The Terrifyingly Inscrutable Minds Behind Mass Murders

We still don’t have a good grasp of what drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to massacre 12 of their fellow students and a teacher in 1999.

The Columbine High School killing was one of the most significant domestic acts of violence in the United States in recent decades. It remains an icon of savagery. It has been studied continuously.

Every second of their killing spree has been recreated; every biographical and cultural motive canvassed. Yet as one book, Comprehending Columbine, points out, a decade later there remains “no comprehensive understanding as to why it happened and why it happened where it did.”

No doubt each boy acted for separate reasons. Harris and Klebold had markedly different personalities and different family backgrounds. But despite the enormous amount of written material the killers left for investigators, what turned them from students to mass murderers is still somewhat of a mystery.

School shooters aren’t all as enigmatic as Harris and Klebold. When Evan Ramsey killed two of his fellow Alaskan students in 1997, his motives and pathology were clearer: he had been bullied at school and abused at home.

Yet in the ranks of young killers, there are both bullies and the bullied (Harris of Columbine was in the former camp). Some have been leaders, others followers. Some shooters claim to hear voices in their head. Others are desperate to prove they committed their crimes in perfect, clear sanity.

One recent survey of school shootings concluded that “the particular circumstances of each shooter, each distinct from the last, contribute to a sense of disequilibrium”. There is no clear thread which ties these acts together. And this for a distinct phenomenon, united by a shared location (schools) and shared targets (fellow students and teachers).

Humans want to understand why things happen. We think in terms of cause and effect. But mass murders usually confound explanation.

It is unlikely we will ever fully uncover the “causes” of the massacre committed at the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, Colorado on Friday. The attempts to derive meaning from atrocities like this are understandable but futile.

It’s a 30-minute drive between Aurora and Columbine High School. The suspected killer, James Holmes, would have been 11 at the time of Harris and Klebold’s rampage.

Yet it was only his victims who lived in the shadow of Columbine. Holmes was raised in California and moved to Colorado to enrol in a PhD. He could not have felt the region’s history as keenly as those he targeted late last week.

But wouldn’t it be more comfortable to understand his actions in that frame? To believe he was the product of a traumatised community, and therefore the shooting had a discernable explanation?
Just as it would be easier to understand Columbine if the killers had been inspired by the music of Marilyn Manson, or given political purpose by an underground neo-Nazi trench coat gang, or were the products of broken homes or bullying.

None of these common explanations hold up to scrutiny. But even if any were true, there would still be Comprehending Columbine’s question of why it happened and why it happened there.

Take one popular account. Yes, Harris and Klebold were passionate fans of the video game Doom, where players shoot monsters from a first-person perspective. And Harris said their upcoming massacre would be “like playing Doom”.

But that’s not much of an explanation for their actions. An estimated 10 million people played Doom at one time in the 1990s. Why did those two boys from Colorado feel compelled to re-enact it?

These little tidbits – we will no doubt hear many about James Holmes – are superficially damning but rarely have any explanatory power.

Yet immediately after word of the Aurora shooting dripped out, there was a long list of candidates for explanations. Hurriedly cobbled together experts blamed bullying. An American ABC News reporter blamed the Tea Party. The Daily Mail blamed Occupy Wall Street. One politician blamed the opponents of Judeo-Christianity. An MSNBC talking head blamed Star Trek.

Those inanities have now ceded to a slightly more considered debate about gun control, but that too seems like an attempt to fill the gap with meaning – to draw a lesson, to impose a narrative.

Our cause-and-effect thinking flatters us that atrocities are problems to be solved. Every shocking event must be followed by a debate. Could tighter gun laws avoid such violence? Surely the best case scenario is it could reduce the number of victims.

The desire to cause horrific violence is likely much stronger than the legislative strength of Washington DC. The uncomfortable reality is these tragedies do not pivot on public policy, but rather on an insane choice, made by an individual, to kill strangers.

Mass murders are a global phenomenon (Wikipedia has a revealing list here). Compared to the United States, gun laws are strict in Norway. So Anders Breivik’s spree killing a few months later did not spark a passionate debate about gun control, despite his shared use of semi-automatic weapons.

There, the story has been about Islamophobia – as Breivik intended it. This is a narrative, imposed by the killer himself, to try to give the event a concrete meaning, and distract us from looking at Breivik’s specific, unique, individual mental world. James Holmes too may try to impose his own justification for his actions.

For some reason we do not seek to “understand” serial killers – who commit their crimes in private over time. Yet like rampage killers, they too can be drawn to their actions by the thrill, or the notoriety, or power over others.

Evil is too easy a word. Nevertheless, if there is an explanation for acts of violence like those in Aurora or Columbine, they will be found not in culture, law, or politics, but in the terrifyingly inscrutable minds of those who choose to murder others indiscriminately.