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Harris and Klebold

The article I’m reading in Slate is from 2004, and it’s about what the FBI ended up concluding about why Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot up Columbine High School. It wasn’t because they were bullied; they weren’t. Klebold was depressed and suicidal, and Harris was a psychopath.

It’s not just that his private journal bristled with hatred. It was more than that.

It rages on for page after page and is repeated in his journal and in the videos he and Klebold made. But Fuselier recognized a far more revealing emotion bursting through, both fueling and overshadowing the hate. What the boy was really expressing was contempt.

He is disgusted with the morons around him. These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he’s not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority. It may look like hate, but “It’s more about demeaning other people,” says Hare.

And those are the people who are truly frightening.

He lied a lot, often for fun. He had zero empathy.

Harris’ pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist 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.

That’s interesting. So non-psychopaths are less predictable, because we keep being confused and pushed off course by empathy or scruples? In-ter-esting.

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.”

I’m interested in psychopathy.

Addendum: As people on Twitter reminded me, the article is by Dave Cullen who wrote a very good book on Columbine. Called Columbine.

Comments

  1. Brian E says

    As I understand it, a psycho views us as a builder views construction materials that someone else paid for. Whatever gets the job done. Break a brick here, wreck a joist there, meh. Plenty more, where that came from, worthless because it’s cheap or replaceable and not coming out of his/her pocket. All a means to an end.

  2. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    And yet a group of people wonder why we recoil in horror when one of the leaders of that group ‘jokes’ about making a suit out of the skin of one of our friends, and why we want to distance ourselves from them for endorsing such behaviour.

  3. Emily Wishessurnameswereneverinventedinthefirstplace says

    I agree, it’s absolutely fascinating. It evokes that feeling that Freud called “the uncanny”. It’s like there is a non-human inhabiting a human body, like a possessed doll or puppet.

  4. Omar Puhleez says

    This is one area where in my opinion, Catholicism has something meaningful to say. Each of us is a mixture of good and evil: a good side and an evil side. In a good person, the good side rules the evil side, and keeps it under control. In an evil person, the opposite applies.

    Evil is closely associated historically with a desire on the part of one individual to take control of others, to dominate and rule them; to make them an extension of themselves. A gun gives such a person enormous power over others. Such people must be resisted, frustrated, and kept out of power.

    Not always easy, since they crave it so strongly.

  5. says

    And yet a group of people wonder why we recoil in horror when one of the leaders of that group ‘jokes’ about making a suit out of the skin of one of our friends,

    Or – in my case – anyone, really: human or not, friend or not. No making a suit out of anyone’s skin – that’s my policy.

  6. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    SC wrote:

    Or – in my case – anyone, really: human or not, friend or not. No making a suit out of anyone’s skin – that’s my policy.

    Good point. I should have clarified; it was more about it being a threat targeting a named (not pseudonymous) member of a community for the purposes of silencing than it was specifically because it Stephanie is our friend.

  7. dmcclean says

    Respectfully, I think there is a subtle language trap here that it might be better to avoid.

    You wrote mentioning “… a very good book on Columbine.”

    I understand the metonym, but I think if I were living in Columbine I might eventually become upset with it. I may be off base on this, because I haven’t read the book, but from the Amazon summary it certainly seems that the book might better be described as being about “the Columbine shootings”, or “the Columbine tragedy”, or something to that effect, rather than as being about Columbine in itself.

  8. throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble says

    How does suicide fit into the messianic-grade superiority complex angle? Was it his final selfish act that he robbed any sense of justice from those whose lives he tore apart?

  9. latsot says

    How does suicide fit into the messianic-grade superiority complex angle?

    Isn’t martyrdom a more-or-less necessary part of being a messiah?

  10. jaggington says

    Omar @ 4

    This is one area where in my opinion, Catholicism has something meaningful to say. Each of us is a mixture of good and evil: a good side and an evil side. …

    Firstly, I don’t think Catholicism is unique in this observation; nor do I think this is relevant or helpful because it subverts a serious issue about people’s behaviour with bonkers superstitious nonsense. Catholics do, after all, believe in demonic possession and the effectiveness of exorcisms. Would an exorcism have stopped Harris?

    People are a jumble of impulses and motivations; learning to control them out of consideration of and respect for other people is part of life’s journey. Good people do bad things, bad people do good things, “evil” people rarely consider themselves or their actions to be evil. The more we can discuss, articulate and establish what is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, the more opportunities there are for people to learn how to control their unacceptable impulses.

