You're Wrong About

Columbine

September 17, 2018 You're Wrong About
You're Wrong About
Columbine
Show Notes Transcript

Special guest Rachel Monroe (re-)joins Mike and Sarah to talk about all the myths surrounding the second-biggest news event of the 1990s. Digressions include car crashes, September 11, Diane Sawyer and the terrors of teenage journaling.  

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Columbine

Sarah: I don't know what I would've done if I'd had that kind of access to Tumblr and MS Paint in my young teenage years.

Mike: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the podcast where we take events from your high school years and tell you how they didn't happen the way you think they did. 

Sarah: And if you’re Sarah, events from your elementary school years, when you were also watching the news. Because you had an adequate number of friends.

Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes, I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.

Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm a writer for the New Republic and Buzzfeed. And oh, I always say some third place, but what is it? The Believer.

Mike: The Believer.

Sarah:  And we have, again, our special guest, our first repeat guest, Rachel Monroe. 

Rachel: I'm so honored to be here. And I am a writer for a bunch of places, including the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and I'm writing a book, which has a whole Columbine section.

Mike: And today we’re talking about the Columbine shootings, which are actually the reason why I wanted to do this podcast.

Sarah:  Really? I forgot about that.

Mike:  Columbine and the McDonald's hot coffee case. I remember the You’re Wrong About-style debunkings of these events and it completely turning my entire world upside down as far as epidemiology and how I thought about the media and how I thought about my relationship to history and the rest of the country. I just thought if we got these wrong, what else did we get wrong? And so I've been obsessed with Columbine for years, just because almost everything in the particular is wrong. The general is right, but every detail we got completely upside down-ishly wrong.

Sarah: Yes.

Mike: But Rachel, as a fellow Columbine-obsessive, do you want to tell us what you remember about the day?

Rachel: Especially because I'm writing about it, I wish that I remembered the day. I don't. I remember the vague aftermath. I think I was a sophomore in high school, and the thing that freaked everybody out was that in our high school - I went to a public high school in Richmond, Virginia - we had the same school colors. We had the same mascot. The school was the same size. We had the same kind of conservative, Christian, hierarchical thing going on. That's also a narcissistic teenager thing to do, to be like, it was basically our high school that got shot up. But I do remember feeling like that, or at least feeling like I know this world, and this is as shocking as it is shocking, it is also not shocking. What about you? Do you remember it?

Mike:  I remember because I got in a car accident that day. It was my first and only car accident. An elderly woman pulled out into traffic in front of me and hit my car, and I was fine, she was fine. The whole thing was just kind of more rattling than anything else. But I got out of my car kind of shaken and I walked over to this woman and I'm like, “Uh, you just hit my car.” And she goes, “There was a school shooting today.” And I was like, “What? No, let's talk about the immediate issue. You've rammed into my car.” And I remember, like there always is with a car accident, there were bystanders, people would come. And I remember being really annoyed that all the bystanders wanted to talk about was this school shooting in Colorado. No, this is about me right now. 

As a teenage boy, I was like, no, no, I'm the focus of attention right now. I got into a car accident. And then it was only later that night when I finally got home and the insurance and the cops and all that stuff was over. And my parents were like, no, you really need to focus on what's going on right now. And then it was two weeks, I remember, of just wall to wall coverage of this totally inexplicable event. There had been a couple of suicides or-

Sarah: There were smaller shootings. Yeah. Kip Kinkel in Oregon was one of the pre Columbine ones. 

Rachel: There were five, I think, in 1997 and 1998. They were all two kids. They killed two people, and often they would kill the parents. And they would kill like one or two or three kids.

Mike: Yeah. Seemed like they were targeted. It was like, “I hate Jeff. So I'm going to go kill Jeff.” It didn't seem like this indiscriminate killing and mass killing at a school by babies was something that just nobody was prepared for and was totally unfathomable. And we spent so long trying to figure out why afterwards. 

What do you remember, Sarah? Because you were in elementary school. 

Sarah: Yeah, I was at a private girls parochial school in Honolulu, which makes it sound like I went to elementary school in the 1930s. And I must have at some point heard some news report on the radio in the car with my mom, and that I have a vague memory of us talking about it. And I don't remember thinking of it as something that really affected me. I remember aspects of it, but not how I felt about them emotionally. I remember the She Said Yes book

Rachel: We should definitely talk about that. 

Mike: Most of the information in this episode is going to come from Dave Cullen's book Columbine, which came out 10 years after Columbine, and he spent 10 years in Littleton, Colorado interviewing what sounds like hundreds of people, including the main investigators of the case and Dylan Klebold’s parents. But there were also some interesting analyses that aren't from him, just in the academic literature. 

And one of the ones I found mentioned it was two weeks before the New York Times didn’t have a Columbine story on the front page. The whole country talked about this over and over and over again. It says, “news magazines on the four main broadcast networks devoted 43 pieces to the attack.” 

But the past really does seem like a foreign country, where this was something that we could not stop thinking and talking about. It launched this entire inquiry into American bullying culture and what is wrong with American teenagers? Those were kind of the two questions that we kept asking ourselves. 

Rachel: Another interesting statistic, I think that is from the Cullen book, was that it was apparently the second most covered news story of the nineties. The only one that was more covered was the OJ trial. It felt like a new idea, but at the same time it felt like something people maybe intuitively knew or understood that  there's something wrong with the children.

Sarah: Think of the children, but not like that. 

Rachel: And their secret lives.

Sarah: The children and their secret lives. And to me, what seems like the thing that really shocked people about Columbine, aside from the number of victims, which was 11. 

Rachel: 13. 15, if you count the killers.

Sarah: To me what seems to have really been a paradigm breaker for people was the idea of teenage boys deciding not just to kill one person, or to kill out of revenge for some material motive or something like that, but just to have the desire to annihilate human beings and it didn't even matter who.

Mike:  Yeah. Rachel, do you want to walk through the actual events of April 20th, 1999, and just put on the table all the facts and all the myths about what actually occurred?

Rachel: Yes. And I guess one thing to say is that Columbine was never, we all think of it as a shooting, but it was never particularly intended as a shooting, it was supposed to be a bombing. Because they were very focused on body count, can we get a 100, can we get 200? Can we get 500?

Mike: And they wanted to beat Timothy McVeigh's record. They did it on the anniversary of Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. I didn't know those both took place on April 19th, but they were aiming for April 19th because they wanted to hit the anniversary of those events and to top them. But because they couldn't get ammunition from this pothead friend of theirs who was giving them ammo, they ended up pushing it to April 20th. So this whole thing about doing it on Hitler's birthday and stuff was just a random total coincidence.

Sarah:  It wasn't about Hitler, it was about Timothy McVeigh. 

Rachel: That's so interesting that there wasn't the template for them of other kids who shot one kid at their school but were these terrorists. 

Sarah: Let's briefly say who the two people are.

Mike: Oh yeah. It's Eric Harris who was 18 at the time, old enough to buy guns, crucially, and Dylan Klebold, who was 17 at the time. They had been planning this for more than a year, or at least vaguely planning this for more than a year. They had built a bunch of pipe bombs. They had gathered up a bunch of guns. They came up with this plan of blowing up propane tanks, the kind that you attach to gas grills. But they hadn't actually tested this concept of blowing up propane tanks. But still with their teenage hyper confidence, they just decided this would work. And so they set up one propane tank way out in the suburbs.

