The day after the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, I stopped wearing my trench coat. It was a drab-green wool thing that I’d bought at an Army-Navy surplus store, and lived in during my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I distinctly remember the afternoon when it became obvious I’d never wear it again: hearing the news, the preliminary hysteria; seeing the grainy security camera stills of boys in black outfits dealing death.
The following weeks were a haze of confusion. Not just because I sensed the gaze of suspicion at school, or that I felt the sudden imperative to “dress normal.” More than anything it was the fact the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had looked so much like me. We played the same videogames, blasted the same KMFDM CDs through blown-out car speakers. Amidst the 911 emergency calls, the overhead shots captured by news helicopters, the spent shell casings and sheet-draped corpses, was a sentiment I immediately recognized— if it moves, kill it. If it doesn’t, burn it. The Columbine killers’ pre-death rants might just as well have been lifted from the inside of my own head.
Nearly two decades later, schools remain permanently in the shadow of such shootings. These semi-regular spasms of violence to which we have collectively resigned ourselves are now a known quantity, an abhorrent topographic feature of modern life. They are, in the way of most persistent tragedies, old news. After decades of such incidents, our response has become reflexive. They happen, hopefully never to our loved ones, and afterward we move on with nothing solved.
Although violence perpetrated by disgruntled adults upon schools has been recorded as early as the 1800s, the armed and systematic murder of students by a young person only appeared as late as the last half-century. Of the several hundred mass shootings in the past fifty years, perhaps a third have qualified as student rampages—episodes when a student attempts to indiscriminately slay the maximum number of peers and teachers. Historical data on their emergence is fuzzy, and even today the definition of “school shooting” varies depending on its source. While the rate of mass shootings has plotted a straight upward line over the past three decades, the frequency of the school variety has ebbed and spiked without any reliable pattern: the early eighties were bad, the mid-nineties were worse, the period from 2006-7 was especially rife. As a cause of death, they are in the statistical realm of shark attacks: both extremely rare and extremely unpredictable.
But if school shootings have resisted easy classification, their cultural ubiquity was fomented in the 1990s. The years between 1995 and 2000 saw some fourteen separate attacks, up from a scant three in the previous half-decade. Following Columbine, the country’s largest newspapers printed an estimated ten thousand articles about the phenomenon. Suddenly school shootings were no longer a discrete crime, but an idea —a repeat occurrence with measurable dimensions that could be mourned, studied, or imitated, depending on to whom they spoke.
The years between 1995 and 2000 were also those during which I attended a small east coast public high school in the suburbs of Long Island. It occupied a squat and unremarkable building complex in a town populated by some eight thousand people: upper-middle class Italian and Irish families, a large Jewish community, and a scattering of academics from the nearby university. I had entered the district in kindergarten and progressed through the gifted-track programs of fifth and sixth grades. But by the time I reached my sophomore year, things had taken a bad turn.
Despite strong standardized test scores, I was flunking most of my classes. Puberty and middle school had battered my introvert’s sensitivities, and the sudden shock of ninth grade in a new building had all but guaranteed my derailment. My sneakers and T-shirt became a pair of Doc Martens and a Discman spinning the howls and thumps of Nine Inch Nails. I retreated to the safety of America Online chat rooms, with pornographic photos and instructions on how to make napalm from household chemicals littering my computer. My parents tried as they could to draw me out: My father rented action movies for us on Friday nights; my mother cooked weekday breakfast and asked about the day ahead. But I refused to be lulled into a sense of security by something so obvious as parental kindness.
To cut class, I snuck in the side entrance to the school auditorium, where I read Clive Barker paperbacks and dozed. I did this partially because I found my classes boring, but also because I often lay awake until four in the morning, sometimes five, sometimes giving up on sleep altogether. I imagined that spiders might crawl into my ears and lay eggs if I wasn’t vigilant, and I’d taken to wearing headphones in bed. My skin itched, an irritation I suspected was psychosomatic. At night I scratched at my face, my neck, and the sides of my legs. At some point this compulsion blossomed into the daylight hours. I was picking at blackheads in the bathroom mirror and discovered an emery board in the medicine cabinet. With its flat surface, I sanded the blemishes around my nose and along my cheekbones until I bled. I bit on the corner of a washcloth for the pain, and used a cotton-swab soaked in rubbing alcohol to clean up.
