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April 21, 2004

Columbine: Return of the NBK

Slate's "cover-story" today, The Depressive and the Psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it brings back one of the oft-neglected, and important, characters in the HB-D pantheon: the Psychopath. Writer David Cullen states that the FBI has come to a conclusion about the reason why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates five years ago to this day (+1), and it boils down to a chance combination of two special personality types (if you couldn't tell by the title).

First in a brief table[1], Cullen lists many of the misconceptions surrounding Columbine and folk wisdom of the killer's motivations. This includes many of the ideas about the kids being "outcasts". In fact they were really very normal and no less popular than the average teen. This is in high distinction to the 'goths vs. jocks' mythology of revenge that still follows this story. Which misleads, not only in the motives of the killers (which was about a masturbatory body-count, not geek revenge or damaged egos), but in how it reinforces biased outlooks on these high-school archetypes.[2]

Next Cullen addresses the FBI conclusion that the Columbine shootings can mainly be attributed to the unique mental condition of Eric Harris. Most of the diagnosis of Harris was made possible through the intimate and disturbing writings in his journal (partially online via alternative news-weekly Westword):

Harris' pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare's Psychopathy Checklist [Here - JM] and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath.

It begins to explain Harris' unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they're actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they're facing one. It's like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)

None of his victims means anything to the psychopath. He recognizes other people only as means to obtain what he desires. Not only does he feel no guilt for destroying their lives, he doesn't grasp what they feel The truly hard-core psychopath doesn't quite comprehend emotions like love or hate or fear, because he has never experienced them directly.
"Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling," Hare writes. "For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner."

The diagnosis transformed their understanding of the partnership. Despite earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners, the psychiatrists now believe firmly that Harris was the mastermind and driving force.

The Hare quoted is Robert Hare, the leading authority on psychopathy. Formerly on GNXP, Godless linked to an interesting article about how psychopaths, or "natural born killers", are the most valuable soldiers in the military. It corroborates the Slate piece in at least one important way, the role of Dylon Klebold. The author, who totes the war-time efficacy of the NBK, reassures his military audience that 'atrocity' is not necessarily one of the most likely draw-backs of this personality type:

However, there are drawbacks to natural killers in a unit too. Their highly aggressive nature may act as a catalyst for violence in tenuous situations such as peacekeeping (PK) operations. This is not to say that they will create atrocities, which are generally initiated by overcontrolled personality types in second-in-command positions, not by undercontrolled personality types.

Atrocities are the result of the release of pent-up hostilities-not a characteristic of sociopaths who live for the moment. Natural killers may participate in atrocities but they will not initiate them. This same "live-for-the-moment" attitude makes the peacetime routine difficult for killers. The sociopath craves stimulation that the peacetime Army often does not provide.

Compare this description of how these two different types of personality combine to create atrocity with Cullen's role for the rage of depressive Klebold:

The partnership did enable Harris to stray from typical psychopathic behavior in one way. He restrained himself. Usually psychopathic killers crave the stimulation of violence. That is why they are often serial killers-murdering regularly to feed their addiction. But Harris managed to stay (mostly) out of trouble for the year that he and Klebold planned the attack. Ochberg theorizes that the two killers complemented each other. Cool, calculating Harris calmed down Klebold when he got hot-tempered. At the same time, Klebold's fits of rage served as the stimulation Harris needed.

Perhaps there is a contradiction in who plays who in the over/under-controlled dynamic but it reflects a similar theme of spark and fan. The article makes clear though that Harris was the much more unique and crucial personality type:

The psychiatrists can't help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.

Their view of Harris is more reassuring, in a certain way. Harris was not a wayward boy who could have been rescued. Harris, they believe, was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginable. If he had lived to adulthood and developed his murderous skills for many more years, there is no telling what he could have done. His death at Columbine may have stopped him from doing something even worse.

One might ask what creates such an "irretrievable" and aberrant "alternate brain mechanism" such as Eric Harris'. Ian Pitchford writes:

Psychopathy is not associated with low birth weight, obstetric complications, poor parenting, poverty, early psychological trauma or adverse experiences, and indeed Robert Hare remarks [In his definitive book on Psychopathy Without Conscience - JM] ‘I can find no convincing evidence that psychopathy is the direct result of early social or environmental factors’ (Hare, 1993, p. 170).

I should note that despite the conclusive language of the article, it still doesn't really explain what it purports to. For instance psychopaths are about 1% of the population (or 3 million people!), and the article admits that most psychopaths aren't killers. So we have the necessary raw psychological materials, and a plausible interaction effect and that's good but . . .

I find it notable that the only two countries I'm aware of where school shootings have happened are America and Germany, and the only three countries I remember hearing about serial killers are America, the United Kingdom, and Germany. What is it about these partially overlapping cultural spheres that brings thrill-killing to a sub-set of a sub-set of personality type? Are the variables too numerous, ill-defined, chaotic and complex to meaningfully contemplate human behavior this specific with a lens this tight?

Update: Hmm, just glanced through some of the journal entries at Westword. I guess Harris called himself NBK. The title was not a reference to that, but to this return to the subject of the psychopath on gnxp since godless' post "Natural Born Killers". Jim in the comments notes that serial killers have been documented in European countries besides those I noted, though I found that 85% have been from America. Does anyone have any good links for cross-cultural comparisons?


[1] This table is an abbreviated version of an article Cullen wrote on Salon in 1999. So the information is not new.

[2] It was interesting in the aftermath seeing how those liberals and conservatives who habitually scapegoat eachother, projected each-other (not just each-other's policies, but each-other) into these archetypes; with Columbine as an allegory of the damage the other party is doing to America. Liberals saw intolerant, elitist social hierarchies (read: homogeneity) creating troubling and unstable climates. No doubt many remembering the wedgies they received back in their formative years. Basically the same story they see in inner-city crime - economic and social outsiders lashing back. Conservatives saw in the killers the pagans and non-conformists (read: heterogeneity) who lack the moral foundations of tradition and authority, making up their own rules on the fringes - in other words the future liberals!

Posted by Jason Malloy at 09:19 PM