Sarah: I love how you're being critical of them. You're like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, what's the first thing you think about when you hear those names? I know, inadequate planning for a major event. 

Mike: The worst thing about them is their overconfidence, obviously. So they set one bomb out in the woods outside of Littleton. And their idea was, we'll blow that up at around 11:00 AM and then all the cops will rush out to the site where this bomb blows up. Then we will have as much time in the school to do whatever we want because they’ll be distracted. 

So then they also put two propane bombs in the cafeteria of their school. And this is really chilling, according to Cullen’s book, Eric Harris had actually sort of cased the joint. They have three different lunchtimes at Columbine, and he picked the time that would have the most people in the cafeteria, because it was kind of in between the two lunches, or it was the most crowded lunch or something. So he knew the most people possible would be in the cafeteria. And he also knew that if both of these propane bombs exploded, the roof would cave in, and the library was above the cafeteria. So that would also kill all the kids that were in the library because a lot of kids went to the library to study during lunch. 

So they were going for mass indiscriminate killing. So their plan was to blow up the thing way out in the suburbs, blow up the cafeteria, then wait outside the school and shoot kids as they came running out of the school, these survivors. They also put propane bombs in their cars in the parking lot. 

Rachel: The cars were parked where they figured the ambulances would be staged. And so they were pretty sure by this point, by the time that the paramedics and the ambulances and all that kind of was responding, they would be dead, and everybody would have thought, oh, it's over now we just have to deal with the wounded. And then it was time so that as people were being loaded into the ambulance, the bomb would go off after their death and kill the paramedics. 

Sarah: It feels like the kind of plan that would come from someone who had studied military strategy. 

Rachel: His father was a military guy. 

Sarah: I can imagine this being a friendship that's centered on this as a shared activity.

Mike: Yeah. They wrote about this in each other's yearbooks in the same way that kids talk about, I don’t know, the fantasy football league that they're into. This was just something that Eric and Dylan talked about a lot, and it seems like really the basis of their friendship.

Sarah:  And a shared fantasy life.

Mike: Yeah. They had this secret language along with it. They called it NBK, natural born killers, and they used this as a code to talk about it with each other. 

But so what ended up actually happening as we all know is that all of these bombs didn't work, all these propane bombs. Dave Cullen doesn't say exactly why, but something fusing, wiring, something. I think it's much harder to blow up a giant propane tank than a bunch of 18 year old’s think it is. I imagine the propane tank companies have given some thought to the fact that they're selling a giant explosive and they probably don't want to make it easy. 

So none of these go off. Eric and Dylan ended up showing up at the school. They're a little bit late. They set the bombs in the cafeteria. They just kind of drag in these giant heavy duffel bags, and nobody really notices because it's so crowded at the time. They chose the time that's crowded.

Sarah:  What was the student population at Columbine?

Rachel:  I think it was like 1,700 or 1,800. Is that right?

Mike: Yeah. They just kind of put them in the cafeteria and it was like, oh, you know, it looks like sports gear or whatever, so nobody really raises any alarm bells. And then they wait outside the school. This bomb outside in the suburbs doesn't go off, but they don't know this. So they just assume, well, the plan is in motion, we can't back down now. And they sit there, and they wait for the cafeteria bomb to go off. It doesn't. And so eventually they say, well, fuck it, let's just go inside and start shooting people. And so they shoot two kids on the way into the school. 

Rachel: Just to be fair, they killed two kids, I think they shot a handful more. 

Mike: Oh, okay.

Rachel:  They go in, they shoot the teacher. Then they go to the cafeteria. But I guess everybody's fled the cafeteria. Then they  go to the library. 

Mike: And this is one of those unexplained things that they shoot and kill lots of kids in the library. They spend a bit of time in the library. But then they sort of stop killing people. It would've been very easy for them to just go one by one through all the kids in the library and shoot all of them. But for whatever reason they killed, I think 10 or something like that. And then they just kind of stop and they wander around the school. They shoot into empty classrooms, they shoot into the ceiling, they throw pipe bombs. They go back to the cafeteria and try to get their propane bombs to explode. So they shoot at the propane tanks, they throw a Molotov cocktail at the propane tank, which sets off the fire alarm and the sprinklers. 

Rachel: There’s something really spooky about this period. It's crazy to think about the whole shooting, their entire spate of shooting people is I think 15 minutes. And everybody thinks of Columbine because of the media coverage, which we'll talk about as being this like hour long kind of siege, but it's really just 15 minutes of shooting. And then there's just like, you're saying, they are just wandering around. It almost seems like a fantasy, like their fantasy was less. They murdered plenty of people and were laughing as they did it, but there's this half-hour period where they're just like wandering through the school. They're in the cafeteria, there's nobody in the cafeteria. They're picking up drinks that people had left behind and drinking drinks and throwing things around and like just shooting in the air. They're just kind of like fucking around. 

The school has been emptied out, and the fire alarm is blaring, and there are strobe lights, and they're just kind of shooting in empty windows, shooting in empty classrooms, shooting out windows. They're apparently making eye contact through the windows in classroom doors at people who are huddled in classrooms. But they don't go in and try to kill them.

Mike: It’s baffling.

Sarah: The way I feel when I imagine that is that you have this elaborate plan that you've been thinking about for a really long time. It's like a wedding. Inevitably, when the day actually comes and it happens and it's over, you're going to feel like the thing that your entire life has been geared toward is done. And you had this plan for what it was going to be, and it wasn't that, and you don't get the glory and the sense of defeating people or society, whatever you thought would come from that. Your own intelligence has been questioned. And then if you're just walking around shooting people at random, maybe you would just be like, this doesn't even feel like anything. The feeling of why even bother.

Rachel: Well, and you're just still you. 

Mike: Yeah. And so eventually the whole thing kind of peters out. They shoot out the window a couple of times sort of half-heartedly. The cops shoot back, but don't hit them. And then eventually they just kind of sit down and shoot themselves, and that’s sort of it. 

What's really interesting and tragic about this is that because there had been no active shooters like this at schools before, they’re weren't really SWAT teams or police protocols. There are 300 police officers outside. It's essentially the entire SWAT team, police department. Essentially all of the police officers in Denver, Colorado are there. 

Sarah: Yeah. I bet even the ones who mostly make copies are there. 

Mike: They don't know how many shooters there are because first Eric and Dylan wore trench coats to hide. Not because they're in the trench coat mafia, but just to hide their weapons, they wear trench coats. And then eventually during their killings, they took them off. So some kids saw shooters wearing t-shirts. Some kids saw shooters wearing trench coats. So the police think there's four shooters. So the police, as of 12:08 PM, which is when they shot themselves, the police have no idea that they've shot themselves, they think this is all still going on. 

