Now we have the Klebold & Harris Show. The Columbine killers, ravenous to ensure their infamy, left behind a video, their very own talk show. (Soon to be a major motion picture.)
Their conversations are fascinating, compelling and eerie. Hannah Arendt described the chilling workmanlike way that Adolf Eichmann and the Nazis went about killing Jews as “the banality of evil.” Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris demonstrate again how evil can thrive in banality.
What’s most chilling in the revelations of their conversations on videotape, as described in Time magazine, is the ordinariness of their teen-ager-ness. Here is the overly sensitive psychology of misfits raised a pitch or two. Like most teen-agers, Klebold and Harris were self-centered, only more so. When they “acted out” they left no room to pull back; they became performers in a macabre psychodrama scripted and directed by themselves.
Teen-agers often swing back and forth from delusions of grandeur to a sense of self-pitying worthlessness, but rarely do they embrace the need to “jump-start a revolution” as these two supposed they were doing. They showed a precocious and pretentious ease with critical phrases such as “foreshadowing and dramatic irony.” If they had applied such a vocabulary in English class they might have tapped a creative spark for literary plots, or a talent for literary criticism.
Their narcissism reflects a need to be seen as originals rather than copycats, but in their contempt for school authorities they’re mostly conventional. They crave the adrenaline that comes from confronting danger, but lack the curiosity that comes from living to see it through. They preferred to die rather than endure the consequences.
Perhaps what’s most poignant of all is their display of what appears to be genuine sadness for naive parents who might believe they could have made a difference. “There’s nothing you guys could have done to prevent this,” says Harris. He wishes he were a “sociopath” so he would feel no remorse. (Give him an “A” in Psychology 101). Klebold tells his mom and dad they were “great parents.”
But what we still don’t know is how the once-benign intuitions of the boys hardened into diabolical malevolence.
In almost every incident and analysis Klebold and Harris could have changed direction. They could have enjoyed their positive feelings for their parents by becoming leaders rather than destroyers. They could have used their intelligence for making their own movie, rather than fantasizing Stephen Speilberg’s or Quentin Tarantino’s directing their story.
We’ve grown up accepting that an adolescent suffers from an “identity crisis.” It’s not news that when teen-agers struggle with low “self-esteem” or an “inferiority complex” their sense of reality is distorted. But we believe such stages will pass and that maturity is destiny, that a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a minister or rabbi, somebody will make a difference. But adults indulge in fantasies, too, by letting too much pass them by.
These two boys collided with their classmates like the Titanic hitting the iceberg everything that could go wrong did go wrong. No matter how many flashbacks, turning points, recognition of errors we can identify and analyze, the accumulation of infinite detail gathers with the force of inevitability.
Practical lessons are obvious, but not infallible. Parents should be more prominent in the lives of their children, aggressively overseeing their habits, their cultural tastes, their friends, their rooms and their teachers. Teen-agers long for limits no matter how often they protest to the contrary, and love lies in the repetitive boring moments of simply being there.
Teen-agers are a lot like toddlers. They’re not fully aware of the consequences of their actions. They’re low on reality tests and have difficulty dealing with pain. They’re children trapped in adult bodies, fearing rejection even as they reject others (and none more so than those who love them most).
The FBI will soon release a report identifying trouble spots and warning signs for teen-age violence. They look at the obvious focus points in school, family, friends and drugs. But a child who writes about violence and suicide may actually be finding a creative outlet for it. The children with pent-up rage are more difficult to detect, and they’re usually more successful at repressing rage.
Only last week a “model student,” age 13, in Fort Gibson, Okla., shot and wounded five classmates, taking his father’s semiautomatic rifle out of his backpack and going after his friends. He was attractive and popular, an honor-roll student. With 20/20 hindsight, no doubt, we’ll find the warning signs. Then we can wait for that movie, too.