by Joanna Campbell Slan
Those of us who write about murder, madness and mayhem, have a duty, I believe, to write honest fiction, fiction at its core which reflects reality. So, if you haven’t read Dave Cullen’s new book Columbine, I urge you to do so. Cullen was a member of the press who covered the story in its immediate aftermath. With the passing of time, he hopes this book will correct some of the “media blunders during the initial coverage.” It’s fascinating to note that many of these have passed into common acceptance, despite their erroneous nature.
Myth 1: Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were loners. Outcasts. Kids are the margin of their high school’s society.
Truth: The Secret Service studied every attack at schools over a 26-year period, 41 attackers and 37 incidents, and found that while some of the perpetrators were loners, fully 2/3s were not. Dylan and Eric dated, had friends, even went to school events regularly. Yes, they might have been bullied on occasion, more to the point, both boys boasted about bullying others.
Myth 2: You can tell a potential troublemaker by his disciplinary record and academic performance.
Truth: Dylan had been a good student until he and Eric started working on what was to be “Judgment Day” at their high school Then his grades dropped precipitously. Conversely, Eric ended the fall semester with glowing comments about his positive attitude and cooperation. His grades had never been better than before the attack.
Myth 3: Video games encouraged the boys to be violent.
Truth: While it is true that Eric hacked into Doom so he could create increasingly violent characters, a better determinant of potential violent behavior is an examination of the content of written assignments. Fully 1/3 of the attackers studied by the Secret Service exhibited violence in their written assignments. (In other words, English teachers had the best insight as to who was at risk!) Steven Kazmierczak, the University of Illinois grad student who killed five at Northern Illinois University, wrote a paper called “No Crazies With Guns,” an analysis of whether the mentally ill should have access to weapons.
Myth 4: Melodramatic outbursts such as, “I hate you!!!!” are signs of impending violence.
Truth: According to Cullen, “Perpetrators are just as likely to remain calm. No correlation has been established between emotional intensity and the actual danger it foretells.” However, the more specific the threat—as to time, place, manner of violence and rationale—the more seriously it should be taken.
Myth 5: Plans for violence are often kept secret.
Truth: The FBI discovered that once a young person committed to a violent act, there was “leakage.” The plans would be announced in various ways “no matter what the subject matter, the conversation, the assignment or the joke.” For example, both Klebold and Harris hinted about their plans to other kids, even involving others to help procure weapons. Dylan wrote page after page of specific murder plans in Eric’s yearbook. In a video production class, they made movies showing their contempt for others.
Myth 6: Killers just “snap.”
Truth: Non-violent people don’t react by “snapping.” Steven Kazmierczak made a three-hour drive from one campus to the other before shooting five people. Harris and Klebold planned every aspect of their killing spree. Luckily, they weren't very good at making bombs or they would have killed as many as 2,000 people.
Myth 7: No one could have predicted this happening.
Truth: The local sheriff’s department had been contacted no less than 15 times by one family about threats Eric Harris made. Other students called Steven Kazmierczak “Crazy Steve.” Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, had been declared mentally ill and ordered to seek treatment.
Myth 8: There’s no discernable pattern to predicting who may become a school killer.
Truth: The FBI has created a list of 28 criteria divided into four areas: behavior, family situation, school dynamics and social pressures. Substance abuse shows a high correlation to these risk factors, and the key seems to a majority of items from ALL four areas. Among these are access to guns, treatment for mental illness, and a recent loss. The most common “loss” is a break up with a girl friend, but it can be any sort of personal sense of “failure” such as a public embarrassment.
I’m curious. Are any of the “truths” revealed above surprises to you?