So another three hours goes by where the SWAT teams get into the school, but the other end of the school. And of course, because it's a school for 2000 kids, it's a massive building. The SWAT team is slowly closing in on the killers, having no idea how many killers there are, what they look like, or whether they're still roaming around shooting. And so it takes ages for anyone to figure out that this has actually been over for three hours and there's 250 kids huddling and various classrooms and closets and whatever. But by the time the SWAT team finally figures this out, one of the teachers who's been shot bleeds to death during these three hours. This leads to all kinds of lawsuits later, but there's no protocol. There's no rule for how to deal with an active shooter situation. 

One of the articles I read said that now the protocols are all about, as soon as an event like this happens, the cops will go in and find the shooter and neutralize them. That is the first goal. You rush in, you rush toward the shooter, and you stop that person immediately. Whereas at this time, they were like, ah, we don't know what's going on, we're just going to go slowly. 

And so for an entire afternoon, the whole country is watching his live. All of Denver, of course, is watching his live. The entire police department is watching this live. But nothing happens for this entire three hours. It's kind of the slow realization that this event has been over for hours.

Rachel:  I think one of the really interesting things about that timeline too, is that because it elapses over such a long period of time, the media can really get in there. It's an ongoing media event. All these previous school shootings, they were just these really quick eruptions. They were probably like two minutes long or something. And then the media gets there and all you can show is crime scene tape around a school or something. But this, you have live action unfolding, SWAT teams running in, kids running out. I think they started shooting at 11:20 and the media was there by 11:30. 

And then the other thing that I thought was so fascinating was, you know, this is in an upscale suburban area. This is one of the first kinds of ongoing shooter, hostage, casualty events, where people have cell phones. And so you have kids, they call into 911, 911 is blocked because too many people are calling, so that they started talking to the TV news station. And so you have kids hiding who are talking to like news anchors live on the air, which is, I think, one of the first times that you see that happening. And that adds to I think some of the misinformation certainly, and the visceral feeling, we're not arriving at this story once it is complete, we are watching it as it unfolds. And I think that latches in a different way. 

Sarah: It just seems based on that, that the things that really rivet us and that then become these media events because our emotions were so affected by them. And the people around us in our communities were so affected by them because something does become yours, even if you had no involvement in it at all. And I feel that making those events as powerful as they are is that we come to them when they're ongoing. 

When we watched September 11th on TV, at first nobody knew it was going on and they had all these different commentators on the different channels saying, well, it could have been a prop plane, could have been a random accident. Everyone was trying to figure it out together.

Rachel:  Yeah. You're sort of sharing in the confusion and the panic. 

Mike: And we feel like it's happening to us in a way that we hadn't with any previous, really mass shooting or school. What's interesting is that even amidst the shooting, these myths were starting to form. One of the origins of these myths that Eric and Dylan were bullied starts with newscasters interviewing students outside of the school. It's a massive school so the vast majority of students didn't know Eric and Dylan, and we don't know who the shooters were at that point. We don't know until later that evening. 

So when the newscasters start asking students, “Hey, what do you think could have motivated this? What do you think is going on?” There are these rumors already of the trench coat mafia. So the trench coat mafia thing starts before the event is even over, because we have this description of the shooters as wearing a trench coat, and students at Columbine are aware that there's this thing called the ‘trench coat mafia’. So in their minds, those two things get conflated, the killers were wearing trench coats, I know there's this thing called the trench coat mafia, therefore they must be the same thing. And so there was a trench coat or what was known as the trench coat mafia at the school, but Eric and Dylan were not in it. 

This is an interview with Time Magazine right after the shooting with some kid from Columbine named Todd. And I just think this is so emblematic of the kind of coverage that this got immediately afterwards. “Columbine is a clean, good place, except for those rejects,” Todd says, “Klebold and Harris and their friends.” So the thing is Todd is describing the trench coat mafia, but Todd is conflating the trench coat mafia with Eric and Dylan, and we probably didn't know because it's a giant high school. “Most kids don't want them there. They were into witchcraft. They were into voodoo dolls. Sure, we teased them, but what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? They're a bunch of homos grabbing each other's private parts. If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease them, so the whole school would call them ‘homos’.”

Sarah:  Good God.

Mike: It's all there. If this is just a perfect distillation of the way that the popular kids are viewing the misfits.

Sarah:  Todd is so interesting because he's self-aware enough to be able to describe methodologically what he does to psychologically destroy a classmate, which is ‘if you call them homos, then everyone will call them homos’. That's how that works. And he knows what he does, but he doesn't know that it's horrible. 

Mike: And Rachel, maybe you have a different description, but this is kind of my understanding of the way that this trench coat mafia bullying, misfit narrative took hold, because Columbine really did have a problem with bullying. Columbine was a big, mean, hierarchical high school, and people were really shitty to each other. And so it was an available heuristic for explaining what was going on. Because that's what people knew about the school, these jocks were tyrannical assholes and there were a lot of misfits at the school. And everything fell into place around that narrative really quickly. And it was true, it just wasn't true of these particular two people.

Rachel: One of the big issues that a lot of people have with the Cullen book is that he over-simplifies, he's got some theses and he is a little bit oversimplified with them. And we can talk about the psychopath thing later. But I think the bully thing is another one where one of the big things that he thumps in his book is Eric and Dylan, they were not bullied, they were popular. Dylan went to prom. They had friends. They weren't these miserable loners. They weren't in the trench coat mafia. But there's an incident that everybody always talks about that he just sort of doesn't address in his book that's pretty well-documented. Dylan's mom, Sue Klebold, writes about in her book where I think both Eric and Dylan, certainly Dylan, are pelted with ketchup in the cafeteria and called faggots or something. And Dylan, in Sue Cleveland's book she writes about it, when he comes home, he's covered with ketchup. She's like, what happened to you? And he's like, I don't want to talk about it. It was the worst day of my life. 

It's just this funny thing of, I don't understand why you would want to remove that from your book. The sense that I get is they were bullied, and they bullied other kids. That's my memory of what high school was like. It's not this super strict hierarchy. Somebody can have friends and still be tortured a little bit. 

There’s also one of the like famous videos, because that's another reason Columbine has such legs, is these kids were constantly documenting themselves. And there's one where you can just see Eric and Dylan are walking down the hall waving at girls and everybody's smiling at them. And then these four jocks come and just sort of hit them and almost knock him over. You just get the sense, it's almost like that scene from that video is like, if you were making an overdetermined high school movie and you're like, how do we want to show this kid is bullied? Walk down the hall and have these two jocks smash him. He leaves that out of the narrative. 

My theory is that he got so close to that school and to so many wounded people that it was too harmful or something. I don’t know, you get this sometimes when you report - or maybe you guys don't - but you get close to somebody, you kind of want to leave out the bad parts of them. You feel really protective, especially because the school had just gone through this terrible trauma.

Mike: So my thing was that Eric and Dylan, like everyone else at that school, were bullied. And like everyone else at school, they bullied other people. Because you could call kids ‘fags’ in the hallway and no one's going to tell you to stop. So other people can call you ‘fags’ and you call other people ‘fags’ and nobody really cares, right? 

Sarah: That's how you keep the whole ‘fag’ system running is because everyone has enough ability to abuse someone else that you're not completely a victim all the time. I feel like that's what makes bullying sustainable.

