Columbine and bullying: A corrective account

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, the two young men who killed 13 people before taking their own lives, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were portrayed as bullied teens who didn’t fit in and who acted out their sense of isolation and resentment in a horrific rampage.  The abused became the abusers.

This common interpretation of what happened at Columbine is of particular interest to those of us who are addressing workplace bullying.  Like many of my colleagues, I frequently get questions about possible connections between workplace bullying and school bullying during the Q&A periods of panel discussions and presentations.  Some folks assume that schoolyard bullies become workplace bullies.  I am quick to add that, at times, those who are bullied at school may become bullies themselves, classic and sad instances of victims becoming aggressors.  I have frequently invoked Columbine as an example of that recurring scenario.

However, Andrew Gumbel of the Guardian newspaper, drawing on a new book (Dave Cullen, Columbine, 2009), writes that the story of the Columbine killers may be very different than what many of us have assumed:

Exactly 10 years ago on Monday, the world woke up to learn that two more unhinged American teenage misfits had snapped after years of bullying at the hands of the “jocks”, the sporting overlords of their universe, and gone on a murderous rampage with semi-automatic weapons through their suburban high school….

…Much of what we reported, though, was simply wrong, as attested by tens of thousands of official documents and other evidence that has at last seen the light of day after years of suppression by the local authorities. As the Colorado-based journalist Dave Cullen tells in his gripping and authoritative new book Columbine, Harris and Klebold had plenty of friends, did pretty well in school, were not members of the Trenchcoat Mafia, did not listen to Manson, were not bullied, harboured no specific grudges against any one group, and did not “snap” because of some last-straw traumatic event….

…The truth was more sinister. Their ambition, harboured for about a year and a half and chronicled meticulously on Harris’s website and in the boys’ private journals, recovered after their deaths, was to blow up the entire school. Not to get at anyone in particular, but because they hated the world and intended to have fun annihilating as much of it as they could.

Early, positive reviews of Dave Cullen’s book indicate that this new portrayal of Harris and Klebold will substantially change how we view what drove these two kids to do what they did.  Nevertheless, it remains the case that some people who are treated abusively will continue the cycle of mistreatment through their own actions, not to mention be at greater risk of harming themselves.  Furthermore, a more insightful understanding of what happened at Columbine should not detract from efforts to reduce bullying in our schools and workplaces.  If anything, it should only add to the urgency of taking abnormal psychological conditions, and the social conditions that may fuel them, more seriously.

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3 responses

  1. I have not read Cullen’s book, nor am I scholar of Columbine, but from your summary of this “new account,” I have some issues with its interpretation and offer them as points to consider for any who read the book.

    Point 1: Official documentation does not report on UNDOCUMENTED behavior. Were these guys bullied? Only an in-depth investigation will reveal that. And even then, will a bully fess up without evidence? Isn’t part of the problem that most bullies don’t see themselves as harmful aggressors?

    Point 2: The Bullied-become-murderers angle is a common rhetorical strategy in what now passes for journalism. The mythology of Columbine [as cited in the quote above: lack of friends, poor grades, the Trenchcoat Mafia, listening to Manson, victims of bullies, having grudges, and “snapping”] all made for a great, compelling, tragic story to tell.

    Point 3: Even if they had plenty of friends, excellent grades, avoided spurious fringe groups, and never listened to all the riot-inciting, profanity-laden music possible, there still must be some reason why 2 teenagers spent a year and a half plotting to blow up their school. Evil does not exist in that form. Hopefully, Cullen’s analysis goes a bit deeper beyond just painting these 2 as demons without motive. *Something* happened to make them into the monsters they became. It wasn’t just some random, spontaneous happenstance.

    Point 4: Yet, beyond all this, there needs to be an acknowledgment that bullied people can still crack under that pressure even if they have friends, don’t hold grudges, avoid music that is reputed-yet-never-proven to incite aggression, go to church, and never experience one, major instance (yet encounter a constant drip of bullying that erodes the soul)to “snap” from.

    • Cassandra, thank you for that extensive and thoughtful response. The Cullen book already has been attracting a lot of attention, and it no doubt will be a focal point for discussions about what we can learn from Columbine at this 10-year mark. I just ordered the book and look forward to reading it, at least to the extent that one can look forward to revisiting such a horrible event.

  2. I’ll never read Cullen’s book because i know he was totally against them (for what I’ve read) and i am easily influenced (unconsciously) so..and i do not want to change my point of view~
    I agree that they wanted to blow up the school because they hated the world and the humans (well..this was specially Eric, Dylan was more upset for the fact he felt rejected and alone) but there are reasons for why they exploded this was and why this became their belief~They weren’t born believing this~It was a lot of things going on~
    I did not became misanthrope myself for no reason~There were a lot of things going on in my way that made me be like this~

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