Friday 26 June 2009

They’re kids! They tell people!

Columbine, by Dave Cullen (Old Street Publishing)

Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, a new and definitive account of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, advocates a simple strategy for preventing such high school shootings. It isn’t tighter gun control, or attempts to transform the culture of American high schools or American society in general. Instead, he believes the single most effective thing teachers and parents can do is to listen to the kids.

This isn’t a touchy-feely, therapeutic point, though. In Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine the singer Marilyn Manson is asked what he would say to the Columbine High School killers if he had a chance to talk to them. (It had been suggested that dark, gothic music like his had inspired the killers.) He replied that he wouldn’t say anything; he would listen, because ‘that’s what no-one did’. For Cullen, this is a false impression garnered from confused media coverage: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not just troubled teens, misunderstood by uncaring adults. Harris was a psychopath, and Klebold was his depressive sidekick.

When Cullen says we need to listen, he means it literally. As he told me when we met in London last month: ‘Kids always leak! That’s the best thing we have going for us. They’re proud of what they’re doing, and they’re kids! They tell people! That’s our best defence against them.’ High school shootings don’t come out of the blue. They are planned in advance, and invariably the plotters tell their friends and peers what they’re planning. The problem is that other kids don’t trust adults enough to share concerns, or that they aren’t taken seriously. In fact, Harris and Klebold were known to the authorities, and Cullen suggests their case was mismanaged, but he says schools and the police are getting better at encouraging kids to speak up, and acting on it, and the strategy is working. ‘Many more plots have been foiled since Columbine. The number foiled now greatly outnumbers those that happen. We are making progress. There was one foiled in California a couple of days ago, and one in Colorado a couple of weeks ago.’

None of this fits with the popular perception of high school shootings, perhaps especially in Britain, where they are often seen as an indictment of America’s gun culture, or even the soulless materialism of American society in general. Indeed, the coverage of the Columbine massacre in the US itself ran according to a preconceived script, part of which was later elaborated in Michael Moore’s film, which focused on gun culture. Ten years on, Cullen’s book focuses on what actually happened at Columbine on 20 April 1999 and in the weeks leading up to it, but also details where the media went wrong. Cullen himself covered the massacre at the time, and admits that he was as swept up in the confusion as anyone else.

Much of the coverage presented the massacre as something out of a high school movie, ‘like Heathers or something’, with the killers cast as black-clad, weirdo outcasts calling themselves the Trenchcoat Mafia, and taking revenge on the jocks who had tormented them. A story emerged that one girl had been killed because, when asked by the Satanist Eric Harris, she said she believed in God. None of this turned out to be true. ‘We fall into the simplest, easiest narratives,’ Cullen explains. ‘It’s the desire for an answer to the question “why?”’ And once these stories got into the media, they became self-perpetuating, with TV networks and newspapers all reinforcing one another: ‘Not to give myself an out, but as a journalist you can’t go reinvestigate everything that happens personally: you’d never get any story done. Once these things have a certain currency, they keep going.’

Six months later Cullen worked as a researcher for a Japanese TV crew doing a documentary, and when he explained that a lot of the information they had was wrong, at first they wouldn’t believe him: ‘They pulled out this Newsweek magazine they’d brought with them, from a week or two after, that had diagrams and everything. Once there are diagrams in Newsweek, the New York Times and everywhere else…’ Cullen’s book is valuable as a reminder that the media do make mistakes, as well as being an accurate account of what did happen.

’There is a naïve view that the media all have political agendas: they’re all left-wing, or they’re all right-wing. Some of them are, of course, but with so many reporters, it’s not like left or right, it’s just whatever’s a good story. We have a bias toward a good tale, and a juicy narrative. When we heard “Trenchcoat Mafia” - are you kidding? It’s not “Ding, ding, ding – dollar signs!”, but “Ding, ding, ding – that’s a story!” They’ve got costumes?! And then a Christian martyr?! It’s easier to go with it than to question a great story.’

Cullen’s book, Columbine is a careful and detailed retrospective account of what a less flawed media might have reported at the time. He describes the build-up to the massacre, the full plan involving bombs that failed to go off, the actual shootings, killing 13 and injuring another 21, and the killers’ suicide. And through detailed portraits of selected victims and other protagonists, he builds up a picture of the school community and how it was affected, but he is more interested in telling the story than taking the opportunity for social commentary. ‘I wanted to tell whatever happened, and if it indicts American culture, so be it, and if not, not. But just forget about all the noise and how it was portrayed and go and tell the story of who these killers were and what happened to the community, and let that speak for itself.’

The book is billed as being in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Cullen read several books of that type before writing it, but he hopes it will appeal to readers who, like himself, don’t particularly think of themselves as being interested in crime or horrific events. As well as being a gripping narrative that generates real sympathy for those involved, however, Columbine contains fascinating insights into its particular subject matter.