Mike: What's hard about this is that every explanation that you come up with is true. There's also the explanation that these guys were driven by this huge sense of entitlement and this huge sense of aggrievement, whether with reason or not, but just this generalized anger against everyone else around them. 

There's an incident where Klebold is playing flag football in gym class and a girl like tells him he's being too rough and he's like, “You fucking bitch”, and he goes off on her. And there's letters that he writes to girls, both of them actually letters that they write to girls, and ways that they treat girls that are just appalling. One girl breaks up with Eric and he's like, “You fucking skank”. Really gross stuff that he emails to her. 

Sarah: So Eric chose Event Horizon for a date movie. 

Mike: This is the thing that there's also the psychopath explanation for Eric that basically he's a complete monster and that nothing ever would have saved him. That's also true. If you want to find evidence for any of these explanations, you will find it. You can't really ever boil it down to just one thing. Each one of these explanations has really good evidence for it and really good evidence against it. 

Rachel: Should we quickly give the quick kind of general take, maybe, that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold generally gets portrayed as, Dylan is the sad, suicidal, depressed one. And Eric Harris was like the super agro planner who had a website about how everybody he hated. And that Dylan, a depressed kid, got kind of roped into this plan. Dylan wanted to die, Eric wanted to kill. 

Mike: So there's this passage from this article that I found kind of weighing all the different explanations for Eric and Dylan. And it mentions again how the bullying explanation in some ways makes sense and it doesn't make sense. The Nazi explanation also kind of makes sense and kind of doesn't make sense. 

So Eric and Dylan are both fascinated with Nazis. Apparently in the library, Eric called one of the students the N-word before shooting him. But then this article also mentions, in the library apparently before shooting a fat person, he said mean things about their weight. Before shooting someone with glasses he said mean things about four eyes or whatever. He kind of wanted to humiliate everybody before he shot them. And that the N-word was just another way to humiliate someone before shooting them. It wasn't something that he was necessarily animated by, but it's also not necessarily not something that he was animated by. He did have this idea of superiority. 

Rachel: One of his websites he has a list of things he hates. And it's like country music, people who walk slowly in the mall, it’s weird to read because part of it, you're like, yeah, kind of. But then one of his is like, I hate racists, and you're like, that's funny. But then he goes on this extremely long, it's all written like a rant about how racists... and you're like, oh yeah, Eric Harris, I kind of agree with you. He's like, it's so stupid thinking somebody is better or worse than you because of like their race, that's so dumb, people who think that should be… And then he goes on this extremely violent fantasy about what should happen to racists. And you're like, oh I don't know. And then how women who are racist should be raped by a person from the race that they hate and then killed. And then it just becomes this incredibly sadistic fantasy. 

And I think it's exactly like what you're saying or what this person is saying in this article. It's sort of like the hate is primary, and then it attaches itself to whatever ideology is convenient at the moment. But it's not super well thought out. It seems more emotional than intellectual. 

Mike: Yeah. So the theory that Dave Cullen puts forth in his book, which I have very complicated thoughts on, is essentially that Eric Harris is a psychopath. He has no empathy for anybody. He lies for fun and profit. He lies constantly. He manipulates people constantly. He seems to enjoy doing it. He's got these obsessions with violence. He's got these journal entries of  these long descriptions of, like you were saying, I want to tear his throat out and rip his arms off. Just really, really gross stuff. 

And so one of the things that Cullen says in his book is Eric killed for two reasons, to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it. That's kind of his theory on Eric. One of the things that I found really chilling was the extent to which Eric did seem to enjoy the library stuff. The fact that he was teasing people, the fact that before he shot this poor girl in the head, he said, “Peekaboo”. 

Sarah: What do you think he liked more, though, teasing people or murdering people?

Mike:  It doesn't seem like he had any genuine empathy. It doesn't seem like his heart ever went out to anybody. It seems like he just had this boiling anger and this way of harming people without any remorse. And he was good at manipulating authority figures, which is not necessarily a sign of being a psychopathic, just a sign of being a teenager. But he was remarkably good at it. 

One of the more chilling details was that he and Dylan, about a year before the shooting, were arrested for breaking into somebody's van. They get busted. They're about to go to jail. Eventually they get sent to diversion therapy, which involves counseling and all this kind of stuff. He writes these extremely manipulative essays where he talks about, I never told anybody this before, but that night in the police station, I locked myself in the bathroom and I cried thinking about my future.

Sarah: Oh, I would have done that if I were sent to diversion class. Well, okay. Let me just take the manipulativeness of the psychopath idea to the mat briefly and lovingly. And you know my position on the idea of the psychopath.

Mike:  I want to hear you talk about this though, because the whole time I was reading this section I was like, I want to know what Sarah thinks.

Sarah: You know what's funny is that I read that book only five or six years ago, but that was well before I came to my current position, which is that there is no such thing as the psychopath. It's a label that we apply to a lot of different people who have expressed similar behaviors for different reasons, and often enmeshed reasons. So there's trauma, there's personality disorder, borderline, there's literally having a head injury, there's growing up with a history of insecure attachment or abuse, or just any of the manifold life circumstances that would make it difficult for you to empathize with others and to be opportunistic in the way that you relate to other people. Because also most people that we call psychopaths and sociopaths are not violent and don't display violent behavior at all. It's much more frequently a diagnosis that women apply to men who've broken up with them suddenly on the internet. 

To me, one of the things that's really interesting about this is the psychopath is manipulative, and he's smart, and he knows how to play people like a fiddle. And it's like, all right, listen, for me saying, well, he was in this diversionary program, and he made up this thing that didn't happen and he talked convincingly but falsely about his remorse. It's like, yeah, that's what you do when you're somewhat intelligent and somewhat capable. And you get in a situation where you need to grease the wheels a little bit. Really, I feel like the manipulative claim is really saying that we're scared of people who are able to be intelligent about the bad faith out of which they are acting. So you’re saying he's scared because he was smart.

Rachel: Also, the thing that bothers me about the psychopath label in this context and in general, is that it becomes this totalizing thing. There are times at which in these journal entries, Eric Harris is saying, “Oh, I feel bad for my parents”, or “I wish I didn't have to do this, but I do” or, “I'm so sad”. And all of those get interpreted as, oh, but he knew that we were going to be reading and analyzing his diaries, so he wrote this in there. It's the monster thing. You want to think of somebody as 100% manipulative and soulless and unable to care about other people. When it seems to me like he had some feelings, there were some things he felt bad about. There were some people he liked, and then other people he could totally murder without caring. And that kind of ambiguity is a lot scarier because you can't write that person off as much. That person does love his mom. He didn't shoot his parents, but he's not allowed to be sort of like an 85% bad, 15% good kid. 

Mike: I go back and forth on the Eric being a psychopath thing, because I actually was arrested when I was 14 for shoplifting and I did go to diversion, and I did fucking lie in all my essays about how remorseful I was. Diversion was such a joke. It's measuring how white and suburban you were. If you can make these appeals, and Eric totally did this too, he knew exactly what to do to be like, “Oh, I have this bright future ahead of me.” If you can play that role of, I'm someone with a bright future, please don't derail this bright future that I have, it's really easy to manipulate authority figures into it. 

