It has been identified as the sentinel event. The book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School is an exposition and review of the events leading up to the Columbine Massacre as well as the aftermath of the event. I started reading the book not because of the latest school shooting but instead because it offered potential clues to explaining unexplainable behaviors. In the more than 20 years that have followed the event, much has been written and considered – perhaps among the tragedy, there might be some value.
No Easy Answers
In the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, some were calling for finding resolutions to the school shooting epidemic. Depending upon their particular political beliefs, the focus of the call to action was on mental health, gun control, or better school safety. What troubled me quite quickly was the look for an easy answer.
At Columbine, it would be easy to dismiss Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as deranged psychopaths, products of a hostile environment and poor upbringing. However, having been to the Denver, Colorado suburb of Littleton that surrounds Columbine, the environment is anything but hostile. By all accounts, both Eric and Dylan’s parents weren’t cruel or neglectful. In fact, their parents would easily be considered above par in terms of creating home environments and engaging with their children. Clearly, Eric and Dylan’s actions betray psychopathy – but how did this happen?
It’s not the case that they were just two “bad apples.” Instead, we’ve got to look more carefully at the environment, the situation, the signs, and the gaps that allowed them to slip through. As I explain in Fractal Along the Edges, things aren’t what they first appear.
Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, walks through the mechanisms that can cause two children born to the same parents and in the same environment to differ in the trajectories of their lives. To blame the parents ignores the external factors over which the parents have no control. To blame the parents either burdens them with having produced genetically damaged offspring – which isn’t truth – or to distort their home lives to fit a freakish version of the truth.
But if we absolve the parents of responsibility – which I’m not completely advocating – who is left? What in the environment might contribute to the awful tragedy?
The news is littered with the tragedy of students who take their own life because of the bullying that they receive – both physical and emotional. Often, the bullying that these lost souls experienced went unreported. Somewhere, they’d learned that they’d be blamed for the bullying. They’d be told they’re weak, and they needed to just “suck it up.” The authorities weren’t going to do anything about it anyway. They’d only make things worse. Whether these perceptions are true or only fears given inappropriate legitimacy, they exist in the minds of many of those who found themselves at the hands of bullies.
The same forces that drive some to give up and take their own life can drive the desire for revenge and rampage. (See The Suicidal Mind for more on the connection.) The forces that make someone feel weak and unprotected cause them to find their way towards strength and self-protection.
At the heart of bullying lies two concepts. First is that someone is better than another. That is, their position in the society grants them special privileges. The second is that “might makes right.”
The animal kingdom is practically built on social hierarchy. We find that some animals are perceived as leaders, and they are therefore granted special privileges. The interesting question is what leads us to the coveted top of the hierarchy and what are the rewards that come with this social status. In the animal kingdom, this is mostly strength and ability to fight. However, as humans, we’re not the strongest, nor do we have the fiercest set of natural attacks, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind. What we do have is the ability to work together and our intelligence. However, when you’re fighting your way to the top of the social hierarchy, how does this work?
In high schools like Columbine, the social hierarchy is driven in part by the kind of athletics you participate in. The better your position and performance in a respected sport, the better your reputation, both with the other students and with the staff. Football quarterbacks and starting centers get the highest spots in the hierarchy, where the captains of the chess and the debate team are less highly regarded.
This isn’t all bad, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains that stress can accompany not knowing your place in the social hierarchy. However, it also explains that when those on the top of the hierarchy aren’t happy, they tend to take out their frustrations on those who are lower in the hierarchy than they are.
Might Makes Right
Historically, at the micro-level, physical prowess provided a mechanism for extracting pleasure from the infliction of shame and pain on the unfortunate souls who happen to be within range of the wrath. The goal of this superficially is pleasure. However, if Jonathan Haidt is right, this goes against one of the most powerful foundations of our morality: care vs. harm. He explains in The Righteous Mind that there are six foundations of morality, including care/harm and authority/subversion, and we each value the foundations differently.
It’s challenging, because it’s necessary to practice Moral Disengagement in order to feel safe. The capricious nature of the harm caused to others is intended to instill sufficient fear that people don’t – or rarely – directly challenge you. It’s much easier to portray the illusion of strength when others are afraid to challenge you – constantly battling others can drain even the strongest.
I should be careful to say that I’m not condoning the behavior of attacking those lower on the social hierarchy – far from it. I am saying that this is the normal order of things in the animal kingdom and unfortunately in “polite society” – it’s just the approaches changed. In Reinventing Organizations, Fredrick LaLoux explains the evolution of organizations, from those only a half-step removed from physically beating people into submission to the more enlightened environments designed to encourage everyone.
