The killing truth we don't wish to hear
Almost as soon as the shootings occurred at Columbine high school, the explanations started pouring forth. The massacre, in which a dozen teenagers were murdered last April 20 by two teenage gunmen, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, in a suburban school, immediately became folklore.
It was, for some, the epitome of a violent, gun-ridden American youth culture. For others, it was about the collapse of moral bearings in the younger generation, fostered by family breakdown and irresponsible parenting. For others still, it was about the violence in movies and on television, and about war games on the internet. For a handful of liberals, it was about America's shockingly conformist youth culture, in which anyone except the school athletes and homecoming queens were alienated and dispossessed.

The media helped the national conversation along. For a few news cycles, the slaughter was about race, as the murderers were reputed to have used a racist epithet before shooting a black student. Then it was about homosexuality, as rumours went the rounds of the web that either Klebold or Harris or both were gay. Then it was about religion, as born-again Christians claimed that one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, was selected because of her faith. Above all, though, it was about the nadir of America's youth, a symbol of an increasingly alienated, violent generation, wreaking revenge in once-safe places such as high schools in suburbia.

Several months later, as facts begin to leak out, it turns out that the Columbine massacre was probably none of these things. Last week, Time magazine published details from Klebold and Harris's own videotapes and journals, elaborating in some detail the precise motives and goals of the crime.

Klebold and Harris, it turns out, were not tormented or abused or hopelessly excluded from society. Their parents weren't completely negligent. They weren't ideologists dying for a particular cause. They were just evil. They knew what they were doing. They took full responsibility for it. They didn't blame their parents. They didn't blame society. They didn't blame the media. Although they had plenty of targets for their hate, they didn't aim their anger at any particular group or person. They planned merely to kill up to 250 people, in an elaborate, adolescent scheme involving rifles and pipe-bombs.

Their motive? Fame and the empowering thrill of murder: the motives of innumerable obscure mass criminals before and doubtless after them.

They were not ignorant products of a dumb, mass culture. Harris quoted Shakespeare's The Tempest, to exculpate his and Klebold's parents. "Good wombs hath borne bad sons," he declaims on the tape. He knew that his and Harris's parents suspected they were up to no good, but who could have suspected such a mass murder? "If only we could have reached them sooner or found this tape," Klebold says his parents will say after the event. "If only we would have searched their room. If only we would have asked the right questions." Harris is contemptuous of their inept intervention. On the tape, he laughs at his mother's assumption that a gun sticking out of his gym bag one day was an airgun. At one point, a clerk at a gun store had called the Harris household to tell Eric that his gun clips were ready. Harris's father answered the phone and, instead of questioning further, simply told the man he had the wrong number and hung up.

Were they the inevitable products of a violent society with easy access to guns? Not exactly. Youth violence, especially gun violence, is at a decades-long low point in America this year, along with the juvenile and general crime rate. The bombs Klebold and Harris made can be constructed by anyone anywhere in the world. The guns they procured were bought by an elaborate network of friends to circumvent the law - friends who, the murderers insist, did not know their intentions. If they hadn't got the guns where they did, Harris says on the tape, "we would have found something else".

Klebold and Harris weren't passive copycat killers, either. "Do not think we're trying to copy anyone," Harris says, referring to school shootings in Oregon and Kentucky. They were planning their massacre long "before the first one ever happened". And theirs would be better, "not like those f****** in Kentucky with camouflage and .22s. Those kids were only trying to be accepted by others". Their hatred was universal, targeting "niggers, Jews, gays, f****** whites", and anyone else who had crossed them. "I hope we kill 250 of you," Klebold says, predicting the most "nerve-racking 15 minutes of my life, after the bombs are set and we're waiting to charge through the school. Seconds will be like hours. I can't wait. I'll be shaking like a leaf."

Were they angry? Of course they were. But they fed their anger willingly. Harris took himself off his antidepressant, Luvox, because it had weakened his will. "More rage. More rage," he says in the video. "Keep building it on."

Harris's AOL website was not exactly reticent about his ambition. It contained the details of his pipe-bombs and a candid description of his intent: "I'm coming for EVERYONE soon and I WILL be armed to the f****** teeth and I WILL shoot to kill." He lambasts the population of Denver, "with their rich snobby attitude thinkin they are all high and mighty . . . God, I can't wait til I can kill you people. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame. I don't care if I live or die in the shoot-out".

Sometimes, in our rush for the deeper meaning of horrifying events, we miss the deepest of all. In our desire to explain away human evil, we can be very inventive. We blame peer pressures, mental illness, lack of gun control, alienation, poor parenting, bad television, racism, the internet, the school system, Hollywood - anything but the simple, timeless human urge to do harm. Columbine is not, it turns out, a story of our time. It is the oldest story of all. Which makes it, of course, the story we least want to hear.

~ Andrew Sullivan, "The Sunday Times", 19 Dec 1999.