The Columbine High School massacre, committed in 1999 by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, saw the deaths of fifteen people — twelve students, one teacher, and the killers themselves — and the injury of another twenty-four people. After it happened, everybody ran around like a headless chicken trying to explain it. Here's
With so many claims about them coming from every direction, what is
known about the killers and their motivations deserves to be discussed. This is a far easier task than with most spree killers, as Harris and Klebold left behind a treasure trove of home videos, diaries, and more detailing their thought processes, attitudes, and plans for the massacre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this mountain of information is also largely responsible for the mystique that has built up around the two and their crimes, especially in comparison to massacres with higher body counts; psychologists, cultural critics, and the killers' Misaimed Fandom
have spent years examining and picking apart Harris and Klebold's personal artifacts.
First of all, the two boys were juvenile delinquents
who had a history of trouble with the law. The year before the shooting, the two had been arrested for breaking into and stealing tools from a locked van. They made such a good impression on the police that, in exchange for having their criminal records expunged, they would go through a program that included community service, psychiatric treatment and, for Harris
, anger management classes. Again, they made such a good impression that they were discharged from the program a few months early. In the memoirs they taped before the shootings, they bragged about how well they had fooled the police into thinking they had reformed
. Later, the two would make a video for a school project called Hitmen for Hire
, in which they played two Bully Hunters
, and Harris would write a violent Doom Fan Fic
for a creative writing project. In addition, Harris had been caught the year before making threats on his website to various students and teachers, and Klebold had a long history of cursing at teachers and getting into fights with his boss at the pizza place he worked at.
Harris and Klebold were victims of bullying, including homophobic remarks, but as it turns out, they gave as good as they got — they often wrote in their diaries about how they themselves had bullied underclassmen and "fags." In early reports, they were said to be members of the "Trenchcoat Mafia," a clique of gamers and self-styled outcasts who all wore trenchcoats. In reality, they were only friends with one member of the group, and most of them had graduated by the time of the massacre. The killers weren't the loners
that early reports described them as — they had a number of friends, and three days before the massacre, Klebold had taken his female friend Robyn Anderson to the prom. They were avid gamers, particularly of Doom
(which Harris had even made mods
for), and used the names "Reb" and "VoDKa" (the former was Harris, the latter was Klebold) as both their online handles and their nicknames.
The general consensus among investigators regarding their motivations is that they (particularly Harris) were diehard nihilists
who wanted to leave their mark on the world. A personality profile of Harris stated that he was an anti-social, paranoid, narcissistic sociopath
with unrestrained aggression, while his journal reveals an Übermensch
mindset, with frequent references to "natural selection"
(the shirt he wore during the massacre even had that slogan on the front). One entry in Harris' journal contains a discussion on how he wanted to put everyone into a super-Doom
game and see to it that only the strong survive.
Klebold's diaries likewise talk about how he and Harris were more highly evolved
than the rest of humanity, though overall his entries reveal that he was self-loathing and suicidal, with a tendency to obsess over female classmates he was barely acquainted with. Gifted intellectually but with a tendency to "snap" when confronted, it seems that Klebold desperately sought affirmation from his friend, and was equally influenced by Harris's sociopathy and personal vengeance against "the world". The planning the shootings required was an act of cold calculation rather than rage, and attempting to tie the events to a singular incident oversimplifies the killers' psyches.
Both diaries make frequent reference to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco Siege, and other disasters, noting how they wished to "outdo" these events. Their codename for the massacre was "NBK
," taken from a film that both of them were huge fans of, in which the main characters go on a killing spree and become celebrities in the process.
The chosen location and timing of their massacre was no coincidence, and emphasizes the lack of specific targets. If jocks and the school's social elite were the targets, presumably the killers would have attacked a school sporting event or the prom just three days earlier. Eric's journal specifically mentions wanting a media-friendly killing
that would shock all of America in their everyday routine, not something tied to a specific event
, and what experience could be more universal than a normal day at school?
Harris and Klebold had begun planning their attack a year in advance. Their plan was to build large bombs that they would plant in the cafeteria and then detonate at lunch time, destroying the cafeteria and the library above it and killing hundreds of students in what would have been the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history (the reason why they thought they would "top" Oklahoma City). After that, they would pick off the survivors outside as they fled the burning school. Notes in their journals also contain thoughts about heading to Denver International Airport, hijacking a plane and crashing it into a building in New York City
, as well as fleeing to Mexico. The date of the massacre, April 20, coincides with Adolf Hitler
's birthday, leading some to speculate that the killers were neo-Nazis. However, there is more evidence to suggest that they had originally planned to attack the school on April 19, the anniversary of both the Oklahoma City bombing they hoped to top and the end of the Waco Siege, but were forced to push it back a day, due to a cache of ammo only being delivered on that evening. Others have speculated that they chose April 20 because it was the day that many of the school's stoners
, whom they had never had much of a problem with, would be cutting class to get high ("4/20" and all).
