Massacre at Columbine High


Today is the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings, and USA Today's Greg Toppo wants to clear away some myths:

They weren't goths or loners.

The two teenagers who killed 13 people and themselves at suburban Denver's Columbine High School…weren't in the "Trenchcoat Mafia," disaffected videogamers who wore cowboy dusters. The killings ignited a national debate over bullying, but the record now shows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't been bullied—in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and "fags."

Their rampage put schools on alert for "enemies lists" made by troubled students, but the enemies on their list had graduated from Columbine a year earlier. Contrary to early reports, Harris and Klebold weren't on antidepressant medication and didn't target jocks, blacks or Christians, police now say, citing the killers' journals and witness accounts. That story about a student being shot in the head after she said she believed in God? Never happened, the FBI says now.

A decade after Harris and Klebold made Columbine a synonym for rage, new information—including several books that analyze the tragedy through diaries, e-mails, appointment books, videotape, police affidavits and interviews with witnesses, friends and survivors—indicate that much of what the public has been told about the shootings is wrong.

The persistance of such myths may be as interesting as the myths itself. Many of the tales that Toppo attacks were actually debunked in the immediate aftermath of the killings. In an editorial I filed less than a month after the massacre, I wrote this:

In the weeks since the Littleton slaughter, we've learned that most of what the media initially told us about the Columbine killers wasn't true. They weren't Nazis. They weren't especially racist. They weren't necessarily Goths. They might not even have been members of the clique of outcasts called the Trench Coat Mafia, which, by the way, wasn't originally called the Trench Coat Mafia.

We do know that bullies routinely picked on Harris, Klebold, and others like them. We do know that such behavior goes on in most of the country's schools. But most outcasts do not take weapons to school and kill the people who tormented them. We don't know what it was inside Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that made them into the exceptions. And we never will.

Read the whole thing here. My language was more conditional than it would be today, and Toppo would take issue with the idea that the boys were bullied. (I'm not convinced he's right, but I do wince when I see my younger self uncritically accepting the idea that bullying was a motive for the murders.) Still, it was possible for someone who hadn't ever been to Littleton to figure out that many of the narratives coming out of the town were false, just by paying attention to follow-up reports and keeping a normal level of skepticism on hand. Not a decade later, but a few weeks later. And not because I was especially perspicacious, but because I didn't have an axe to grind.

"At the time," Toppo writes, "Columbine became a kind of giant national Rorschach test. Observers saw its genesis in just about everything: lax parenting, lax gun laws, progressive schooling, repressive school culture, violent video games, antidepressant drugs and rock 'n' roll, for starters." Ten years later, it's more obvious than ever that those reactions had more to do with the observers' inner fears than with the actual facts on the ground.

Update: I missed a sloppy statement in the USA Today article: "Harris and Klebold weren't on antidepressant medication." Harris was on an antidepressant; the myth that Toppo was presumably referring to is the idea that the killer suddenly went off the drug shortly before his spree, thus somehow triggering the crimes. In fact, an autopsy revealed that Harris had a full dose of Luvox on the day he died.