J.R.Donohue/Commentary/Why Columbine
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Why Columbine
A Speculation
April 29, 1999

     The content of this document is the opinion of the author and is speculative. No known facts have been altered, and no facts which would contradict the opinions expressed here have been omitted. This is a hypothetical narrative of what may have occurred in the character of Eric Harris (and might also describe the evolution of Dylan Klebold.) It is an attempt to place known facts into a ground of meaning, fleshed out with posited detail. The author welcomes all factual information either supporting or challenging his theories.

     I would especially welcome the comments of Pat McDuffie and Brooks Brown, as well as any other teens or adults who knew Eric.


     There is one simple perspective that explains the Littleton tragedy: Eric’s cognitive mind was void at the time of the event; he was running on malignant emotions only.

     • He had rejected a self-chosen, autonomous, purpose in life. (Purposelessness)

     • He had abandoned all life-affirming values and held no moral code whatever. (Nihilism)

     • He fixated obsessively and exclusively on what remained: the idea that his life could only be granted meaning if he were accepted by the in crowd and would be hell if he were not. (Co-dependence)

     • He became filled with resentment and rage that he could not get "in." (Envy)

     • And so, to relieve pain, he murdered those he envied (Sociopathology)


     Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and any other actual accomplices to the murders are responsible. Whatever the emotional pressure from the outside, they are responsible for their souls. They consciously chose the path of renouncing their minds. They are not to be excused, even if it is shown that the pressures were indeed great, as hypothesized below. To live without purpose and values is a hideous act of self-mutilation; to kill others because you envy their aliveness is utterly despicable.

     This must be kept in mind in reading below because this speculation does not cast a favorable light on the culture of Columbine; while Eric was not healthy and normal, neither was his school.

The Contradiction

     He was a sweet, friendly, highly intelligent happy young man.

     He was a monster who planned slaughter for weeks and laughed as he killed.

     Evidence that both of these images are true pictures of Eric Harris continues to emerge from Littleton, Colorado and there is no lack of those unable to reconcile the apparent contradiction.

     The contention of this profile (and its answer to the enigma) is that Eric Harris committed murder for the reasons listed above, but that he had begun high school years earlier with a healthy character; he became a killer only after he failed to negotiate a philosophical crisis: the call to rationality in young minds.

Becoming a Rational

     Eric grew up smart. He responded to the presence of facts by soaking them up seemingly by osmosis. Any method of gaining knowledge that built up systems of understanding, any new task that added to his ability to grasp reality, any field of learning that integrated with others in a logical way -- conquering these was as natural as walking to him. His was the prototypical quick mind.

     This thirst for knowledge was fixed in place by accessibility to computers. Eric dove deeply into the exploding technology of microprocessors and software, the skills for success at which he became fully equipped. Constant problem-solving in this complex world and continuous exposure to other competent minds like his, all in the service of such a difficult and important technology, gave him a deep sense that the world "works", is explainable, comprehendible, controllable.

     His adolescent soul, nurtured by these certainties, developed a fundamental worldview: that reason -- facts and logic -- had true and sufficient validity to explain the world and his existence. Although he doubtless could not explicitly articulate this position, it sustained him and nurtured a happy young person. Eric was "in love" with the world of the mind. He had accepted reason as an absolute, accepted that he was atheistic. He was thus approaching adulthood with the permanent identity of "a Rational." As such, the natural inclination of his character was sunny and benevolent, unafraid and unbowed. His emotional life was filled with passion and quiet joy for the love of intelligence. He was a natural individualist.

     Consider the above to be Eric’s state of mind at about fourteen or fifteen years of age, freshman year at Columbine. This agrees with the description of him by his girlfriend and date for the freshman homecoming dance.

Disapproval From The World

     As the high school years unfolded Eric learned not to express his rational, atheistic sense of life to others in dread of their typical reaction: negative body language and the communication of disapproval and/or fear, followed by a declaration of the supernatural as superior to reason. This might take the form of an outright call for God and religion or for the necessity of faith in a generic "higher power." At the very least the disapproving adult (or teen) would argue for Eric’s submission to some authority outside of the self, usually expressed as "...as long as you believe in something." with the implication being "...something other than yourself." Short of a surrender to faith, they urged Eric to place the welfare of "others" above his own interests (sacrifice.) Unquestioning duty to country would do. Community service as an automatic obligation would be a promising sign. Identification with a group or team could suffice in a pinch. Anything, as long as there were at least a crack in the edifice of Eric’s otherwise solid individualism and strong confidence in reason, atheism, self-interest and objectivity.