His diversionary counselor at the end of this process writes on his essay that he turns in, she writes something, I would let you babysit my kids anytime, or I would let you mow my lawn anytime or something like that. She is in. So I actually saw a lot of my own teenage shit-headery in Eric Harris. But then on the other hand, I have to keep reminding myself that this ended with a kid planting a bunch of bombs and murdering 13 people. It's not like we're trying to evaluate a kid with no evidence of the fact that he's really, really, really troubled. We're not looking at the evidence for this in just like, oh, look at his journal entries, and that's all we have to go on. He killed 13 people and he wanted to kill hundreds. You've kind of talked me out of believing in true monsters, but that's some real monster shit to say “Peek-a-boo” to somebody before you shoot them in the face. 

Rachel: It's monstrous.

Sarah: Let me tell you about my other main problem with the psychopath diagnosis. So there's a) that it's oversimplifying, and b) that it allows us to distance the “psychopath” or sociopath because the terms are interchangeable and we've been using them in both identical and contradictory ways for sixty years, is that it allows us to distance that figure from humanity and to claim that they're not human. And even if we don't get into the weird-ass writing about this from alleged psychologists, psychiatrists, professionals, professors, and the criminal justice area who will talk about psychopaths being pure evil and having no soul and being all this kind of weird prosecutor pointing at Damien Echols kind of a thing. Even if we don't bring in that, there is this trend and this kind of undertone in the psychiatric literature about the psychopath and the sociopath and the antisocial personality disorder that they are born that way, they will always be that way, they will die that way. They will never learn empathy. They will never learn even one iota more of empathy than they have at birth. And they cannot feel, and they never will. It is genocidal language. And so I feel like if you use the word ‘psychopath’, you're inviting an understanding of that kind, like we are not talking about people, we are talking about something more like lizard people.

Mike: It's like super predators. This is the same logic behind super predators, right? We're just taking away any idea that these people can be saved.

Sarah: Or ever could have been.

Mike: The author of this book, Columbine, that we're talking about, Dave Cullen, I listened to a bunch of interviews with him and he's convinced that if Eric Harris had been somehow kept from blowing up Columbine, he would have done something else. 

Sarah: He would have been an abusive husband, probably. 

Mike: Well, this is the thing, we have no way of knowing. But the fact that the author of this book is convinced that Eric would have carried out mass murder, even if he had been thwarted on this particular occasion, I think is very telling. He thinks of it as an immutable characteristic. 

And one of the reasons why I do sort of think that his book sucks, is that there's this passage where he's talking about the science of psychopaths and if you look at their brain scans, they look at stimulus differently. And he says, “Eric was never subject to a brain scan, but if he was you probably would've seen something totally different than another human.”

Sarah: Dave! My closing thoughts on this, if you take away the words ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ and ‘evil’ too, if we want to really go for it. If we take those words out of our vocabulary and then try and describe cruel or sadistic or violent or senselessly destructive acts carried out by human beings on other human beings, then we leave ourselves with the challenge of trying to actually describe what happened within the realm of the human and conceiving of that behavior is human behavior, and attempting to actually understand that more and maybe do so in a productive way, rather than allowing ourselves an out by telling ourselves at the level of the language and the words that we're using, that this person is not human anyway and there's no way we could have stopped them. There's no way we could have mitigated the factors that led to this happening, we can just make sure that we execute or for-profit supermax people after the fact. This has been the conclusion of my Ted Talk.

Rachel: I think the other thing about the Eric psychopath/Dylan depressive thing, although I think the broad strokes of that are not wrong, it also lets Dylan off the hook. Yeah. If only psychopaths murder, then like Sarah saying like, well, we can't do anything about it. They're evil. All we can do is lock them up. And then like, what about these kids who like, are not psychopaths, but still shoot people. It's only because they're in the thrall of this murder. It's like, no, this is a capacity if you’re this sweet, sad kid, you can't just sort of expect this to be something that only the monstrous other does. 

Sarah: Yeah. I read Sue Klebold’s book when it came out, which was two years ago, so more recently than Dave Cullen’s book. And one of the things I found amazing about it is that she was so honest about how long it took her to accept emotionally that Dylan had been as active as he had been. And that it wasn't until she saw I think footage of the cafeteria or some security camera footage from the school, that years and years after the fact that she kind of started emotionally processing that, yes, he had also been actively participating and enthusiastically. 

Rachel: Yeah. For years the thinking was Eric had these scary journal entries. Dylan had these sad journal entries about how he wanted to die, or Dylan famously has these journal entries that are just pages and pages of hearts. Because a lot of the information didn't come out for a long time, Sue Klebold and other people were sort of able to think like, oh, he was just along for the ride. Maybe he didn't actually shoot anybody. He was roped into this. He was brainwashed. And then the more the information comes out, the more you see he also has journal entries where he's like, “I can't wait to kill people” more than a year before he kills people. 

Dylan doesn't shoot as many people as Eric, but Dylan shoots people. Dylan laughs. Dylan jokes. He is right in there. We can't deny his responsibility for this thing that he did. He killed a lot of people. 

Mike: So I wanted to read you guys this, because I found an academic article that proposes a typology of school shooters. And it goes through 10 school shooters and it breaks them down into traumatized, schizophrenia, and psychopathic. I can already see our problematic, ah-ooga fire alarm signs going off.

Sarah:  In my eyeballs, yes. 

Mike: What he writes about Dylan, “Whereas the other psychotic shooters appear to have been schizophrenic, Dylan appears to have had schizotypal personality disorder. As is often the case with schizotypals, Dylan struck many people as odd. The thousands of interviews conducted by the Jefferson County Sheriff's contain numerous comments from Dylan's peers about his odd behavior, his greasy, dirty, hair, his unusual clothes and his general goofiness.”

Sarah:  It was the nineties!

Mike: “He was markedly and socially awkward. He wrote about his social difficulties in his journal. ‘Nobody accepting me, even though I want to be accepted, me doing badly and being intimidated in any and all sports, me looking weird and acting shy. Big problem.’ Dylan's journal also provides evidence that his thought process was disturbed. He misused language in a number of ways. He created neologisms, distorting actual words into words that do not exist. He had tangled grammar and odd passages of inarticulate content. This never became word salad as in the speech of schizophrenics, but given that Dylan was a bright young man, his misuse of language is noteworthy. Dylan also had strange ideas that appear to have been delusions. His alienation was so extreme that he apparently saw himself as not being human. He wrote, ‘humanity is something I long for.’”

Sarah:  Ah, what is schizotypal? Is it a personality disorder? 

Mike: He has delusions of grandeur, and he has paranoid delusions.

Sarah:  Ah, okay. I would just put forth two ground rules for everyone to follow, starting immediately. I think it's just always wildly inappropriate to diagnose someone based on their journal entries. We have an extraordinarily low standard for the kinds of access we expect someone to have to someone, especially if they're commenting in the media or at trial about the mental health of a defendant or someone who can no longer be reached because they're dead.

