting through, both fueling and overshadowing the hate. What the boy was really expressing was contempt.

He is disgusted with the morons around him. These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he's not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority. It may look like hate, but "It's more about demeaning other people," says Hare.

A second confirmation of the diagnosis was Harris' perpetual deceitfulness. "I lie a lot," Eric wrote to his journal. "Almost constantly, and to everybody, just to keep my own ass out of the water. Let's see, what are some of the big lies I told? Yeah I stopped smoking. For doing it, not for getting caught. No I haven't been making more bombs. No I wouldn't do that. And countless other ones."

Harris claimed to lie to protect himself, but that appears to be something of a lie as well. He lied for pleasure, Fuselier says. "Duping delight"?psychologist Paul Ekman's term?represents a key characteristic of the psychopathic profile.

Harris married his deceitfulness with a total lack of remorse or empathy?another distinctive quality of the psychopath. Fuselier was finally convinced of his diagnosis when he read Harris' response to being punished after being caught breaking into a van. Klebold and Harris had avoided prosecution for the robbery by participating in a "diversion program" that involved counseling and community service. Both killers feigned regret to obtain an early release, but Harris had relished the opportunity to perform. He wrote an ingratiating letter to his victim offering empathy, rather than just apologies. Fuselier remembers that it was packed with statements like Jeez, I understand now how you feel and I understand what this did to you.

"But he wrote that strictly for effect," Fuselier said. "That was complete manipulation. At almost the exact same time, he wrote down his real feelings in his journal: 'Isn't America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I'm free, I can't deprive a stupid f---ing dumbshit from his possessions if he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his f---ing van out in plain sight and in the middle of f---ing nowhere on a Frif---ingday night. NATURAL SELECTION. F---er should be shot.' "

Harris' pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare's Psychopathy Checklist and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath.

It begins to explain Harris' unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they're actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they're facing one. It's like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)

None of his victims means anything to the psychopath. He recognizes other people only as means to obtain what he desires. Not only does he feel no guilt for destroying their lives, he doesn't grasp what they feel. The truly hard-core psychopath doesn't quite comprehend emotions like love or hate or fear, because he has never experienced them directly.

"Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling," Hare writes. "For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner."

The diagnosis transformed their understanding of the partnership. Despite earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners, the psychiatrists now believe firmly that Harris was the mastermind and driving force. The partnership did enable Harris to stray from typical psychopathic behavior in one way. He restrained himself. Usually psychopathic killers crave the stimulation of violence. That is why they are often serial killers?murdering regularly to feed their addiction. But Harris managed to stay (mostly) out of trouble for the year that he and Klebold planned the attack. Ochberg theorizes that the two killers complemented each other. Cool, calculating Harris calmed down Klebold when he got hot-tempered. At the same time, Klebold's fits of rage served as the stimulation Harris needed.

The psychiatrists can't help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.

Their view of Harris is more reassuring, in a certain way. Harris was not a wayward boy who could have been rescued. Harris, they believe, was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginable. If he had lived to adulthood and developed his murderous skills for many more years, there is no telling what he could have done. His death at Columbine may have stopped him from doing something even worse.


Here's something disturbing: http://www.columbinepaintball.com/


I can't even begin to comprehend that. I have no idea what to say. The bar of tastlessness has been raised.


Did they analyze the parents at all?

Particularly Harris's. How does someone raise a 16 year old mass murdering psychopath? And how can it be avoided?

That would be a good study.


I think psychopaths are just wired that way, nothing to do with the way they are raised. In the article it states the was a good liar and a manipulator, he was probably manipulating his folks. I am thinking that the only thing the parents could have done is recognize psychopathic behavior, but I am not sure that can even be done in all cases.


I also would like to know more about the parents.

How much time did they spend with him?

Did they work all the time?

Je may have been wired that way but they should have known he was a bad seed if they paid any attention.

Didn't they read his journal or find his guns? Did they just let hiom have his room as a private sanctuary without checking up on him?


Oh definitely, even if they did not see any signs they should have checked up on him. I am thinking you are correct, they were just working and not paying any attention. I get the feeling with him being wired that way, he would have still would up a murderer, it just may have been as an adult.


Two working parents that have little time for their kids. I think the parents should be prosecuted for murder just like their kids would have been had they lived.

It's not rocket science. If you have a kid - make that kid the center of your life. Not by buying him shit, or putting them into every damn sport/lesson you can find - but just spend some damn time with them.

I think daycare is a form of child abuse.


Maybe I'm wrong, but I think this would only be relevent if Harris had been a sociopath.


Come on RJ, not in every case.


Ahh the old Nature/Nurture debate very interesting...


I remember moon cookies and Kool Aid. Maybe they sit the kids in a corner and throw the cookies at them now-a-days?


If it is not an absolute necessity - then it is. We ate cheese sandwiches and I worked two jobs so that jana could stay home with the kids when they were babies. For her to go to work would have been neglecting her duty as a mom.

I think that if both parents work just so they can drive two nice cars and live in a house that requires two incomes - every day they send their kids to daycare is a crime of self indulgence that the kids will suffer for later.


Even if the child is the center of attention when he's home with his parents?


My mom runs a daycare. I can say without reservations her kids get an absolute love from her and my cousin who works with her. So not all daycares are the same. I think some of the puppy mill daycares are definitely run shittily' but from experience, they are not all like that.


when i have a kid, i'm gonna beat him everyday. on a schedule of course. i feel that daily humiliation is the only way to properly raise kids these days. a good old fashioned hanging by your thumbs in a dark closet should do the trick, every day at five o'clock, and twice on holidays.


Harris was lying to his parents. I think, by his own words, they had caught him doing things such as building bombs. Then he would go on and lie to them when he was questioned again. "No I haven't been making more bombs. No I wouldn't do that." Thats an excerpt from his diary. That shows he was caught before. I do blame parenting for a lot of things but it looks as if his parents were involved in his life somewhat, was it enough probably not but they were. I dont think they let their kid run wild. He obviously was a good liar and had his parents pegged and knew how to manipulate them. He became a great liar, to his parents at least, and ran with it to his grave.


I was in daycare when i was younger and i have a five year old brother now ( i am 21) who also goes to day care for a half a day 5 days week. Besides the fact that my parents treat him like gold by most anyones standards, I feel like daycare can, and does, have a positive impact on a young child. Obviously if parents only use at as means of relieving the stress of raising a child I have a problem with it, but puting a child in an enviroment where they are forced to interact with other children while engaging in stimulating activity can not be viewed as negative. My brother enjoys daycare and has made many friends who he now plays with outside of it.


Psychopathy, sociopathy, anti-sociality are all the same thing, in psychologists' language. And it's classified as a personality disorder, which is basically a personality type taken to an extreme. For what it's worth.

IMO, Harris's upbringing likely had several times more to do with who he was as a person, than any genetic factors.

Like most people, he probably unconsciously modeled himself as a combination and an evolution of both parents. I'm guessing one or both of his parents have psychopathic qualities, ideations of superiority, propensity to hatred, punishment of inferiority, etc. that he just ran with.


Make sure you hit him a little harder everyday so he does not get desensitized to the beating.