The killers arrived at the school at 11:10 AM and went to the cafeteria with the large duffel bags containing their bombs, each wired to detonate at 11:17 shortly after the start of lunch. They headed back to their cars to wait for the bombs to go off... which they didn't
, thanks to their lack of finesse at the finer points of bomb-making
. Indeed, the only bomb to detonate was a decoy one they had placed in a nearby field earlier that morning. Set to explode at 11:14, it caused a small fire, but, since its detonation occurred so close to the time the shooting began, it did nothing more than vaguely alert the authorities that something
was going on.
Realizing that their bombs were duds, the two broke out their guns (a 9mm carbine and sawed-off pump shotgun
for Harris, and a TEC-9
and sawed-off double-barrel shotgun for Klebold) and headed to the school's west entrance. Here, they took off their trenchcoats, killed two students and a teacher, and wounded nine others as they went through the halls. At 11:29, they headed to the library, where the main body of the massacre took place. When they walked in, Harris told everybody wearing a white baseball cap (a tradition among all school athletes) to stand up. Ten people were killed in the library, and twelve were injured.
These would prove to be the last victims of the Columbine massacre, as the killers left the library at 11:42 and spent the next twenty minutes wandering the now-empty halls and cafeteria, shooting and throwing pipe bombs seemingly at random. They went back into the library (which had since emptied out) at 12:02 and briefly exchanged fire with the policemen who now surrounded the school. The two then committed suicide; Harris fired his shotgun in his mouth, and Klebold shot himself with the handgun in his left temple.
There was early speculation that there had been a third man involved in the shootings, based on reports that a strange man had been seen on the roof on the school (later shown to be a repairman who locked himself up there after he heard gunshots), and claims that the two killers couldn't have hauled all of the bombs into the cafeteria by themselves. While all evidence points to Harris and Klebold being the only culprits behind the massacre, this hasn't stopped countless conspiracy theorists
from speculating otherwise.
Although school shootings are a relatively, some would say distressingly, common occurrence in the US (there had been one almost every year since 1966
, this one quickly entered the halls of infamy for its then-unprecedented scale. Future school shootings, even those with far greater body counts (such as the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary shootings), would find themselves in Columbine's shadow. The irony
of all this media attention is that this is exactly what Harris and Klebold wanted to happen
— they desired to see their names burned into the history books. Almost immediately, a whole number of apocryphal events
began finding their way into the Popular History
version of the shooting, Moral Guardians
of all stripes used Columbine as an excuse to rant about whatever it was they felt was evil (or whatever would get them the best book deals
), everybody was searching for answers, and American high schools came under the thrall of a number of Columbine-related concepts, some of which had never happened. The word "columbine," once the name of the state flower of Colorado, entered the vernacular as a euphemism for a school shooting, and many future school shooting plots made reference to "pulling a columbine" and a desire to "top" Harris and Klebold. Police forces, having witnessed firsthand how ineffective traditional police tactics were against spree killers who weren't interested in taking hostages
, saw themselves developing new ways to respond to such threats.
The image of the Badass Longcoat
spree killer took off, not helped by the fact that The Matrix
had been released just three weeks earlier. In reality, the killers had taken their trenchcoats off
as soon as the shooting began, and wore ball caps, T-shirts, and jeans, leading many to believe that the coats were more about projecting a scary, iconic image to the victims and the media than anything. (It seemed to have worked.
) The change of clothes also succeeded in confusing early reports as to how many shooters took part in the killing.
Thanks to the media's early rush to judgment, students who were socially isolated or outcasts
suddenly became viewed as potential mass murderers in waiting, even though Harris and Klebold weren't outcasts or a particular target of bullying. Muddying the waters was the fact that there had
been a pair of heavily-publicized school shootings in the two years prior (one near Paducah, Kentucky and one in Springfield, Oregon) in which the killers did fit the profile of the "lonely outcast," so the media automatically assumed that the Columbine killers were loners as well before all the facts were known. In addition, despite early reports of the spree being a vengeance killing with a particular targeting of jocks, Christians, and minorities, all facts point to a random killing spree with no specific category of victim. (In fact, of the aforementioned shootings, the only one in which a specific category of victim was targeted was the Kentucky shooting
, in which the perpetrator fired upon a Christian prayer group.)