     Meanwhile, from Eric’s point of view, he could swear that it was actually those calling for faith in the supernatural who had the problem: their inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Transition: Confronting Existence

     During adolescence, a youth must transition from the womb of family to the antechamber of self-sufficiency. For this journey to be successful there is a high requirement: to stand before objective reality, to know and see oneself alone in the face of the universe, vulnerable.

     Such a confrontation of reality requires great bravery. It means acknowledging that one’s soul must be self-made; that consciousness and survival are not automatic, nor driven by a supernatural being; that under volition one’s values must be deliberately chosen, that one will succeed in gaining and keeping them (or not) based on the competence of one’s self-activated thought and action.

     Confronting this existential condition squarely, unblinkingly, transforms the very being of a young person; the decision to hold these truths in one’s consciousness permanently, with no mitigation, no bail-out, is the beginning of a magnificent adventure -- the reign of a new sovereign, the birth of an independent mind.

     Yet supporting the confrontation is a giant taboo in this culture. There is no rite of passage for it. There is no book of wisdom, no support system. Frankly, even advocating that such a thing ought to occur in the emergence of a youth is probably considered sick, sinful or abusive in most of this culture.

     As a result, many denial strategies are in play seeking to side step the moment of facing naked reality. One is to indoctrinate children from infancy with the belief in God as the real owner and savior of one’s soul, a God who obliterates the great aloneness of the confrontation and draws one into His shelter. Another is to suppress the confrontation by distractions such as sex, or with addictive substances and behaviors. Or, a psychological retreat is achieved through a form of deliberate, permanent arrested development: "...if I don’t step forward I won’t have to face it." Last, but not least harmful: outright rejection of the notion that there is any such thing as "an individual." On this view one belongs to "society" or "humanity" or "the collective consciousness" and it is individualism that is the toxic illusion, to be healed by any one of many "religious experiences" revealing the unity of mankind’s collective heart and soul; the permanent inoculation against the illusion is a lifestyle of selflessness, sacrifice and service.

     Most adolescents touching upon the moment of confronting reality immediately opt out to faith or adopt one of the other coping mechanisms. But avoidance (or "incomplete transition") results in stunted self-actualization. The adolescent does not grow into a thinking individual; he becomes an emotion-driven reactor. He never learns to operate from his conceptual faculty (cerebral cortex) but remains imprisoned by the reactive, instinctive lower brain. His subsequent animal mentality yields a tendency to tacitly condone collectivism, tribalism and coercive power, as opposed to individualism, civilization and respect for other sovereigns. Once the evasion has occurred the adolescent finds himself in a world where emotion is real and cognitive thought is a minor disturbance in "the force."

     Avoidance of the confrontation is fundamentally crazy-making and requires constant defending, including ridicule of (or missionary work on) those few who have faced reality and taken responsibility for their minds and souls.

Eric Harris in the Columbine Culture

     During the middle years of high school, Eric’s encounters with the irrational in American culture increased; he was surrounded with the casual acceptance of God. The vast majority of students were church going moderates, folded into the protection of religion from even the slightest touch of the ideas which were burning issues for Eric. A more radical Christian minority passionately believed that prayer "works," that Satan is a real being and that the afterlife is an uncontroversial fact. Both the moderates and these high irrationalists and Evangelicals could only be viewed as his bizarre enemy.

     Horribly, Eric was intensely aware that to the rest of America, these creatures and their Judeo-Christian ethos were considered good, normal and right, while his worldview was considered an utter aberration. At best he was viewed as a lost soul. This disconnect between the standard cultural ethic and his inner world of reason, atheism and self-interest is the core of Eric’s alienation. It explains his growing conviction that he was the "Auslander."

     When irrational belief systems such as Christianity are considered "the good," reason is rendered a poor handmaiden to faith, and certainly not "absolute." These irrational systems employ "duty" as the agent of control. In Christianity duty takes the form of obedience to God under the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. One does not assess these critically. One does not test them against reality as scientists (or other Rationals) would. One obeys. While the Christians are under the impression that their system makes people civilized and moral, in reality it merely makes them feel good to be part of the "high" group. Their obedience is the price of admission to the ultimate collective: those whose souls will live forever in the love and grace of God. High stakes, indeed.

The Cliques

     A consequence (I will not say "unintended") of the Christian/duty paradigm is the glorification of belonging, sacrifice and submission over individualism and self-pride. In other words, the ascendancy of the primitive, the tribal. Such is the case with the group structure famously well known to teenagers: the clique. Where irrational belief systems such as Christianity dominate, cliques thrive.