Rachel: And we crave diagnosis so much, as if that is going to be an explanation. I think that's one of the interesting things that comes out of Columbine is we have so much material. After every school shooting, there is a kind of why, why, why? And here you have a situation where it's like, all right, we have them on videotape talking about why, we have their journals talking about why, we had them talking to their friends about why. And the question why is not answered with more material, or even if they say, I do this because of hate, then that is not an answer at all. There's nothing satisfying. 

Mike: Rachel, what do you think was going on with Dylan? What's your theory of Dylan’s Dylan-ness?

Rachel: My sense of humans is that sometimes humans just really pursue a bad idea. I think about this. So people suicides, if it's somehow like a week had gone by, it wouldn't have happened, you know, it doesn't take that much. And they just did this bad, really, really awful horrific thing. But I don't feel like it was a predetermined fate. He was super depressed, and this was the only thing that excited him and he kind of tunneled into it.

Sarah:  This is a form of access in a way of socialization is so interesting, because teenage girls also have all sorts of feelings of disconnection from humanity and rage and all sorts of terrifying emotions, but they just seem to turn them on themselves. 

Rachel: We should get more boys having eating disorders and just channel it that way.

Mike: Let’s have harsher body standards for men.

Sarah:  More wrestling in our schools.

Rachel: Channel it in, not out. 

Mike:  I think now would be a good time to get into the other thudding myths of Columbine and all of the stuff that we really got wrong.

Sarah: Let's have the thudding-ness. This is like fast money in Family Feud. 

Mike: Rachel, do you want to talk about Cassie?

Rachel: Cassie is so sad. I find this whole thing so upsetting.

Mike: It’s so upsetting. 

Rachel: It’s so dark. So Cassie Bernall is ‘the girl who said yes’. The mythology of it is that she was in a library when the shooting was happening. I believe it was Eric who was like, “Do you believe in God?” She said “yes”, and he shot her.

Sarah:  And then a book about that was that the Scholastic sales for hundreds of years.

Rachel: Yeah. And she becomes a martyr. It gets picked up by like the Washington Post, her parents go on Oprah, huge book deal. There's a big evangelical reaction to Columbine, and so this becomes the guiding narrative of the aftermath of the shooting. That we have these boys inspired by Satan and she is this martyr standing up to them, and she is going to inspire this awakening. There were some people saying that she should be whatever the Protestant equivalent of sainthood is, that she should be the first person in America in hundreds of years to get that status. It's huge, right? Because in the aftermath of this really awful thing about what teenagers do, here's a story about a good and noble teenager. But it's just so sad because it's not true at all. 

Mike: According to Dave Cullen’s book and according to witnesses, the entire time in the library was recorded, because somebody called 911 and left their phone on, so everything that happened in the library hasn't been released to the public but it's on tape. So this incident did not happen. So essentially what happened was this poor girl, Cassie, is hiding under the table. There's a girl named Emily next to her. And Eric and Dylan are walking around the library with their guns out. It's awful. They come to the table with Cassie, they lean down, they say “Peekaboo”, nothing else, and they shoot her in the head. And that's it. That's the whole incident. 

Sarah: And Eric does specifically, right? 

Mike: Eric's the one that does that. But then separately also in the library, I don't know if this was later or earlier, there's another girl in the library named Valeen Schnurr, Dylan shoots her. This is an excerpt from Dave Cullen’s book. “Val dropped to her knees, then her hands. Blood was streaming out of 34 wounds. ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Don't let me die’, she prayed. Dylan turned around. ‘God. Do you believe in God?’ He asked. She wavered. ‘Yes. I believe in God.’ ‘Why?’ Dylan asked. ‘Because I believe and my parents brought me up that way.’ Dylan reloaded, but something distracted him, he walked off. Val crawled for shelter.” Wow. So some version of this incident did actually happen to a girl who lived. 

Rachel: And it's this really sad story where one of the other kids in the library whose sister is killed, he's the one who kind of is the originator of this story of Cassie, the martyr. And there's just this awful moment where months after the shooting, they take the kids who survived back to the library as this kind of like confronting your trauma, just sort of saying goodbye before we level this place. And they're sort of with the investigators walking back through it and he's like, “Yes, she was right here. Cassie was right here, and this is where she said her martyr thing.” And they're like, “No, Cassie was under the table way over there.” And he's like, “No, she was here”, pointing to where Val, the girl who did say this was. When the investigators very gently are like, “No, I'm sorry”, he goes and throws up or something. 

It's just, again, this memory thing. He had this very fixed idea of what had happened, but he just sort of scrambled to the people. It's also really sad because the other people who were in the library, Emily, Val, are kind of gently trying to say, well, no, actually this is what happened. Val starts to tell her story of being wounded and saying this. And because Cassie's story has got this media momentum behind it, everybody's like, are you sure that happened Val? Are you sure you're not trying to get attention?

Mike:  Yeah. It's really sad. There's also the huge moral conundrum of this poor girl, Emily, who was there, and watches Cassie get killed. Watches this awful interaction take place. But she also knows that this murder story isn't true because she was sitting next to her. Her dilemma is, do I come forward and say, look, sorry Cassie's parents who are understandably in mourning. 

Sarah: And whose daughter's death has given meaning through this. 

Rachel: Right. They're doing speaking tours where this is the good thing that will come out of this horrible tragedy.

Mike: And it's also this wonderful story in that Cassie was a really troubled kid. She was using drugs, she was suicidal, she eventually became born-again, I think it was six months or a year before this happened. She really had taken on this extremely strong Christian identity. So this martyrdom really works with her identity, that she had become this very vocal Christian in the months before she died. This also worked for her parents because her parents had sent her to rehab and pushed her into Evangelical Christianity. So to them, it was almost like a triumph. Like, look, our daughter was so reformed that she could do this in her dying breath. 

Rachel: I think there were letters to a friend or something, and she would draw pictures of stabbing teachers or killing her parents, very similar to what comes out in Eric's and Dylan's diaries. But it's like, no, but she became good. So again, it's very comforting, if these boys had just found Jesus instead of finding Satan, they could have been like her. 

Sarah: It makes her last moment noble, or at least about something.

Mike: It's like something you would do in a moral philosophy graduate studies class. If you are Emily, you know this story isn't true. Keeping silent allows this lie to linger. But in a way it's this totally harmless lie. This girl, who seems like a really nice person who gets to have this amazing martyrdom and this meaning to her death that otherwise nobody else got, you don't want to take it away from her. But on the other hand, there's this girl who this actually happened to, and who was being kind of dragged through the mud. And because she didn't die, whoever gets injured in these things, we always forget about. It's always the death count, not the injury count. And so this poor girl, Val is just like, are you sure, sweetie? Are you sure you're not trying to steal that story from Cassie? 

And so Emily eventually does decide to come forward, but she comes forward anonymously to the Rocky Mountain News, to the Denver newspaper, but they won't print it because they're like we can't print anonymous accusations of this nature because everyone is latching onto this story so much. And eventually Salon, this is actually Dave Cullen writing for Salon in 1999, prints the actual true story, because again, this is all on tape, right? So it's also not a super well-kept secret. He writes about it for Salon, and then because it's appeared in Salon, then the Rocky Mountain News can publish it. They’re like, “according to a report in Salon”, and then they can add their own reporting to it.