  11. Omar Puhleez says

    jaggington:

    I don’t think I said that Catholicism had this idea to itself, though I first learned it from Catholics. The ‘superstitious nonsense’ overlay is not obligatory. All religions are based on untestable propositions involving the supernatural (take ‘em or leave ‘em) and also ideas, practices and perceptions that many find worth retaining. Some more than others.

  12. medivh says

    I think it’s important to note here that psychopaths aren’t bound to a life of pure self-aggrandisement and uncaring use of people. There are psychopaths who have been convinced that acting in a way that builds society is useful to themselves; these people create a conscience for themselves by conscious thought. Consequences have to be thought through with deliberation, either slowing down the psychopath or making it hard for them to act in a conscientious way every time. Curiously, then, a psychopath can be more moral than average, even if not many take that path.

  13. jaggington says

    Omar

    … ideas, practices and perceptions that many find worth retaining.

    The point I was trying to make is that many religions and superstitions have co-opted ideas and practices that are useful to society. For example, the Catholic practice of the ‘sanctity of the confessional’ is often credited with establishing the ground rules for doctor-patient confidentiality, despite this having been first put forward in the Hippocratic Oath, 100’s of years BC. I’d be interested to see evidence of the reverse – something positive first established by a religion that has then fed positively back into society. Crediting Catholicism with the idea of people being (capable of) both good and evil is to give praise where it is not due, especially in how this is interpreted in the wider framework of the Catholic faith. We can discard Catholicism without discarding its so called good points, because those good points did not originate with Catholicism nor are they intrinsic or exclusive to Catholicism.

  14. says

    I think some extra care should be taken with this subject as medivh says @ 14. Whatever psychopathy is, it’s a natural part of the diversity of human possibility and we don’t all get equal choices in the world that we are born into (which is not an excuse for things like Columbine at all).

    I have interacted with psychopaths online. People willing to admit that they have no empathy and that their primary instinct is to use others for their ends, yet still have instincts to socialize. They should not be viewed through a lens like they are automatically a threat. Many are quite willing to learn to interact with others in a non-exploitative way but just don’t have a group of empathetic people willing to help them shape their behavior with an understanding of what things are like for them.

    Having something like psychopathy can have aspects akin to a “special sense” in that with a range of human social information denied to you, you learn to hyper-focus on what is left and that is what leads to the stereotypes of the brilliant calculating psychopath. I asked some of these individuals about this because I have something similar with my own psychological situation when it comes to intuiting more emotional-strategic things having to do with primitive-militaristic issues (in my case empathy is a very painful sensation because of the increase in emotional intensity).
    My suggestion to them with respect to the things they see people do that they don’t like is to warn them and work on a reputation with carefully crafted “I told you so” moments. I tell them that the alternative of non-consenting manipulation is what makes people monsters because of the fact that you travel down the path of doing things to others that you would not want done to yourself.

  15. kestrel says

    When growing up I had a friend who was a psychopath. She was a compulsive liar and thief, and would often break into lockers in school and then blackmail the person. Once she got out of school she murdered a man. For $75.00. And on it went… she was very clever at imitating human behaviour, and could appear to honestly feel sad etc. all the while coldly working out how to take advantage of anyone feeling sorry for her. She came within hours of being shown on America’s Most Wanted (the FBI found her in time so that they yanked the episode). She’s been in and out of prison over the years. Last I heard she attacked two elderly women whom she had befriended, was caught almost right away and put in prison. Again. Hopefully they won’t let her out this time.

    Knowing someone like this, and being victimized by them, was a terrible experience. It did seem to me that she was not really a human but instead some other type of being. I know that does not seem possible, but that was the way I felt about it. I feel very sorry for the victims of such people; you just can’t quite believe how they are going to act, and keep expecting them to act more or less like you do, and they just don’t act like that. It’s a very bizarre experience. It might seem cold-hearted to wish this particular person stay in prison the rest of her life but honestly, she is nearly 60 now and has shown no sign of actually changing (aside from all the pretend stuff she does, claiming to have found Jesus and so forth). Society is safer with her behind bars. I am not in any way claiming all psyhcopaths are like this, just the one that I happen to know. This is strictly an anecdote.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    Omar Puhleez @ # 4: Evil is closely associated historically with a desire on the part of one individual to take control of others, to dominate and rule them; to make them an extension of themselves.