     The clique is not rational. It is based on initiation through humiliation, interdependence to the level of enmeshment, surrender of critical judgment, blind loyalty. Sacrifice -- indeed some dramatic show of self-destruction -- is required to achieve "belonging." The pecking order is based on jungle criteria (animalism), not the standards of civilization (content of mind and character.) Entree is often by way of possessing the proper physical attributes, sometimes by display of certain behavior. Membership is perpetuated by willingness to behave according to dictates of the group leader (the teen’s version of "duty".)

     The powerful glue of the clique is emotion. The membership reacts as one homogeneous entity in response to events; there is a uniform explosion of emotion, the fight-or-flight reaction of a flock of animals responding to a threat. Should a person in the group find himself feeling differently, he obliterates his initial emotion and performs internal gymnastics until he is back in line with the group. As for actual thoughts or insights? No such thing. Feelings reign supreme.

     A high school infested with cliques can be compared to a continent riddled with constant warfare between tribes. The "alpha" males rule each clique. The "alpha" cliques control the choice spots on campus, in the football stadium, in the cafeteria, at the prom, etc. There is a constant and fierce struggle for dominance. At most high schools, the Jock clique is king of the hill. The subordinates within each clique, and the subordinate cliques, all know their place, make displays to let those above and below them see that they know their place, and all perform rituals to keep things from exploding.

     Any high school student who will not submit to this conformist culture -- or who simply does not possess the right "stuff" to get in -- is an outcast. Some fade into the woodwork and avoid the roving scouts of the cliques who are on the prowl for fodder needed to feed the pack’s displays of dominance. Some outcasts even earn a minor token of respect through some act or statement and are left alone. But some outcasts simply enrage the clique by their very being. These young people -- the ones who won’t fit, submit or hide -- are subject to merciless harassment and humiliation the details of which are so well known they need not be listed here.

     But one form of humiliation for the independent minded teenage boy is so devastating that it invites close examination: the "desirable" girls all belong to cliques, where they mate with the alpha males. This display of tribal power shakes the world of wholesome sexuality arising in a confident young man. Can I only get a girlfriend by rising to the top of the heap of a gang? Are those females who are outside of the clique weak, therefore not desirable? Why does sex seem to be based on rankings and criteria in the first place? Should I give up judgment on who is a desirable girl, since it is so irrational? I just know that mating with a girl I like, but who is an outcast herself will bring endless pain from the tormentors. What girl will have me if I am known at school as a piece of dirt? Do girls really want me to display primitive, mean dominance as my highest quality?

     Some non-clique adolescents can get past this quagmire, find girls they like and continue the development of their sexuality in a more or less healthy way. For the truly persecuted, sex is a nightmare. The buildup of rage in such a boy can readily be imagined.

No Mentors Were Found

     It can be believed that a massive disgust with the irrationals built up in Eric. He was horrified that such madness (dominance of cliques, irrational God-talk everywhere, sacrifice as a way of life) would be so pervasive and seen as "normal" even as his atheist/rational world view was laughed at, thrown in the corner as a stupid, useless oddity. He was indignant at his "station in life" with scant hope that the situation would improve. It could also be assumed that he sought an adult hero supportive of his struggle, who shared his values: individualism; reason as an absolute; atheism; healthy self-interest; the hunger for a life of the mind; peacefulness and benevolence. He would also look for someone who had lived through and solved the nightmare of co-existing with the cliques and irrationals at Columbine.

     His father could not fill the role. The man was perhaps Christian, perhaps non-religious, but at a minimum was solid in defense of the typical irrational fall-back position, ". . . as long as you believe in Something. . ." Perhaps Eric’s father was successful but denied or minimized his achievement, becoming a living contradiction. For whatever reason, he could not champion Eric into full empowerment. This perhaps broke Eric’s heart, for he loved his father and absorbed a positive valuation of military life from him. In the end, it may have been as simple as pressure. "Dad, I am gay" or "Dad, I am an alcoholic" etc. would have been tough but manageable in this culture and in Eric’s home -- especially compared with "Dad, I am an atheist."

     Eric looked to other adults in the school and community. Nothing. He sought role models in media, literature, and politics. Nothing.

No Philosophy Was Found

     Eric’s quest for support not only came up empty, but also taught him the lesson that a soul explicitly premised on reason and objective reality as an absolute is strictly taboo in this culture and is hated. It’s all right to praise reason, he was told, as long as you admit that it is merely one arbitrary choice on a menu of many "ways of knowing," (with faith at the top of the menu) and that "my reality is true for me, yours is true for you. There is no absolute truth."