Sarah:  And you're not the messenger who's maybe going to get shot. 

Mike: And this is one of my great takeaways from this. And one of the more depressing takeaways from this is that all of the myths of Columbine were actually debunked in the first six months after the shooting. The vast majority of them, not this problematic psychopath diagnosis of Eric, but almost every other myth busting of the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren't in it, of they weren't bullied, they weren't outcast, the whole Cassie thing, all of that stuff was debunked within six months. But the problem is the story, the false narrative, had been told so many times that if you miss the news cycle for a day or two, when everyone's saying, oh, this Cassie Bernall thing didn't really happen, if you happen to be doing something else with your life for those two days, you're just going to revert back to the story that you've heard a million times. 

And the media never really updated its story. So when the media kind of did these retrospectives one year, five years, ten years later, they didn't really correct their narratives. It's kind of dark that  the media and the days after the event really fucked things up. But the media a year after and five and ten years after fucked it up too, in that they never returned to ask, was this the right narrative or do we have any sort of duty to correct the record on this? And so that's why the vast majority of these myths persist is because we all heard the wrong story 50 times, and we've only heard the right story maybe once.

Rachel:  I think it's also a further illustration of how there's so much rhetoric about centering the victim, celebrating the victim. But when actual victims step up and give a slightly complicated story or something that's not exactly what we want to hear or what we want the victim narrative to be, we’re like, oh, actually, please be quiet and go away. We would prefer to celebrate the victims in the way that we have already decided that the victims are. In some ways a dead victim is better because a dead victim can't be like, actually I disagree or that's not what happened. 

Mike: Another thing too, is the way that this affected Columbine afterwards. I thought one thing that was really interesting was of course, after this horrible shooting, all the kids go to other high schools to finish out the year and then Columbine reopens the next September for new students.

Sarah: Imagine being a freshman going into school that day. 

Mike: That's the thing. Yeah. It's of course this huge media event, it's a total circus. And because the kids are so sick of Columbine being a byword for tragedy, they do a thing on the opening of school where students and parents hold hands in a big circle around the reopened Columbine and prevent the media from getting in. 

Sarah: Oh wow. 

Mike: The media was a really convenient scapegoat, and a deserved scapegoat to some extent, for everything that the town had gone through, that the actual people were tired of getting microphones shoved in their faces. And they were tired of Columbine being a synonym for tragedy and school shooting. And so they sort of decided, without any other scapegoat, no one went to jail for this, there's no one we can really blame. We're just going to blame the media. And so kids would have t-shirts saying, “I don't want to talk”, on them and they would walk around with them. It was something that the entire town was really sick of being the center of the nation's attention.

Rachel: Yeah. And I think one of the other mythologies that tie into that is this idea of, and then the town united. You hear this after many different kinds of tragedies that actually brought us all together and we united, and we are stronger. When there was a huge amount of division within the community after the massacre there was lots of fighting between various churches, assigning blame, the NRA conference was supposed to be, or was, in Denver the next week or something. How can we talk about guns or not talk about guns? And then the media becomes this figure that, well, we can all agree to be angry at them.

Mike:  Yeah. And so, Dave Cullen’s book mentions that the only two people to go to jail for this are the two, essentially teenagers, who set up the gun buy. So one of the kids is the one that bought the tec 9 for Dylan, I think, at the gun show. He made $9 on it and he bought it for $491 and he sold it to Dylan for $500 and he went to jail for 18 years. And a big thing was that people wanted someone to pay and they looked into the parents. The investigators looked into charging the parents. 

Sarah: What are they gonna try to charge them with?

Mike:  Well negligence or I don’t know, something. 83% of the country blamed the parents. This was sort of where the country landed on Columbine. Because they couldn't really blame, I don't know why they couldn't blame the school or they couldn't blame investigators, but people hated the Klebolds and the Harrises, and they had to really go underground after this because everybody was just assuming that they must have known, or they must not have prevented it or whatever. And that was where a lot of the anger went.

Sarah:  Or they must've done something ahorrant to make their children be like that. I don't even know if people articulate these theories, but it feels like the need to blame the parents is the need for the contagion theory.

Rachel: Or that you would know. Sue Klebold writes about that a lot. Of course you would know if you were a good parent, you would know if your kid was going to do something like that. And that's sort of the horror of her book is she presents herself as this very reasonable, loving parent and she didn't know. Columbine was sort of at the beginning of the internet and kids easy access to having online lives totally invisible to their parents.

Mike: Yeah. And Eric was cooking, Eric was finding recipes for napalm online. He was cooking napalm in his parent’s kitchen on the weekends when they were away.

Sarah: Really? In the kitchen?

Mike:  Napalm is hard apparently to make. And there were dozens of tries. So he would get materials online or in grocery stores or whatever, and he'd try it and it wouldn't work and he'd go set it on fire in the back of his house. It didn't work. And then he tried again, and this went on for months. Napalm was really difficult. And so again, because the internet was new, this idea that your kids could be on the internet doing shit like this was just totally unfathomable in those days. 

One of the other overlooked aspects of this is that there was also a huge and extremely successful cover up by the Jefferson County Sheriff's office.

Rachel: Always a cop cover up.

Mike: My God. They had a warrant to search Eric Harris's house more than a year before the shooting. His friend, Brooks Brown, they had gotten in some fight and Eric had vandalized his house and written crazy shit about him on the internet and sent it to him and snitched to his parents, ‘your kid is hiding liquor in his room’. And Brooks Brown's parents had gone to the cops 15 times about Eric. They had called over and over and over again and said, this kid is writing violent shit on the internet, he's threatening our son, he's doing weird shit in the middle of the night with other kids, you need to look into this person. And the cops just never did anything about it. 

Rachel: Well, they did it halfway. They had a file and they printed out his website and they got a search warrant and then just didn't do it. 

Sarah: And then they just got the mid-afternoon blahs and they put it in a folder and did some other stuff, I guess.

Mike: Yeah. And as soon as Columbine happened, these papers started disappearing from Eric's file. They start getting purged from the online database. Eventually there's all these lawsuits by the parents of the victims because they start to get a whiff of everything that the cops have done. At one point, the cops finally, five or six years after the shooting, release a bunch of documents, but they redact a bunch of shit without telling anybody. So they have page numbers, but they forgot to not number the pages that they removed, so the parents are looking through these giant files of documents. And it's like page 7, 8, 9, 31, 32, 33, 84, 85, 86. And the parents were like, come on guys. 

Sarah: And they're like, well, we didn't think anyone would actually read them.

Mike: So for years they'll release 3,000 pages and be like, that's it folks. And then the parents are like, no, and they release 5,000 more. And they're like, that's it folks. The parents like, no. And they release 6,000 more. And so eventually these 24,000 pages of documents get released. And not all of it's from before the shooting, some of it's interviews afterwards and stuff like that. But they had tons of information about how bad these kids were beforehand, and they didn't do anything about it. But the smart thing about the coverup was the cover up took so long that the nation's attention had completely moved on by that point.

Sarah: We're learning this over and over again, same with Iran-Contra. You wait it out.