Small towns can be notoriously intolerant of difference, and so the social problems I’d had since childhood stuck to me. I’d been plagued by phobias since at least the age of five, unable to go to bed, unable to pass my living room couch unaccompanied for fear that it would be on fire. My parents put me through six years of therapy, twice-weekly appointments with a man in a toy-filled office. I screamed and clung to the car door when it was time for session. By fifteen, I’d taken to drawing pentagrams on the covers of my notebooks, and had replaced my bedding with a sleeping bag, locking my bedroom door whenever possible. Kids with whom I’d played pee-wee soccer ignored me. The remainder of my elementary school friends quietly closed their seating arrangements. My mother tried persuading me to join a club, to volunteer at the local library. Instead I wandered the woods behind our house, mauling the low-hanging branches with a stick.
At school, I’d loosely divided the grounds into areas of safety and danger. Gym class was not safe, the locker room especially—once I forgot my padlock and found that someone had stuffed my jeans in the toilet and urinated on them—nor was the cafeteria, where loose food items were a constant threat. I ate lunch with a group of students in the classroom of a popular chemistry teacher who kept a ferret and several iguanas. This provided temporary shelter, until he showed us a Faces of Death VHS in which a man burned alive trying to climb out of a car wreck. I left the room to jeers that I’d pussied out, and took myself to the office of a music teacher where the band kids congregated. Amidst the din of lunchtime conversation, I whispered that I wished I had a grenade—I wished I could just blow some people up.
And so this was high school: interminable stretches of tedium punctured by moments of deep and abiding shame. Sometimes I’d go a day without incident, sometimes I’d find an unknown substance smeared on the handle of my locker. I bit my fingernails to the quick, past the quick, chewed off my cuticles. I covered myself in deodorant between classes to mask the stress smell coming off my body. I avoided passing beneath the second-floor landing where I could get spat on. When I heard laughter across a hall or around a corner, I was sure it came at my expense.
No one knows what causes a killer to emerge from among a group of students. Scholarly literature offers theories: Psychologists see diagnoses, sociologists see cultural mores, and law-enforcement professionals see factors and correlations. All the experts acknowledge that there is no reliable way to profile a shooter—they need not be from a particular economic class or location, their grievances or dysfunctions need not be the same. They are not necessarily the bullied or the ostracized. Shootings are not limited to areas with high per-capita gun ownership, nor are the shooters exclusively male; in 1979, a sixteen-year-old girl named Brenda Spencer opened fire on a San Diego elementary school .
Katherine Newman, a sociologist and author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings , offers the closest thing to a summary of a shooter’s developmental process. She describes a boy with worsening indicators of mental illness and social marginalization who finds himself casting about for a way to relieve the indignities of his early teenage life. He acts out, he clowns around, he quietly breaks down. His parents fail to observe his struggles, as do his teachers; his peers dismiss any suspicious plotting or threatening boasts as a pathetic ploy for attention. He believes his options for redress are dwindling, with violence his last remaining means to escape a social structure that he feels has marked him for perpetual persecution. Then he obtains a gun.
But Newman is careful to point out that the presence of all requisite factors does not guarantee a shooter. Plenty of teenagers are angry, with plenty more depressed or mentally disturbed. In school shooting cases, there is an additional force at work.
In Columbine , Dave Cullen’s definitive account of the Littleton massacre, Cullen goes to great lengths to affirm this point. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not the bullied nerds of media lore. Nor was Harris, the primary architect of the attack and a likely clinical psychopath, especially interested in the school itself. Writings in his journal suggested fantasies of destroying large portions of downtown Denver. He wanted to set record death counts, to crash planes, to “get rid of all the fat, retarded, crippled, stupid, dumb, ignorant, worthless people.” Cullen explains that, “[Eric] was less concerned with killing hundreds than about tormenting for years. His audience was the target.” Eric’s fury knew no particular bounds; attacking his school was simply the closest he could get to killing humanity in its entirety—a humanity that, through whatever hidden reasoning, had irredeemably wronged him. The morning of April 20 1999, Eric wore a shirt displaying the words Natural Selection .
