Keeping Kids Safe

Inside the minds of school shooters, with general insight into adolescent mental health.

Columbine, Bullying, and the Mind of Eric Harris

To understand Columbine, we have to understand Eric Harris.

Welcome to my first blog. I am honored and delighted to be part of the Psychology Today online community. I am a psychologist who works with children and adolescents in crisis. My primary interests involve issues related to the safety of kids. These include suicide, self-injurious behavior, and school shootings. My interest in school violence began ten years ago, when just over a week after the attack at Columbine, a sixteen-year-old boy was admitted to KidsPeace Children’s Hospital because he was seen as posing a threat for a Columbine-like attack. I was assigned to evaluate him to help determine if he truly presented a danger. I was thus brought face to face with the issue of rampage school violence. This began my interest in the topic. After studying school shooters for nearly ten years, I wrote Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. In the book, I present my findings regarding three distinct types of youths who commit rampage school shootings. I also explain why other factors—such as bullying—are not sufficient to explain the occurrence of school shootings.

With the recent passing of the tenth anniversary of the Columbine attack, there has been considerable discussion in the media regarding the role of bullying in school shootings, particularly at Columbine. Though I addressed this issue in my book, it continues to generate a lot of discussion, and further comments may help to clarify some points. There is such a massive amount of information on Columbine, that it is possible to find evidence for numerous different views of the attack. The preponderance of the evidence, however, indicates that Eric Harris was a disturbed young man who had other motivation for the attack than retaliation for harassment.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? I spent a couple of years wading through approximately 20,000 pages of Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) documents related to Columbine. I created a guide to this material by organizing references to specific themes and noting who said what and on what page it can be found. This document, “Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Columbine Documents Organized by Theme,” can be found on my website, www.schoolshooters.info (other documents mentioned below are also on my website). In the article, “The Search for Truth at Columbine,” I looked at both the JCSO information as well as that from other sources and tried to arrive at a balanced, comprehensive view of Eric, Dylan, and the attack. In “Eric Harris: The Search for Justification,” I examined Eric’s various statements of blame and responsibility he made regarding the attack, noting his frequent changes and self-contradictions and trying to make sense of them. I gathered quotes from Eric in “Themes in the Writings of Eric Harris,” and organized them by theme.

Based on this research, I concluded that Eric had a disturbed personality with prominent antisocial, narcissistic, and sadistic traits. To understand his personality is to understand his motivations for murder.

This doesn’t mean that Eric was never picked on, but based on my review of the evidence, the initial reports in the media exaggerated the severity of Eric’s harassment. There were students at Columbine who endured truly abusive behavior from several problematic students, but Eric does not seem to have been one of them. Besides, these prominent bullies graduated the year before Eric. Thus, the attack could hardly be retaliation against these kids when they hadn’t been at the school for a year. There was one incident in Eric’s senior year in which he was pushed into lockers, but this would hardly explain his desire for mass murder, especially because he had already been planning the attack for months when this happened.

Also, harassment was not a one-way street. Eric engaged in his own harassment of other students. In fact, Eric, Dylan, and other boys threatened and intimidated another student to the point that he was in tears and afraid to attend school. Thus, Eric was not only a victim of harassment, but a perpetrator of harassment, too. He had a bad temper and there were many students who were alienated by his belligerent behavior. 

Nonetheless, during the attack Eric made comments directed at jocks and claimed that he was getting revenge on people for mistreating him. Such statements, however, need to be considered carefully and viewed within the context of everything else we know about Eric. While in the school library, where most of the killing occurred, Eric told the jocks to stand up so he could shoot them. He also, however, told everyone to stand up. And he didn’t just shoot jocks—he shot people indiscriminately. And none of the people he shot had ever bullied him, so despite his claim, this wasn’t revenge.

In fact, the only reason Eric was even in the library is that the major bombs he and Dylan placed in the cafeteria did not detonate. The failure of these bombs to explode forced Eric to improvise. He had planned to blow up the school and kill hundreds of people, including his own friends. He also had bombs set to go off in the parking lot to kill parents, rescue workers, law enforcement personnel, and people from the media. The attack was not focused on jocks or anybody else. Eric just wanted to kill on a large scale. He wanted to be remembered for committing the most deadly terroristic attack in United States history. He wrote, “I want to leave a lasting impression on the world.”

To focus on what Eric said in the midst of the attack is to ignore so much else of what we know about him. It ignores the fact that Eric said he loved school, and that he wrote, “Don’t blame the school . . . the administration is doing a fine job.” It ignores the fact that Eric engaged in a variety of criminal behaviors including theft, credit card fraud, and vandalism. It ignores his obsession with setting fires and making bombs just because it was fun. It ignores his preoccupation with being a god-like being and writing “Ich bin Gott” (i.e., “I am God”) in his school planner and the yearbooks of several friends. It ignores his fantasies about blowing up Denver, crashing a plane into New York City, and destroying humanity. It ignores Eric’s fascination with Hitler and natural selection, his multiple rants about killing mentally retarded people (and everyone else he viewed as inferior), and the fact that on the day of the attack he wore a shirt that said “Natural Selection.” It ignores Eric’s sadistic fantasies of raping girls he knew and ripping a knife through a human body just for fun. It ignores the fact that when Eric had a falling out with a friend, he vandalized the boy’s car and home, posted a homicidal threat on his website, and wrote about wanting to go to the boy’s home and spit on him and his family, urinate on them, and torture them before blowing up the house. Clearly, Eric was not an average young man.

Whatever harassment Eric experienced at school may have fanned the flames of his rage or given him a convenient excuse for his rampage, but there was far more going on inside the mind of Eric Harris than anger at mistreatment. He wanted to play God and have the power of life and death over others: “I would love to be the ultimate judge and say if a person lives or dies—be godlike.” On April 20, 1999, Eric made his wish come true.

Dr. Peter Langman is the author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters and trains professionals in law enforcement, education, and mental health on preventing school shootings. more...

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