Mike: They waited it out. And by the time this came out, nobody other than the Denver press really knew or cared.

Rachel: And beyond that, they gave a press conference and explicitly said, do you know what we don't know? And went through all the things that they knew and explicitly denied then and had secret meetings about how we're all going to deny this. It was like a very clear and overt coverup.

Mike: An actual conspiracy theory. An actual conspiracy.

Sarah: A classic conspiracy. Let's meet and conspire, and maybe Barb will have one of her pound cakes. This brings me back also to one of my other major problems with the psychopath, which is the psychopath’s best friend is the cop and the prosecutor because the whole draw the psychopath too, if you're in a position of power, if you're defending our legal system and all its flaws, it's like, look, the psychopath can outwit everybody. If the cops didn't see it coming, then it's because he's so brilliant because he's super humanly brilliant and evil. And it's like, you can focus on their narrative, ignore the fact that there was an unexecuted search warrant involved in this story. 

Mike: And they were telling kids at school, and Dylan wrote an essay for school about somebody walking in and killing a bunch of people. And his teacher talked about how bad it was.

Sarah:  At the time, though, we also held police to a higher standard than high school English teachers, weirdly. We don't anymore, but we did in the nineties.

Mike: If the cops had searched his room, they would have found pipe bombs. They would have found a shitload of guns. These kids were not good at hiding it. So that search warrant actually probably would have made a difference.

Rachel: Yeah, they were really not that sneaky. I'm also really interested in how the aftermath moves so quickly away from any response related to guns. It becomes very quickly about how do we toughen up our schools? What comes out of this is this huge school security industry. I lost half a day, the other day because I was Googling.  There are all these school security consultants treating your high school like it needs military grade defense. Studies have been done about the 20 years since Columbine. Infinitely more school resource school resource officers, zero tolerance, policies, random locker searches, metal detectors. Basically nobody has done expanded counseling, more mental health outreach, and family programs. 

Mike: Well, one thing, this is not going to be a popular opinion, I may cut it out. One of the silver linings of Columbine and one of the things I'm kind of thankful for is that this mostly false narrative about bullying actually resulted in a national conversation about bullying and resulted in a lot of schools putting in place anti-bullying policies. 

I remember in the aftermath of Columbine, I remember being a bullied kid, a closeted gay and bullied kid, being really happy that I finally felt heard. Everyone came out of the woodwork and was like, I am a goth, I get stuff thrown at me all the time. There were lots of sort of day two, day five feature stories on bullying in America, the bullying crisis, that were really good, and schools changed their policies and hopefully kids change their behavior. And it’s made bullying an actual social issue in a way that it just wasn't before Columbine.

Rachel: I can't be quite as optimistic because I do feel like all the attention around it did create this sense that this is sort of a way to get attention. It seems like more and more of these shootings are less about like, I really feel so murderous, I can't wait to murder. But it's more just sort of like, I want people to see me and I have a point of some kind that I want to make. So we've learned good and bad things.

Mike:  Yeah. I think the conversation we should have been having obviously is about gun control, right?  That would have been A) conversation to be having, B) conversation that we ended up having was about bullying and about Marilyn Manson.

Sarah:  And video games.

Mike: And video games and goths. And  I came across this quote from Diane Sawyer right after the Columbine segment that she did. She's quoting police saying, “The boys may have been part of a dark underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement and some of these goths may have killed before.”

Sarah:  Oh my God.

Mike: We had goths at my high school, and they were the nicest people.

Sarah: Because we have to get up at five in the fucking morning to do all that makeup. They have the discipline of 4-H kids. 

Rachel: Well, and it's so annoying that like, first of all, they didn't even really listen to Marilyn Manson. And that the idea that Marilyn Manson, after Columbine Marilyn Manson canceled his whole tour. Meanwhile, the NRA convention is in Denver that week.

Mike: One of the dark legacies of this that Dave Cullen mentioned in one paragraph of his book is that the Colorado state Senate convenes to try to close the gun show loophole. And then as a result of NRA lobbying, doesn't, so they just do nothing, not even at the state level. Then people put it on the ballot, and it passes overwhelmingly as a ballot referendum. So Colorado no longer has the gun show loophole. What we should have done is guns. What we ended up doing is bullying. 

Rachel: Bullying and also toughening up school police. Militarizing policing, turning schools into this lockdown.

Sarah: When I was in fifth grade one of my favorite shows was South Park. So it's not at all as if I was an outsider to prevalent American pop culture. But having this idea that like the teens, the teens, the teens, all this scary stuff. And they have this teen culture that makes them do scary things and be aware of the teen media. And then you look at it and look at how that created such a smokescreen. Violent video games, sure. Let's add that to the mix, but you're not going to explain all that much of it with video games alone. You're not ever going to explain violence with pop music, I don't think. 

And in the meantime, guns are a part of adult culture. If we throw the focus on the teens and they're scary things and their goth makeup and their chokers, then we can ignore what all the adults are doing and be like, the adult Americans all convene once every two years to try and enact laws by suggesting reasonable things and then arguing about them for months and then doing three or four things in a last minute frenzy in the last week. It's an interesting culture. 

Mike: Can I end with a quick story? 

Sarah: Yes. 

Mike: One of the reasons why I have such a chip on my shoulder about not telling anything about the killers from their diaries is that I had a social studies class in seventh grade where a teacher made us journal for the first 15 minutes of class. And he said, write down whatever personal things, whatever you're going through in your life, but I promise I won't read them. And I was immediately just like, fuck this dude. He wants to read our private thoughts. He wants me to write down what's going on at home and he wants to use this as a surveillance tactic. I didn't believe his, ‘I'm not going to read it’ at all. So I wrote really explicit pornography in mine, really explicit. I would love to read it now, but I don't know where it went, but I'm sure it was like the most inept.

Sarah:  I would love to read it now.

Mike:  Like he stuck his wiener in her like boob hole. I'm sure it's terrible, terrible.

Sarah: Oh the boob holes, yeah.

Mike: But I just wanted to fuck with this dude because I hated this teacher. He was really patronizing. And of course after six or seven days of doing this, I’m in some other class, and I get a note saying you have to come into the principal's office. And I walked into the principal's office and then there's him, the principal, and my mom. And they're like, we're really concerned about your journal entries.

Sarah: You seem to not know what boobs are for.

Mike: I just remember saying like, well, I was doing this to prove a point. And he was like, yeah right, Mister. We're really concerned about you. And it became this whole year long argument. 

But anyway, whenever I think about kids being judged by their journals, I think about the fact that if you went back to my journals, you would find eight days straight of just explicit pornography and be like, this kid is disturbed. What's wrong with this kid? But I was just doing it to be a dick. I wasn't actually being real.

Sarah: The Satanists  got another victim. 

Mike: So anyway, don't trust journals has been my guiding principle ever since seventh grade.

Sarah:  Don't trust journals and look to the adults. And Rachel, what other morals could we…

Mike: Yeah. What are your lessons, Rachel?

Rachel: I'm bad at morals. I know now. Burn down the internet. 

Sarah: Yeah. 

Mike: Evergreen, lesson.