Until the 1990s, Newman explains, the recourse available to ostracized or psychologically at-risk teenagers was limited. They could seek adult assistance at the risk of being labeled a snitch or a wuss. They could change their hair or their fashion in an attempt to adjust their position in the social hierarchy. Or they could simply suffer until they graduated. But the advent of school shootings provided a compelling, albeit terrible, alternative. By lashing out as broadly and brutally as possible, a teenager could correct years of despair in an instant—immediately obtaining the power and status and respect that had for so long eluded him.
It is this calculus that appears at the heart of nearly every shooting of the past three decades, shrouded by the particulars but nonetheless present. As Luke Woodham , who in Pearl, Mississippi in 1997, stabbed his mother to death with a kitchen knife and then opened fire in a crowded school courtyard, subsequently stated: “It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if I can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet.”
I attempted a variety of strategies to lessen the excruciating dread I awoke to each morning. I tried to convince my mother I had a persistent viral infection resulting in fatigue and weakness. I produced a hacking cough. This was good for a handful of sick-days until my mother took me to a doctor who pronounced all my blood-indicators normal. The frustration was plain on her face: You don’t have to like school , she pleaded in the car ride home, but you do have to go . And what good would it do me to explain why I couldn’t? Her pity would only compound my humiliation.
I stopped turning in my homework worksheets, my five-page compare-and-contrast papers, my geometry proofs. I put my head down on the desk and napped. My teachers did their best to intercede—extending extra-help sessions after class or passes to the nurse’s office—but there is only so much one can do in the face of determined intransigence. Eventually they were forced to assign automatic points off for lateness which, though my own fault, only made me despise them more.
I slept less and less, scouring the late-nineties internet for true-crime accounts: How many bodies John Wayne Gacy stuffed in his crawlspace, and whether Ed Gein really made keepsakes from his victims’ skins. At some point I stumbled upon a bootleg forensics photography message board run by British medical students. The picture I chose was of a man in a doublewide without a shirt, who had shot himself in such a way that everything above his left ear was blown outward like a burst balloon.
Somewhere in our house was a shotgun, or so I thought. Sometimes I had trouble distinguishing things I heard from things I’d dreamt, though I was pretty sure my father had mentioned owning one. It was likely hidden under lock-and-key, or with its ammunition in a safe. But how many hiding places are really in a house? The shelves beneath the basement stairs, the unfinished section of the attic? A teenager’s time is infinite, and by this measure I felt confident I could find it. Not for any particular reason except that then I would know where it was, and in this knowing resided a kind of dignity, a kernel of belief that I was accommodating the lesser of evils. I didn’t mount a formal search, because to do so would be to admit that I was doing so. Instead I looked and I casually lingered, taking note of wherever it wasn't.
According to Peter Langman, a psychiatrist who evaluates at-risk teenagers and author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters , shooters—regardless of typology—each go through a radicalization process. Kids do not spontaneously generate the wherewithal to conduct a rampage attack, but incrementally transition from imagination to preparation. For example, Michael Carneal who, in West Paducah, Kentucky in 1997, opened fire on a morning prayer circle, had attempted suicide by snorting Tylenol after a school newspaper gossip column suggested he was gay. Following that, he submitted a creative writing assignment depicting the crucifixion and torture of “preps,” including several of his classmates by name. Just prior to his shooting, he bragged to several older students that he planned to bring a gun to school. Failing to believe this, they egged him on.
