A wide array of sad, sinister, and spectacular failures defined the Columbine shooting. From the killers’ failures in empathy to the self-perceived failures in their own lives (romantic and academic) to the failures of their homemade bombs, their journey was marked by humiliation and failure. Other people related to the shooting also experienced failures of many kinds: the shooters’ parents failed to notice the signs of depression and psychopathy that plagued their sons; the police department failed to extract the injured from the crime scene in time to save valuable lives; Jeffco officials who’d been tipped off to the shooters’ disturbing behavior in the months before the attack failed to investigate them, and let a dangerous psychopath and a depressive who felt he had nothing to lose slip through the cracks of the justice system. The threat and realization of failure was a recurring fear for many of the individuals involved, even marginally, in the Columbine shooting, and Cullen argues that failure and humiliation, when combined, can prove a lethal catalyst for unstable—or merely dishonest—individuals and entities.
Cullen describes Dylan Klebold’s lifelong struggle with failure and humiliation. As a child on a picnic, Dylan fell into a creek, and the family friend who witnessed his fall described a rage-filled outburst which revealed, even at such a young age, a deeply toxic relationship to failure. A “born genius,” Dylan’s success in school was, he felt, inconsequential next to his failure to find love or self-acceptance. Dylan’s overwhelming feeling of having failed at life at just seventeen contributed to his complicity in the attack—he had no idea, however, that the massacre would be yet another failure. Cullen describes Columbine as a failed bombing—it was never intended to be a shooting. Eric Harris envisioned blowing the cafeteria sky-high, and picking off survivors with the firearms he and Dylan had acquired. When the bombs failed, the boys began shooting; after killing several classmates in the library, the killers returned to the cafeteria in an attempt to once again set off their faulty bombs. After no success there—and another failure to provoke a “death by police fire”—they retreated to the library and committed suicide side-by-side.
Failure extended beyond the boys’ botched bombing: the Jeffco community failed to notice, or give any real weight to, the warning signs that both boys exhibited. After breaking into a van and stealing a hefty amount of electronic equipment, both Dylan and Eric entered “diversion” programs, which included compulsory psychological visits and community service. Eric kept a website which described his violent hatred of humanity and a journal which relayed his fascination with Nazi ideology, and both boys were slowly acquiring firearms and building and setting off small pipe bombs. Eric harassed a classmate, Brooks Brown, and when Brown’s parents filed upwards of fifteen police reports about Eric, the county turned a blind eye. All of these factors, Cullen says, pointed to psychopathy in Eric’s case and severe disturbance and depression in Dylan’s. Had the legal system not failed to correctly assess and deal with the boys, Cullen argues, Columbine might not have occurred at all.
Cullen does note that Eric, especially, was a master of deception—a textbook quality of a true psychopath. Eric’s role as ringleader of “NBK” or “Judgment Day,” his influence over Dylan, and his ability to convince psychologists, social workers, and judges—as well as his own parents—of his ability to feel remorse and learn from his mistakes all contributed to his failure to be apprehended and properly prosecuted for his crimes and violent actions before the attack. Cullen himself describes Columbine—perhaps controversially, but nonetheless factually—as a “colossal failure.” Though it is one of the most well-known mass shootings in American history, it was ultimately a failed plot which dissolved into a disorganized, desperate contingency plan.
Failure Quotes in Columbine
The fundamental experience for most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view. We would learn the truth about Columbine, but we would not learn it today. The narrative unfolding on television looked nothing like the killers’ plan. It looked only moderately like what was actually occurring. It would take months for investigators to piece together what had gone on inside. Motive would take longer to unravel. It would be years before the detective team would explain why. The public couldn’t wait that long. The media was not about to. They speculated.
Because dyads, murderous pairs who feed off each other, account for only a fraction of mass murderers, little research has been conducted on them. We know that the partnerships tend to be asymmetrical. An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair. The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill. “It takes heat and cold to make a tornado,” Dr. Fuselier is fond of saying. Eric craved heat, but he [easily grew bored and] couldn’t sustain it. Dylan was a volcano. You could never tell when he might erupt.
Eric didn’t have the political agenda of a terrorist, but he had adopted terrorist tactics. Sociology professor Mark Juergensmeyer identified the central characteristic of terrorism as “performance violence.” Terrorists design events “to be spectacular in their viciousness and awesome in their destructive power. Such instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.”
Now [Eric] had to concentrate on getting Dylan a second gun. And [he] had a whole lot of production work. If only he had a little more cash, he could move the experiments along. Oh well. You could fund only so many bombs at a pizza factory. And he needed his brakes checked, and he’d just had to buy winter wiper blades, and he had a whole bunch of new CDs to pick up.
Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile. There is no profile. Attackers came from all ethnic, economic, and social classes. The bulk came from solid two-parent homes. Most had no criminal record or history of violence. The two biggest myths were that shooters were loners and that they “snapped.” A staggering 93 percent planned their attack in advance. “The path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way,” the FBI report said. Cultural influences appeared weak. Many perps shared a crucial experience: 98 percent had suffered a loss or failure they perceived as serious—anything from getting fired to blowing a test or getting dumped. Of course, everyone suffers loss and failure, but for these kids, the trauma seemed to set anger in motion. This was certainly true in Columbine; Dylan viewed his entire life as failure, and Eric’s arrest accelerated his anger.
“More rage, more rage!” Eric demanded. He motioned with his arms. “Keep building it.”
Dylan hurled another Ericism: “It’s humans I hate.”
Eric raised Arlene, and aimed her at the camera. “You guys will all die, and it will be fucking soon,” he said. “You all need to die. We need to die, too.”
The boys made it clear, repeatedly, that they planned to die in battle. Their legacy would live. “We’re going to kick-start a revolution,” Eric said. “I declared war on the human race and war is what it is.”
He apologized to his mom. “I really am sorry about this, but war’s war.”
[Eight years later] at [the] Virginia Tech [shooting in 2007,] Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people, plus himself, and injured seventeen. The press proclaimed it a new American record. They shuddered at the idea of turning school shootings into a competition, then awarded Cho the title.
After most tragedies, I confer with some of the great minds on mass murder. That’s a privilege. When I write on this subject, I’m responsible for every opinion, but I can rarely claim them as original ideas. Mostly, I’m the messenger. It can be invigorating, getting inside these killers’ heads, hashing out ways to outmaneuver them. But the killers have stayed maddeningly ahead. It’s begun to feel like failure, failure, and failure for a decade and a half. I used to get angry for an hour or to, then I’d brush that aside to get to work. Lately, it just rages. Because we are not powerless, especially we in the media. We are just acting like it.
There’s another pernicious myth: that Eric and Dylan succeeded. Measured by [the shooters’] own standards, Columbine was a colossal failure so unrecognizable as terrorism that we ranked them first among the school shooters they ridiculed. Killers keep trying to relive the glory and elation at Columbine. There was none.