    That works just as well this way:

    Religion is closely associated historically with a desire on the part of some individuals to take control of others, to dominate and rule them; to make them an extension of themselves.

  17. quixote says

    We need a term. Empathy spectrum disorder? Someone such as kestrel@17 describes pegs the scale, but it does seem to me there are quite a few world leaders who have an astonishing ability to be unmoved by the suffering they inflict.

    It might be a necessary disorder in order to be able to commit the coercion and fraud inseparable from politics (in Orwell’s perfect words). But it sure would be nice to have a system that minimizes psychopathy at the top.

  18. says

    Omar, I really don’t see how that counts as something good that Catholicism has to say. Any human being who pays attention knows that most humans are a mix of good and bad. I don’t think a grasp of the completely obvious should be treated as a plus for Catholicism – especially since as far as I’m aware it doesn’t even grasp that much, given the stupid dogma about “original sin.”

  19. Kurt Helf says

    There was an excellent episode of “Skepticality” on this several years ago; the hosts interviewed the author, Dave Cullen, of a best-selling book on the shootings. Damned if I can find a link, though.

  20. says

    We need a term. Empathy spectrum disorder?

    Empathy is a hot item in the brain sciences, like a thousand other things that need more funding and social emphasis. At the moment it’s more likely to be a thing affected by other labeled conditions and disorders because what it is is still being defined by those other things instead of a thing in and of itself. At the moment empathy by itself looks like problems forming mental simulations of other people and storing them as equivalents to oneself.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22715878

    We need lots of new terms. It’s amazing the stuff you run into when it comes to traditional biases coloring what we think of brain sciences. Just for fun try reading what estrogen does in men, or what testosterone does in women. How we first start defining these things has an incredible pull on what our society does with it at the moment. There is a tension between what various “sides” in every cognitive realm and it’s amazing to me how often problems seem about going too far down one path of bias and becoming unbalanced. Self/other, individual/society, selfish/selfless, optimism/pessimism.

    All this research into conditions and disorders are essentially in the process of discovering what normal breaks down into and when you look at politics and society so much of that new understanding is absolutely absent. Getting people to replace their holy books and religion inspired views of human behavior with the what we discover in the brain and social sciences is going to be an enormous uphill battle (though parents learning to deal with all the new “labels” will help).

    Autism, tourettes, schizophrenia, OCD, ADHD, psychopathy, sociopathy, and more are all extreme ends of mental tendencies and patterns of thought. Or responses to experiences resulting in rational changes to behavior. There is an entire collection of worldviews and ways of thinking about what we do that needs to dispensary from politics and society.

  21. says

    “needs to dispensary from politics and society.”

    Should read “…need to be dispensed with in politics and society.”

  22. says

    Brony:

    Many are quite willing to learn to interact with others in a non-exploitative way but just don’t have a group of empathetic people willing to help them shape their behavior with an understanding of what things are like for them.

    Aww, the poor darlings. ;__;

    Less sarcastically, a lot of them are probably like Kestrel’s former “friend,” just playing the empathetic people as fools.

    I have zero fucks to spare for psychopaths.

  23. Omar Puhleez says

    OB @# 21: Another wise observation that a close friend (sadly now deceased) brought to my attention was the following blindingly obvious observation. She said:

    “Never assume that someone else’s reality is your own reality.”

    I had never heard that (perhaps trite to some) advice before, and so I found it food for considerable thought, and I do not think I have yet fully explored its implications.

    Likewise my comment @#4. It may have been printed on pages found in so many books, wall posters, blog comments and on so many T shirts for years as to make that comment totally ludicrous. The most important thing about it from my point of view was that I at the time I heard it, I had never heard it expressed that way before. So it was something quite thought-provoking.

    The Catholic Church is a woeful organisation, and no visitor to this site can be ignorant of its horrendous shortcomings.

    But it is not 100% wrong, 100% of the time. Some people may have first heard that idea (as I did) from a Catholic priest, perhaps just in one of his spare moments when not covering up the child-abusing activities of his sexually repressed brother priests.

    Otherwise the Catholic Church would merely be the text-book case that it is of institutionalised bureaucratic evil.

  24. theoreticalgrrrl says

    @25
    Playing on your pity is, according to the author of”The Sociopath Next Door,” the biggest red flag for sociopathy.

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