The horrifically violent shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 was the most high-profile school shooting of the nineties. In a spree that claimed the lives of twelve students and one teacher, seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold brought several firearms and homemade bombs into the school and began picking off their classmates, culminating in a cold-blooded massacre within the school’s library. The spectacle of the act was unlike anything America had witnessed, and the psychopathic Eric Harris meant it to be so—he sought to dwarf the bombings, shootings, and terrorist attacks that had come before it. Analyzing the horrific details of the violence, journalist Dave Cullen argues in support of sociology professor Mark Juergensmeyer’s theory of “performance violence”—that “spectacle murders” such as Columbine are “constructed events” of “mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.”
“Eric planted bombs in his high school, but his target was TV,” Cullen writes. He means that Eric Harris’s desire for “fame”—his need to assert his superiority over the rest of the human race—led him to orchestrate a spectacle of unthinkable violence that the world would never forget. The two boys were inspired by cinema. They referred to their spree, when discussing it in journal entries and in conversations with one another, as “NBK” (a reference to the 1994 murder-romance film Natural Born Killers) just as often as they called it “Judgment Day,” a term which they borrowed—perhaps unwittingly or unintentionally—from the Bible. Harris and Klebold “scripted [the massacre] in three acts, just like a movie.” It would begin with a massive cafeteria bombing, followed by a shooting spree to pick off any survivors, culminating in their own suicide-by-cop, and then massive explosions in their cars to injure any media, police, and paramedics who were on the scene. The glitzy Hollywood framing of mass murder as a cool, sexy route to both love and attention no doubt contributed to Eric’s “egotistical, empathy-free” view of what he planned to do.
In addition to cinema, Harris and Klebold were inspired by media coverage of similar acts of violence: other school shootings, the siege on Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Eric’s desire to be “heralded as a mastermind” and to earn the “awe [and] respect” of millions is, Cullen writes, “baffling from our point of view, logical from his.” Thus the media response to Columbine—unprecedented and seemingly without end—was just what Eric (and, to some degree, Dylan) had hoped for. Despite the failure of many aspects of their plan, the media response to Columbine was a success for the killers, as it made them famous, planting the seed of camera-ready violence in a new generation of mass-murderers, many of whom have explicitly cited Klebold and Harris as inspiration.
The desire for self-elevation, grandeur, and notoriety that Eric felt stood in stark contrast to Dylan’s depressive nature and introspective demeanor. Nevertheless, Dylan’s ambivalence about fame didn’t temper the massacre’s effects: the perfect storm of the sheer scale of the violence, new technologies in media, and the twisted, collective, public desire to bear witness to the “theater” of a spectacle (be it Columbine coverage or a violent film) made the massacre exactly as notorious and widely-witnessed as Eric Harris dreamed it would be.
Violence and Spectacle ThemeTracker
Violence and Spectacle 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.
For investigators, the [discovery of the] big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily it had been a bombing that failed. [When] officials announced the discovery, it instigated a new media shock wave. But, curiously, journalists failed to grasp the implications. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They [continued to] filter every new development through that lens.
The crowds kept growing, but the students among them dwindled. Wednesday afternoon they poured their hearts out to reporters. Wednesday evening they watched a grotesque portrait of their school on television. It was a charitable picture at first, but it grew steadily more sinister as the week wore on. The media grew fond of the adjective “toxic.” Apparently, Columbine was a horrible place. It was terrorized by a band of reckless jock lords and ruled by an aristocracy of snotty rich white kids in the latest Abercrombie & Fitch line. Some of that was true—which is to say, it was high school. But Columbine came to embody everything noxious about adolescence in America.
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.