     Yet a human cannot survive on atheism alone, as it is not a philosophy, only a position on non-belief in God and the supernatural. Deep confidence in the efficacy of reason, knowledge, technology and self-sufficiency is a high virtue, but by itself could not answer the sea of irrationality. Eric’s inability to find a complete, positive, rational, earth-based philosophy (Aristotlianism, Objectivism) that would supply a moral sanction of his beliefs, and a social system of support for it, resulted in a void, a hole in his soul. Eric did not give in and submit to Christianity and conformity, but he also failed to find his "home."

Abandonment of the Soul

     Without close knowledge of events in his interior life*, we do not know how hard Eric tried. Perhaps he struggled for two or three years to rise above the conflict, asked many for help, searched for wisdom in books, wrote in journals, tried to draw in his parents many times, attempted to make friends and build a small support system for survival. On the other hand, perhaps Eric had no such character, not even the strength intimated in this speculation, and threw his soul away all too easily. In either case, at some point Eric made a life choice. He gave up. He abandoned values, abandoned morality, abandoned purposefulness. Let there be no mistake, Eric alone is responsible for this horrible renunciation. Yes, he may have been a budding Rational surrounded by alien forces, but others of this mind have risen above such circumstances, others have saved their own souls in worse.

     It is quite possible that the point of no return was crossed one year ago when Eric was compelled to do "community service" as punishment for breaking into a car. The man supervising his sentence stated that Eric "learned a lot" about selflessness and service. In a grim irony, one of the tasks he frequently had to perform was cleaning locker rooms after athletes had finished using them, surely a task of psychological torture for him. Eric’s apparent "rehabilitation" was doubtless faked; he would have only vile hatred for attempts by the system -- which he considered insane -- to normalize him to its code of sacrifice and irrationality. His brilliance and intelligence served to sublimate his true reaction: pure rage.

Denouement and Death

     It is not surprising the swiftness with which Eric changed after renouncing his mind, nor how easy it was to amplify his contempt for his tormentors, the empty soul filling with bitterness and a coward’s hatred. Sickeningly, a plan to resolve the emptiness and anger came into being. If he could not get attention, greatness and respect the Columbine way, he would get them the Hitler way.

     It would be easy for Eric to hide his hideous purpose and plan -- the further down the road into failure he went, the craftier he became; all hope was gone, and he no longer dropped hints or other "cries for help." His intelligence and skills now served a clear purpose: destruction. He found others who had given up as well, and their mutual hatreds spiraled around each other and made a vile tornado of obsession. The self-murder of his own soul was soon to cause the deaths of thirteen others.

     Much has been made of the speculation that obsession with video games played a huge part in Eric’s makeup. Having abandoned life, it is easy to imagine the thought: "Well, if the mystical and irrational won, and is at the service of my enemies, let me now use it for my advantage." With this in mind, it is quite conceivable that Eric consciously and purposefully surrendered to the same error he despised in his enemies: he allowed his mind to lose its power to distinguish fantasy from reality. The video games became real. Eric’s soul was dead.


What is needed?

     If almost everyone in a culture accepts without a qualm that the supernatural is actually real, that prayer works, that self-sacrifice is a net gain in value, why is it a surprise that in such a society the minds of its Rationals are destroyed? We should:

     • object to primitive tribalism utterly dominating high schools.

     • institute a zero-tolerance policy for taunting and harassment.

     • show by example that man’s existential condition is not only tolerable, but a thrilling challenge.

     • honor and support young Rationals, lauding them as they choose atheism, reason as an absolute and enlightened self-interest.

     • elucidate a rational, self-oriented ethics they can grasp.

     • establish an expectation that each emerging young adult will chose values and purpose in life and act autonomously to gain them.

     If we are to achieve true civilization in the United States, we must wake up: the path is not a choice between nihilism and the Judeo-Christian ethic; we must abandon both (as well as post-modern ultra-skepticism) and discover Aristotlianism and Enlightenment values.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

* We do not have the facts about the forming of Eric Harris. I strongly propose, as the highest form of amends possible, that the four parents waive their right to privacy and open the book of life on the two families. This is not for the purpose of healing, forgiveness, emotional attack or revenge; no, not for feelings, rather for knowledge. Every detail of every minute of life ought to be journalized, verified, sequenced and elucidated until these two families become the most studied in the history of psychology. There is no excuse for saying "we may never know..." or "... this crime is to horrible to understand," or "... we ought not to seek blame." If an airplane crashed in Littleton killing 15 people, the NTSB would not rest until it uncovered every scrap of the wreck, reconstructed the plane and nailed down the cause to a certainty, despite the death of the pilots. We should settle for nothing less in solving the tragedy of Columbine High.

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