In nearly every case, signs of a transformational process are evident. In the months before Adam Lanza’s Sandy Hook attack, he obsessively researched previous mass shootings and participated in online gun-enthusiast forums, discussing specific models and rates of fire. Eric Harris, prior to Columbine, played the video game Doom with a certain purpose: Writings in his journal implied that he used the virtual bloodshed as practice for a real-life version. Once he and Klebold had obtained weapons, they shot at trees, fine-tuning their aim and marveling at the “wounds” inflicted. Cullen refers to this incident as the moment when the abstraction of their plan was finally rendered concrete.
But while the path to radicalization is similar from case to case, not everyone who begins the process completes it. Many shootings are uncovered and stopped in time. In 2001, for example, New Bedford High School in Massachusetts spawned an imitation Trench Coat Mafia whose attack was foiled when one member was stricken by guilt and came forward to confess. In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, several copycats were identified by law enforcement and stopped in advance. A plot on Connetquot High School was uncovered when someone found a misplaced notebook in the parking lot of a local McDonalds, detailing targets and death counts.
Beyond those cases of just-in-time prevention, there are far more where a potential shooter simply does not have the constitutional inclination to go all the way. Peter Langman, who additionally evaluates and counsels at-risk teens, indicates that of the many patients he sees, only a small percentage present an actionable threat. Certainly they are at-risk, but Langman believes that the transitional steps between student and shooter are both rare and specific. Have they made a hit list or sought access to weaponry? Have they told other students or attempted to recruit accomplices? Does their level of mental illness suggest an imminent act? Despite psychological problems, despite trauma and anger, the bulk of his patients fail to present the immediate precursors of violence.
Seen in a slightly different light, a school shooting is not just a story of inevitability, but also of the vast and invisible domain of de-escalation from which it escapes. It’s strange to consider school shootings as such, and yet there are so many angry boys who determine, for one reason or another, not to move ahead. There are many candidates who might qualify if only the time and place were a little different, if their circumstances were slightly changed, had a better alternative not appeared.
A week prior to sophomore final exams I caught a case of the flu and spiked a temperature of 104. After some negotiation by my mother, I received permission to test in July with the summer school kids. For several days, all I did was sleep—no headphones, no itching, just the pure torpor of physical debilitation. A month later, my father drove me to a nearby building where I sat with the district’s summer school attendees scribbling in our test booklets: the moonfaced screw-ups and the grade-repeaters, the alleyway smokers bound for nowhere. Afterward, in the car home, my father demanded to know what I wanted. Did I really want to go to community college? To live at home until I was twenty? To crap my life away? I refused to answer until we were parked in our driveway and his temper had subsided. I considered not answering since I had developed such a talent for silence, but truthfully I didn’t want those things. Eventually I told him: no.
That summer my parents arranged a college tour, carting me around the towns of western Massachusetts and northern Pennsylvania for visits to the Five Colleges, the Tri-College Consortium, all the manicured campuses. At first I made no secret of my unhappiness. I had neither the grades nor the wherewithal to secure a scholarship. And then something strange happened. In the Antioch cafeteria I watched a boy in a cape and long hair like mine bound over to sit with his friends. Even I knew better than to wear a cape at the cafeteria. But rather than a jeer or a shove, the boy was welcomed. A spot had been saved for him. And then on the bright and angular Amherst quad, the female tour-guide asked me where I was from and touched me lightly on the shoulder, making me flinch. I waited for the psych-out, the insult or nasty little dig, but none came. For the five-hour drive back to Long Island, I marveled at the dorm-room doors with their unabashed display of political stickers, the older boys chatting openly in the halls about books and ideas without fear of reprisal.
At the start of the new school year, I hazarded an entry into extracurriculars, largely as a way of ducking my parents’ threat of canceling our internet service. Science Olympiads seemed as good a place as any, a refuge for nerds and misfits. I was by no means a standout competitor, but I found something comforting about the way it consumed my time. On this logic I also enrolled in whatever advanced-placement classes I could get on my remaining credit as a smart kid. They were uniformly loathsome in their regimen of study-guides and testing, but they were at least absent the threat of bullying. At the cost of a miserable work schedule, they provided a more reliable hiding place than the empty auditorium. Nor was it lost on me that the school guidance counselor had taken note. When mandatory college-planning meetings rolled around, she did not automatically shunt me towards community college. She asked me where I wanted to go. I told her: somewhere I’d be normal.
