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.