The Imitation of School Shooters

by Paul Gerhardt

“Easily embarrassed, tearful, and hard on himself if he made a mistake…A shy, likable young man whose hands-on parents put him to bed with stories and prayers and hugs.” This is how Sue Klebold describes her son, Dylan. 

On April 20, 1999, Dylan walked into Columbine High School with his friend Eric Harris, a double-barrel sawed-off shotgun, and a plan to murder everyone in the building. The plan failed, but before the day was done, Dylan and Eric had taken the lives of 13 innocent people, injured at least 20 others, and killed themselves.

This is not the behavior of a likable young man. This is the behavior of a monster. Likable young men who are tucked into bed with prayers and hugs grow up to be daddies and doctors and pastors. Not monsters. Monsters go on murderous rampages. Monsters are preceded by fear and leave suffering in their wake. 

How is a monster made? What leads a person to murder? Fans of Jordan Peterson will be familiar with the thesis that all of us are capable of this sort of monstrous behavior, that each of us has a shadow lurking beneath our apparently civilized exteriors. The person who commits mass murder has determined that Being is so painful, suffering so unbearable that it is no longer worth participating in. The only thing left to do is to show the world just how meaningless one believes life is. But how could life become so meaningless?

One day, in their junior year at Columbine, Dylan and Eric came home from school with ketchup stains on their shirts. They had been roughed up by a group of peers who had squirted ketchup packets at them, shoving them into lockers and jeering at them with names like “faggot.” Regarding the incident, Sue Klebold says her son Dylan wrote about it, but never talked about it. He wrote about other things, too. His journal reveals that he was a fan of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” It reveals a list of people he loved, but who would “never love him back.” Two years before the shootings, he wrote, “I hate my life. I want to die…No girls, nobody accepting me, even though I want to be accepted…I am in agony.”

Dylan was suffering. But does suffering a nihilistic monster make?

If anyone knows suffering, it’s Anne Marie Hochhalter. A classmate of Dylan and Eric, Anne Marie is one of the “fortunate ones”—she survived the Columbine shooting. But one of the bullets from Eric’s gun transected her spinal cord. She is now resigned to a wheelchair, taking a range of pain medications for the “regular” pain she experiences constantly, and the bouts of “crippling” nerve pain that overcome her every 20 minutes or so. The waves of “crippling” pain cause Hochhalter to double over and cringe until they pass. As a result, sleeping is difficult, but there are medications to help with that, too. Then there are pills for the depression. Hochhalter believes there is a strong link between her genes and her struggle with melancholy. Six months after Columbine, Hochhalter’s mother Carla was released from the hospital after a round of treatment for own severe depression. Several days after that, in October 1999, Carla took her own life with a .38 caliber revolver. 

Anne Marie knows suffering. 

But while Dylan’s suffering led to a desire to die, Anne Marie’s has fostered a steely determination to pursue life.

In last month’s interview with Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert opens up about the way he’s dealt with the loss of his father and brothers since their untimely deaths in a plane crash. Colbert was ten years old at the time. On grief, Colbert points out that “It’s about your being grateful for suffering so that you can identify with other people. God does it, too. So that you’re really not alone.”

Colbert’s right, we’re not alone in our suffering. Jesus himself, God incarnate, even wondered about his own suffering, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No one escapes this life free of suffering. Not even God is exempt. In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis says that there should be no higher desire for a person than to be despised. Because it’s when we’re despised that we can most clearly identify with the crucified Christ. In our suffering, we share a bond which ties all of us together as humans. In fact, we share a bond that ties us to the one human who was also God. In this way, to suffer is to be sanctified.

Still, does that make our own suffering easier to cope with? If Dylan were still around, we might tell him that it’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to have Being, and along with Being comes suffering. In that way, it’s a gift to have suffering. 

“So what?” he might say. That doesn’t make the pain go away. Social rejection still hurts. For that matter, unrequited love and spousal betrayal still hurt. Losing a child still hurts. 