Historically, history was written by the victors. They were in power and controlled the narrative around what happened. Thus, those who had the power shaped the way they were seen in the eyes of the populace. While the world has now changed, as movements like Arab Spring have shown, we still must accept that much in our history books is near fiction.
When we speak about burnout, we explain that it has three defining characteristics: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. (See Extinguish Burnout for free resources on burnout.) What’s important here is that cynicism is an outcome. It’s the outcome of feeling like you can no longer make a difference. It’s a sort of resignation that all you can do is complain.
Some people reach this conclusion through a feeling of powerlessness. They believe that they’re not strong enough to do anything. These are the same sorts of people that become the best in their fields. Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that people become motivated to get better, do the work, and focus on getting better. In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains his rise to the top of both the chess and martial arts worlds – including his psychological struggles. Being the best is hard. For some, giving up is never an answer; for too many others, it seems like the only option.
Direct competition isn’t the only way that people are confronted with reasons why they’re powerless. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how Generation X grew up with a growing awareness of how the world systems that we should trust were broken and corrupted. From the Oval Office to the board room, the system was rigged against us – and there was nothing we could do about it. It’s no wonder Generation X is one of the most cynical.
When you mix a deep sense that the system is rigged against you, constant bullying and belittling, a pressure from others to change the world, and the power that can be found in the form of guns and explosions, you’ve got the recipe for a massacre.
In the United States, we believe in the right to bear arms. We believe that we can enhance our power by wielding a gun. It’s the way that we see our heroes in movies overcome their enemies, and it’s an accepted part of our lives as well. Many of those who enter the debate hold a strong opinion about guns. Either they believe that the government is slowly out to erode or minimize these rights to have guns, or they believe that guns are the root of all evil and should be banned from existence.
The sparring goes back and forth between statistics that show more lax gun laws result in more gun-related deaths. The opposition counters that this is only true when suicide isn’t factored out. They recognize that suicide is the most common death due to guns, not murder. They also counter that many guns are obtained illegally – as those used in the Columbine massacre were. Albert Bandura shares his point of view in Moral Disengagement, where he comes down on the side of more gun control and less violence on TV.
Another of the easy targets for the cause of violence was the entertainment industry: movies, music, and monstrous games. Eric had been fascinated with the movie, Natural Born Killers, music by Insane Clown Posse, and created levels for the computer game, Doom. Surely one of the was to blame for the massacre. It’s a short distance from seeing violence and performing violence, right? Not exactly. Bandura is famous for his Bobo doll experiment, which proved that children could learn social norms by watching others.
However, the work of Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society explains that children should have developed the ability to discern fantasy from the real world well before Eric and Dylan were exposed to violence in the media. No Easy Answers explains how the Klebold family intentionally shielded their children from violence, including the uneasiness about the children purchasing the game Mortal Kombat. (For more about why Bandura’s perspective may not be right, check out The Blank Slate.)
The Reality of Television
While television was blamed as a part of the concern for the entertainment industry’s part, what was overlooked was the actual factual news that was being reported. It’s one thing to look at movies and television shows and see actors portraying violence. It’s another to realize that your president had oral sex in the Oval Office with an intern and got away with it. It’s more than the fantasy violence that contributes to the situation. It’s the real events that we see are allowing people to escape justice. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how there are milestones that shape each generation. Generation X was shaped by mistrust of people, politicians, and the power of corporations.
We didn’t have reality television to the extent that it’s prevalent today, but television was still a mirror of our culture. Where the television didn’t intrude was into the homes of those families where children were abused, and that, too, we discovered. We saw that people who should protect children weren’t – they were the villains in the story, not the heroes – and it confused everything.
When it comes to emotions, the illusion that we can ignore them is fading. We’re beginning to realize that we can’t bottle emotions up. We can’t turn them off. We’re as much emotional beings as we are rational beings – if not more. Jonathan Haidt explains in his Elephant-Rider-Path model that reason is a tiny human on top of a massive elephant. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made explains some of the hidden processes that we go through to form emotions – and the power they hold on us after they’re formed.
The challenge was that Eric and Dylan were bottling those emotions – painful emotions – up. As a result, they were emotional pressure vessels that were just waiting to explode. When Eric’s grip on the difference between fantasy and reality waned just a little, it was all that was necessary to ignite the explosion.
Doing the Right Thing
What’s the right answer? Certainly, not allowing others to be victimized and bullied is a good start. However, at the heart of the matter is a complex interaction between dozens of forces, only some of which are visible. This leads us back to the reality that there are No Easy Answers. We may never know the real “truth” about Columbine.