In particular, the goth
subculture suffered a huge backlash as a result of the shooting, with their outcast status and "dark" persona earning them the suspicion of many. There was no indication that either Klebold or Harris embraced the goth subculture, preferring a more militaristic vibe in their personal style. (Also, goths as a rule tend to be passive and pacifistic, the old stereotype being that they are violent towards themselves
rather than others.) Still, schools modified their dress codes to ban trenchcoats and restrict the amount of black clothing a student can wear.
More insidiously, many schools started to assume that all school shooters fall under a certain list of stereotypes and can therefore be identified before they kill (similar to a terrorist watchlist). In a Congress-mandated study, the FBI
found that not only is this idea not true, but it is also a dangerous line of thought — while schools focus on trying to find students who fit a predetermined list of traits, real potential shooters go unnoticed. Even so, if a school shooter is portrayed in the media, he (and it's usually a "he"
) will always
be a shy, bullied student who keeps to himself, and it's almost entirely because of this misconception.
Violent video games
were one of the most popular scapegoats for the massacre, with much hay being made out of the fact that the killers were fans of Doom
and Wolfenstein 3D
. Armchair psychologists were claiming that the killers had become desensitized to and obsessed with violence as a result of playing video games. The infamous Florida attorney Jack Thompson first emerged as an anti-video-game figure as a result of the massacre, setting himself on the trajectory that would ultimately lead to his dismissal from the legal profession. Once it came out that Harris had made various levels
for the game, the media was almost immediately claiming that they had been based on Columbine High School, with the demons replaced with students and teachers. As it turned out, they weren't. The most elaborate of the so-called "Harris levels," titled UAC Labs, can be read about and downloaded here,
third down the list, with commentary on the massacre and its effect on the gaming community.
Certain popular movies also came under fire. Among the targets were: The Matrix
, with its stylized action scenes, its story about our reality being a lie, its proliferation of Badass Longcoat
heroes, and the fact that it had been released just three weeks prior to the killings and was still a box office hit; The Basketball Diaries
, which contained a fantasy sequence
in which Leonardo DiCaprio
's character shoots up his school while wearing a trenchcoat; and Natural Born Killers
, which both of the killers were huge fans of, and whose plot eerily mirrored the aftermath of the shooting. Less associated with the massacre, but a strong influence, particularly for Klebold, was the David Lynch film Lost Highway
The debate on gun control
was reignited by the massacre, with each side repeating its talking points. Gun control advocates claimed that the tragedy could have been averted had there been more restrictions on the purchase of firearms, noting that Harris and Klebold had acquired their weapons through mostly legal means, specifically counting on the lack of background checks at gun shows.note
On the other side, gun rights advocates claimed that gun control, particularly the "gun-free" zones around schools, had left the students and teachers defenseless, making the situation worse than it had to be. In any case, while Colorado would soon close the "gun show loophole" in-state, no significant federal gun control legislation was passed as a result of the shooting, and the federal Assault Weapons Ban would expire without being renewed just five years later.
Schools, meanwhile, took security into their own hands, installing metal detectors at school entrances, hiring security guards, mandating see-through backpacks, running "intruder drills" (similar to fire drills) in order to practice what to do if someone were to attack the school, and instituting "zero-tolerance" policies regarding violence or the threat of it. Such policies quickly became highly controversial, with many people, particularly students and social scientists, feeling that they got out of control and infringed upon the rights of the students. A report by the Secret Service stated that schools were taking false hope in such security measures, and that they wouldn't do anything to deter another massacre — in fact, they concluded that zero-tolerance policies getting an unstable student suspended or expelled for a minor infraction
may very well push him or her over the edge. In addition, minority students were almost always disproportionately targeted by such policies. However, many schools still have zero tolerance policies in place, since the criticism received for punishing the relatively innocent is infinitely easier to deal with than the perceived culpability for letting a violent situation escalate.
Various conservative Christian groups proclaimed the massacre to be the result of the secularization of society, the teaching of evolution
and sex education, and the lack of religion in public schools. Many within such circles are more inclined to accept initial accounts claiming that two of the victims, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott, had been killed because of their Christian faith, having been asked if they believed in God — and answering "yes" — before they were shot. Most authoritative investigations of the massacre have concluded that these stories of how the two died are apocryphal
, and based on the experience of Valeen Schnurr, a girl who was
asked by the killers if she believed in God, but survived the massacre. However, many continue to consider the two to be martyrs and symbols of faith in the face of death, and a number of Columbine-inspired works have portrayed their killers as specifically targeting Christians.