Cullen had originally planned to tell portray Eric Harris’ character through a kind of detective story, following FBI psychologist Dwayne Fuselier’s posthumous investigation of the boy’s life. So he was disappointed when he asked the agent when he had first suspected that Harris was a psychopath. Fuselier had worked that out within a few minutes of sitting down with a journal Harris had kept. It might sound odd to suggest this much wasn’t obvious, but one of the things to come out of the book is a sense of just how distinct and peculiar psychopathy is. As Cullen says, ‘What people don’t get is there’s human nature and there’s psychopathic human nature: it isn’t the same thing. I really think you’ll never understand Eric Harris unless you get that he’s a psychopath. You can’t be using human nature as your guide.’

This means that the accounts of the massacre that foreground cultural critique miss the point. American teenagers may or may not be alienated from society, but alienated kids don’t slaughter their classmates; psychopaths do. Of course, the social context, including the availability of guns, is an important factor in determining how psychopaths behave, but Cullen is surely right to emphasise the centrality of Harris’ psychiatric disorder, even if psychopathy is not that well understood. (He also argues more resources should be put into research in this field.) 

Undoubtedly, though, psychopaths will be drawn to certain ideas and cultural references: Cullen showed me a copy of Harris’ journal, which reveals a fascination with the Nazis. Of course, plenty of non-psychopathic teenage boys have similarly disturbing interests and even violent fantasies, and I asked Cullen whether there is a danger of pathologising ‘ordinary weirdness’, but he thinks the line is clear, and I suppose there is an important difference between fantasising about something and making serious and grandiose plans as Harris did. For Cullen, one of the core characteristics of psychopaths is their grandiosity, and desire to be seen as superior and terrifying. We briefly discussed whether they might then be disproportionately represented in terrorist organisations. In fact, Cullen argues that the Columbine massacre was more like a terrorist act than anything else.

’For a lot of experts, by definition a terrorist act has to have a political agenda. And this didn’t. But it took the tactics of a terrorist attack, without a political or religious agenda. This is new: to take the tactics of terrorism, but just for your own aggrandizement. Say what you want about al-Qaeda, but they have a cause, a reason for what they’re doing. That’s the hard thing to get across: really? Can a person do something this horrible, just to show how superior he was? That’s what’s hard for people to believe.’

Given the vagueness of al-Qaeda’s cause, however, in contrast to those of historical movements with clearly defined aims like national liberation, this does raise the question of whether the line between some forms of terrorism and mere narcissistic outrages might be more blurred than we usually think. Cullen believes Harris and Klebold were influenced by the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whose trial took place in nearby Denver while they were at school. Cullen makes the point that McVeigh identified with a distinct political agenda, however outlandish – the extreme, anti-government, separatist movement – but his crime, like much contemporary terrorism, was far removed from any credible political strategy. The common, non-psychiatric, factor is perhaps a nihilistic misanthropy rather than anything meaningfully political. In any case, though, Cullen is certain that the boys would have hated to be thought of as mere ‘high school shooters’.

‘They made fun of those kids. They thought they were complete losers. They didn’t want to be lumped with those people: they wanted to be with Timothy McVeigh. Eric didn’t use these terms, but he had these levels of grandiosity. I think he wanted to be remembered like Attila the Hun or Catherine de Medici, Ivan the Terrible, Hitler: real historic villains remembered hundreds of years later. Not OJ Simpson or something like that – much worse and more historically menacing.’

Dylan Klebold, by contrast, was not interested in such fantasies. He was merely trying to win Eric’s affection and respect by going along with that side of things. As a depressive, what he was really focused on all along was suicide, and specifically an extreme version of what’s known as the ‘vengeful suicide’: ‘like when you blow your brains out where your girlfriend or family will literally have to clean up the mess.’ Slaughtering his classmates before taking his own life was just to be the icing on the cake.

Cullen argues that one big lesson from Columbine is the need to address the two maladies that Eric and Dylan had: psychopathy, which needs more research, and depression, which is a much wider problem. But he believes these things should be confronted for their own sake, not because doing so will prevent further shootings. Depression in particular is clearly associated with suicide as well as drug and alcohol abuse, but Cullen argues that it matters ‘even if it just means a kid screws up for four years and doesn’t go to college, and so ends up being less useful to society’. He says there are screening programmes that can identify teenagers suffering from depression so they can get help.

No doubt it is a good thing if young people can be helped to make the most of their lives. Clearly, though, we shouldn’t need massacres to draw our attention to their needs, or medical labels to take them seriously. Really Cullen’s point is that we should distinguish between horrific events like Columbine and the more mundane problems faced by American teenagers every day. Viewing these problems through the prism of events liks Columbine, especially when accompanied by a heavy dose of social pessimism, only confuses both issues. No doubt American society has its dysfunctions, but those are best confronted in their own terms, without the Michael Moore-style appropriation of high school shootings as a cultural emblem. Cullen’s more practical approach to that problem is as refreshing as it is simple: listen out for psycho kids who say they’re about to kill everyone.

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