Murder Most Foolish

Are Some School Shooters Gullible?

Posted Feb 07, 2011

Dylan Klebold, along with his friend Eric Harris, shot and killed 13 people and injured 23 others in April, 1999 in Columbine High School, before they turned their guns on themselves. My family moved into the same Colorado neighborhood as the Klebold family in July 1998, seven months before the tragedy. I never got the chance to meet Dylan but did have two pre-Columbine conversations with his father, Tom, in which he asked me (after he learned of my developmental psychology background) to tell him how it is possible to have two sons, one with whom he had a difficult relationship and the other whom he considered to be a "perfect child." Guess which one committed mass murder? You guessed it: The perfect child.

My closest friend in the neighborhood knew the Klebolds well and he told me that Dylan was one of the shyest and quietest teenagers he had ever met. This jibes with a picture of Dylan painted by psychologist Peter Langman in his 2009 book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. While Langman is not surprised that Harris--a hate-filled and raging bigot--would have become a murderer, he is fascinated by what he considers the saddest part of the Columbine story, and that is how a nice kid like Dylan Klebold, with no history of violence, prejudice or even unkindness towards others, could have participated in one of the worst acts of violence in American history.

In my 2009 book Annals of Gullibility, written before many of the details (for example, Klebold's diary entries or statements from survivors) had become public, I ventured the guess that Klebold had passively allowed himself to become Harris' pawn. Langman supports that position, and provides convincing details about the personality dynamics, and mental illness that made Klebold vulnerable to being sucked into Harris' grandiose and awful plot.

Langman developed a typology of school shooters which he used to characterize the teens who commit such acts (he did not address cases in which the shooters were adults). In this typology, Langman characterizes shooters as "psychopathic" (anti-social), "psychotic" (thought-disordered), and "traumatized" (abused).

He places Eric Harris squarely in the psychopathic category, while he places Dylan Klebold in the psychotic category, even while recognizing that his psychotic symptoms were "complicated" and relatively mild (for example, while he had paranoid delusional tendencies he did not hallucinate or lose complete touch with reality).

In fact, Langman diagnoses Klebold as having a "schizotypal" personality disorder, a condition bordering on--but not yet quite at--the level of psychosis, although sharing some features, such as disordered thinking and language processes, feelings of persecution, and a distorted self-image.

A key aspect of Klebold's mental illness was severe depression and suicidal thoughts, both commonly found in people with schizoptypal personality disorder given their general sense of worthlessness and social isolation. The truth of the matter is that Dylan was a talented and kind person who was genuinely liked by peers, and it is very possible, indeed likely, that if he had gotten the help he needed he could have grown into a contented adult.

A very painful aspect of Klebold's existence was that he was too shy to ask girls out on dates, and he felt hurt and abandoned when his one extremely close friend began to pull away from him when the friend acquired a girlfriend. Klebold's friendship with Harris can be characterized as a rebound relationship, and the path towards antisocial behavior (which began before Columbine with a van break-in by the two of them) can be understood as an extreme dependency on Harris driven perhaps by a fear that if he asserted his autonomy, this new close friendship would disappear as well.

As an example, although Klebold's mother was Jewish and he occasionally expressed to others disapproval of Harris' anti-Semitic rants, he tolerated them and agreed to participate in an attack timed to occur on Hitler's birthday. Similarly, while Klebold showed mercy to at least four victims who begged for their lives (unlike Harris, who was merciless and criticized Klebold for being weak), he still shot and killed numerous people in an apparent attempt to impress his sick friend.

It may perhaps be viewed as unseemly to characterize killing people as "foolish," and certainly such a term does not exempt Klebold from the strongest moral condemnation. But what other word than foolish can one use to describe someone who would harm others in contravention of his own gentle and law-abiding tendencies, cause irreparable and permanent pain to the parents whom he apparently loved, and then throw away his own very promising life, in order to stay in the good graces of another person?

While evidence of Klebold's mental illness sheds important light on his homicidal behavior, it still is useful to examine his behavior using my four-factor causative theory of foolishness. These factors are: situations, cognition, personality, and affect/state.

In terms of situations, the critical factor explaining the turn Klebold's life took was his meeting and coming under the influence of Eric Harris. Without Harris, there is a chance that Klebold still might have committed suicide, and there is a chance he might have become dependent on another cult-like leader (Klebold and Harris both viewed Harris as a latter-day Charles Manson), but there is little doubt that he would have lived the balance of his life without killing or intentionally harming anyone.

In addition, all three of the within-person factors in the explanatory model played a part. In terms of cognition, Klebold had a thought disorder, expressed in his over-generalized belief that killing people would establish a sense of superiority and revenge over being socially rejected. The personality factor was his extreme dependency and weakness of will, especially in relation to Harris. The affective/state factor motivating Klebold was extreme misery and the desire to find release from his pain.

This model can be considered broadly psychodynamic, in that it views behavior--whether foolish or not--as the result of three within-person factors that are roughly equivalent to the three within-person factors in Freud's so-called structural theory: cognition as ego, personality as super-ego and affect/state as id. An element not found in the structural theory is the role of situations. This is a critical omission, in that almost all foolish behavior occurs in a social context, and one cannot understand, let alone predict, individual acts of foolishness without knowing what that context is and how it intersects with the person's personal tendencies.

Foolish behavior, defined as action which fails to recognize or attach sufficient weight to unintended risk, generally occurs infrequently for most actors. Unfortunately, some foolish acts, as when it involves the taking of another human being's life, have tragic consequences for all who are involved.

Copyright, Stephen Greenspan