So what do we do? What’s the answer when theological truisms aren’t enough? I have no solutions. I’ve had a pretty easy life so far, but I anticipate more storms as I grow older. Even then, I expect to have no solutions. Just a prayer:

In suff’ring be Thy love my peace,

In weakness be Thy love my pow’r.

And when the storms of life shall cease

Oh Jesus in that final hour

Be Thou my Rod and Staff and Guide,

And draw me safely to Thy side.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.

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6 thoughts on “The Imitation of School Shooters

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  1. Greetings Paul

    Thanks for this article. While I agree with the essence of what you have said, there is one thing that I feel needs to be added to the consideration of Dylan’s response versus that of Anne Marie. I cannot help but wonder whether there was a marked difference between the love and support they each received in their suffering.

    From what I understand, Dylan didn’t receive much love and support as he experienced the initial bullying and then struggled to deal with the rejection he experienced. It seems to me, from what you wrote, that he walked a very lonely path in his suffering.

    In contrast, while you do not address it, I wonder if Anne Marie experienced something very different. I suspect that she was surrounded by love and support that were and are critical to her ability to deal with her suffering.

    If this be the case, then perhaps we need to realise that the challenge for every one of us is to reach out to those who are suffering and give to them unconditional love and support. Maybe – just maybe – if Dylan had experienced that, he would never have become the person that he did.

    Thanks
    Charles

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    1. Thanks for reading, Charles.

      I suspect that may be true. And I certainly can’t argue with the injunction to be more intentional about offering love and support to those in need of it.

      There are a couple of things in particular that I find fascinating about Dylan’s case. The first one is his relationship with Eric Harris. Some sources have described the two as “inseparable.” The available evidence suggests that Dylan was highly introverted and sensitive. Eric, on the other hand, appears to have been rather outgoing and sociable. Those who have interviewed people who knew Eric, and who have studied the writings that he left behind have suggested that he had a “controlling” personality, and was probably a genuine psychopath. If Dylan had befriended someone who could have pointed him toward the Good, True, and Beautiful instead of hatred and nihilism, history may have played out differently.

      The other thing is Dylan’s relationship with his mother, who has been rather outspoken in recent years about the way she processed Columbine, and how it’s affected her and her family. She’s quite unusual in this way–I don’t know of a close family member of any other well-known mass murderer who’s been willing to speak publicly and candidly about how the “incident” has affected them. Her relationship with Dylan was undoubtedly a complicated situation, but she seems genuinely to have been what most reasonable people would consider a “good/involved parent.” She recounts what she now sees in hindsight as “warning signs” in Dylan’s behavior, but also notes that he was very good at hiding his darker thoughts and feelings from her. Needless to say, she herself still doesn’t “understand” how a boy like Dylan could reach the incredibly dark places he did, but she’s made it something of a life mission to help those struggling with mental illness.

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  2. Good article Paul. At 56 I found the hardest sufferings come from spouses, children and family. When they are hurting, gone or mistreating you, but also in them is our support, strength and love; a convoluted mix.
    Essentially why it’s so important to know that Jesus /God is our coverall in love, strength, peace and understanding. When the yolk is too heavy, give it to Him, not just talk about it but to do it and trust Him. Herein is my hope and peace. God bless you dear Paul. Leanne

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  3. This was great Paul! I suffered a lot growing up from being bullied, I fully understand the loneliness. As one commenter stated, maybe he did not have the love and support while he was going through his pain. I certainly did not, and know that it would have made a difference. It is one thing to suffer, but it is another thing to suffer alone. When my uncle came out of his surgery, I would go and just sit with him. He told me it made a world of difference that I would just sit there and be with him and not even say anything.

    Also, a lot of people do not live in the world view of suffering through a religious perspective, but what research does show is that when people grow up in large families, or large communities, they live longer and depression is not really found. There is really something to being in community. Someone pointed out to me that after Jesus would heal those who were banished to the outside of the community, in one story he tells them, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ Indicating that they can go back to their community. Jesus knew and know the world knows to….strong communities and love is everything, and maybe our strongest tool against things like this.

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