One of the most popular targets of social backlash was shock rock, metal and other "Satanic," "unhealthy" or "violent" music
, with Marilyn Manson
acting as a main lightning rod. In reality, Harris and Klebold viewed Manson as a sellout and a poser, but this didn't stop people from claiming that their music had somehow influenced the two to shoot up their school. Ultimately, this became a case of No Such Thing as Bad Publicity
for Manson, as the massacre greatly increased their pop culture profile; their front man's interview with Michael Moore about the shooting (quoted above) may have been his Moment Of Awesome
Some alleged that the killers were either neo-Nazis
, or had a fascination with Adolf Hitler
and his regime
. Supporters of this theory point to the fact that the attack had taken place on April 20, Hitler's birthday, and the fact that the killers were fans of Rammstein
, two bands often hit with accusations of being Music to Invade Poland to
. Robyn Anderson, a friend of Klebold's, denies that the killers were Nazis, although she claims that there was a lot that she didn't know about them. It is worth noting here that Dylan Klebold's mother was Jewish (although he was raised Lutheran), and that, as noted above, it is likely that the attack had been planned for April 19. Most likely, the killers found the Nazi regime's social Darwinism
and policy of genocide and extermination philosophically appealing, but viewed their enemy as all of humanity
rather than any specific ethnic group. Eric Harris, in particular, had a distinct tendency for Putting on the Reich
with Nazi salutes and quotations, if apparently mainly for shock value.
The fact that Eric Harris had been taking the anti-depressants Luvox and, before that, Zoloft was a point of note for many people critical of the perceived over-prescription of psychiatric medication in today's society, particularly among teenagers. It would later be discovered that Harris had been rejected for military service due to his use of these medications, and it was speculated that this is what drove him over the edge, or else going off his medication in an attempt to be accepted. (This was later shown to be untrue — Harris had not received news of his rejection by the time of the massacre, and, in any case, had begun his planning long before the recruiter had cold-called him.)
There were also allegations of neglectful parenting
thrown at the killers' parents, as people claimed that, had they been paying any attention to their kids, they could have stepped in and stopped it. In the so-called "Basement Tapes" recorded before the killing, Harris and Klebold absolved their parents of responsibility, and joked at how adept they were at fooling them. At the very least, they wanted their deed to be perceived as all their own.
Finally, one of the most popular culprits for the shootings was society in general
. For the first time, there was genuine examination and criticism of the social hierarchy
of high school, particularly the high status that athletes enjoy in it. Schools began to crack down on bullying within their halls, and most people who were of school age soon after Columbine will most likely recall all of the assemblies calling for tolerance and respect for fellow classmates. The fact that we still have the Popularity Food Chain
shows that such efforts ultimately proved futile, as 1999 became ancient history for a new generation of high school students who were only in elementary school when the shooting took place — it took another cycle
of bullying-related suicides a decade later before people started asking these questions again. (Ironically, though bullying has
been a factor in other school shootings, Harris and Klebold had not particularly been victims of bullying, as noted above.)
And before anybody asks, yes, there are Conspiracy Theories
claiming that Harris and Klebold had been brainwashed
by The Illuminati
, serving as patsies to advance draconian new gun control laws. (As noted above, very little serious gun legislation passed in the wake of the shooting.)
One of the most disturbing trends to happen after the shooting was the Draco in Leather Pants
aura that developed around Harris and Klebold, with many students on the bottom of the high school food chain calling them heroes and martyrs
who stood up to the privileged jocks
that ruled high schools across the nation. Trenchcoats became a popular fashion accessory
among such students, with schools responding by banning them under their dress codes. A series of copycat shootings
took place, carried out mostly by people who wanted to get revenge on their classmates and, like Harris and Klebold, leave their mark on the world. Even a decade and a half later, a quick search will find a surprisingly large number of tribute sites and videos for "Reb and VoDKa". However, the vast majority of these sites condemn the shooting but express the sentiment that Klebold and to a lesser extent Harris were kind, intelligent boys before suffering mental illness and, in Klebold's case, falling in with perhaps the worst influence there could be, and that people should see this side of them as well. You know, with a healthy bit of Rule34, too.
Perhaps the most important effect of the massacre was the way that it would shape American popular culture for years to come. The most noticeable and immediate change was a trend of stiffer censorship
against violence in movies and TV shows that lasted into the early Turn of the Millennium
. The teen horror
genre, popularized by the likes of Scream (1996)
, began to die out
as depictions of young people being brutally murdered suddenly became very unsettling
. After a period of Too Soon
, school shootings became popular subject matter
for Ripped from the Headlines
programs, the canonical example being the Law & Order
episode "School Daze" (one of the first to be advertised with such a slogan). It can be argued that the Columbine massacre marked the beginning of the end for the viewpoints and culture of The Nineties
(much like how the Altamont disaster
is said to have killed The Sixties
), and that the time between April 20, 1999 and September 11, 2001
was a time of transition between The Nineties
and the Turn of the Millennium