I still got spat at from the second-floor landing, still awoke to a wash of desperation, but I also submitted myself to weekly SAT tutoring. I did not object when my parents brought home a stack of college admissions guidebooks. And so too had I made several friends from a nearby community theater. I went on my first date with a short bombastic girl who was nearly as angry as me. I passed my driver’s test, which, along with a new variety of parental nag, provided a sense that I could flee the state if necessary. And at some point I realized—I wasn’t just doing these things by default, I was deciding upon them.
Then a month or two into my senior year, a college acceptance letter arrived. I ran up and down the stairs of our house, yelling wordlessly. I was free—a concept I had for so long not attempted to imagine. But from here the rest would be easy: I’d graduate, I’d pack my life into duffel bags, then I’d leave my parents, my high school, my stupid hometown, and never come back. Which, in a way, turned out to be true. The person who left that spring, at some point, mercifully and silently disappeared.
Those shooters captured alive are almost all eventually stricken with remorse. When Michael Carneal, serving a life sentence in the Northern Kentucky Youth Correctional Facility, heard news of the Columbine massacre, he attempted to slit his wrists and, a month later, drank from a bottle of cleaning fluid. He felt that Klebold and Harris had followed the example he’d personally set. Brenda Johnson, whose 1979 San Diego shooting is one of the earliest on record, articulated a similar sentiment in a 2001 parole hearing. “What if,” she asked, “they got the idea from what I did?”
Whether or not the Columbine shooters literally borrowed from Carneal or Spencer, there is a particular truth to the fear that they might have. Because in one sense school shootings are a discrete crime, and in another sense they are all variations on the same act. They are now and forever a possibility, lying in wait for the right circumstances to align. As they force their way into the national consciousness at the rate of a few a year, they simultaneously advertise their replicability, their promise of success to future acolytes—perhaps a young misogynist in Isla Vista or an Oregon community college student, or whatever the latest incarnation may look like. Each shooting borrows uncannily from those previous: Neither Klebold nor Harris were the first to wear trench coats (that distinction, according to Katherine Newman, belongs to Barry Loukaitis of Moses Lake, Washington), nor were they the last to write elaborate manifestos. Seung Hui Cho , who killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech University, left a rambling screed that mirrored many of the themes found in Harris’s journal.
Despite the fact that many such shootings could be prevented with even the barest semblance of gun control, there is no commensurate way to eliminate their appeal. Which is what makes school shootings so uniquely distressing. Not just that they happen or that they are avoidable, but that they can come from anywhere. The random teenager twisted beyond recognition by circumstance and illness and pain could have, in a gestational sense, been anyone. Today he is in another state, of a different age, with a different face and a different defect, driven somehow to complete the journey. Tomorrow, who is to say? And perhaps for this reason, we as observers are inclined to focus on the shooter’s motives. We demand a fresh explanation for every massacre, a novel examination of the cause, the exact method of conversion that has turned a child into a murderer. We insist that by detailed dissection, we will identify the madness plaguing the individual. For every shooter led away in handcuffs or zipped in a bag, we ask, How did he alone become so deviant?
But in so doing, we ignore the more remarkable fact that school shootings simply do not happen more often. We obsess over the forces that drive a child to kill while overlooking the incredible number of unseen aspirants who decline the call to death and destruction. Because there must be thousands of them, of us, across the country: Seething with injustice and blind anger, reaching for help that isn’t there, acceptance that never comes, and yet somehow finding reprieve amidst the spiraling misery of teenage life. There are those who have been abused and those who have been neglected, loners and bullies and victims alike, who make what is perhaps the harder decision. They set a foot or two down that particular path and, having glimpsed the future, elect to step off. Given the opportunity to free themselves through bloodshed, they instead turn back. They see what is possible, and still they choose another way out.