An analysis of the youth 'cult of violence'

By Kevin Vaughan
The Rocky Mountain News

BOULDER, Colo. - Eight years and eight months after they killed themselves to end their deadly attack on Columbine High School, the evil of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold lives on.

Their words pepper electronic message boards, where their violent rants against society are posted and re-posted. Their faces and voices and videos litter cyberspace - a search on YouTube.com turned up dozens of clips of them. Someone even developed a video game based on their April 20, 1999, assault on Columbine, which left a dozen students and a teacher dead.

Their deeds draw admiration from other mass murderers.

Earlier this year, Cho Seung-Hui referred to them - "We martyrs, like Eric and Dylan" - before killing 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech.

Sunday, it was Matthew Murray who added another chapter to the sick legacy of Harris and Klebold. In between murders at a Christian missionary center in Arvada and a church in Colorado Springs, he stopped to post a series of messages on the Internet.

One of them quoted liberally from the writings Harris had left on the Internet a decade before. Another invoked Columbine's name - a single word that has come to symbolize random, mass violence.

"Christian America . . . ," Murray apparently wrote in between Sunday's killings, "this is your Columbine."

"It doesn't surprise me," said Brian Rohrbough, whose son was murdered at Columbine. "Of course it certainly bothers me that after all these years Klebold and Harris still have the mystique about them that people want to follow them."

Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, said he isn't surprised, either.

"There is this kind of romantic cult of youth violence that is out there," Raschke said.

That, it would seem, is just how Harris and Klebold wanted it.

Expectations of infamy

Harris and Klebold, two high school seniors from suburban families, apparently understood a lot about American culture, about the Internet and about the long-held fascination with outlaws.

As they were planning their attack on Columbine, the two spent considerable time talking into a video camera.

They expected to be infamous. At one point, they argued about which Hollywood director - Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino - should tell their story. And they talked of setting a twisted record.

"The most deaths in U.S. history," Klebold said in one of the tapes, which were shown to reporters in 1999 but never released publicly.

"Hopefully," Harris added as he cradled a gun he had nicknamed "Arlene."

"We're hoping," Klebold said. "We're hoping. I hope we kill 250 of you."

They also expected that one day they would have a cult of followers.

"If you're going to go f------ psycho and kill a bunch of people like us, ... do it right," Klebold said into the camera at one point.

A decade ago, Columbine was just a high school in the Denver suburbs named for Colorado's state flower. Since April 20, 1999, the name has represented a watershed moment in American violence and has been invoked in shootings and planned attacks that were thwarted in such disparate places as Santee, Calif., Red Lake, Minn., and Fort Collins.

Harris and Klebold are its orchestrators and, for some people on the fringe, its heroes.

Looking for an identity

Bonnie and Clyde. Adolf Hitler. Charles Manson.

Through the years, people on the edges of society have identified with the infamous.

"You have the same sort of cluster of mentality," said John Nicoletti, a police psychologist in Denver who has extensively studied workplace violence. "You have these individuals who have what we call a perceived injustice.

"So they seek out people with a similar thought process."

And they are particularly interesting to young people.

Raschke, the DU religious studies professor, in his research work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, saw an almost perverse fascination with Manson and his two horrific murder rampages in Southern California on consecutive nights in 1969. He saw young people who wrote to Manson in prison, who celebrated when he sent back his autograph.

"If you're down and out and disaffected, and you can't create an identity for yourself, you feel like nobody in society - including your parents - understands you, you're going to identify with somebody who is considered wicked," Raschke said.

Randy Brown, whose son knew Harris and Klebold well, sees the Columbine killers the same way, as an outlet for the madness and fantasy of others.

"Eric said he wanted to 'kick start a revolution,' " Brown said, quoting one of Harris' passages. "I hate to call this a revolution, but it is giving the alienated, the abused, the disaffected a way to act out that's giving them attention."

A need to understand

Rohrbough and Brown have both waged a years-long fight for the release of records in the Columbine case. They and others involved in the effort have been highly successful; thousands of pages of police reports and other documents that help shed light on Harris and Klebold, and on law enforcement contacts with them before Columbine, have been opened to the public in the years since the tragedy.

But the so-called "basement tapes" - hours of Klebold and Harris talking into a video camera - remain locked away. After a lengthy court fight, Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink, who was given authority to make the decision, concluded that the videos might inspire copycats and decided not to release them.

Rohrbough and Brown believe, however, that making them available to the public would have shown them for what they were - cruel killers, not enlightened voices for the disaffected.

"The basement tapes really dispelled the mystique of these guys having some great philosophical position, and it really undermines the thought that their ideas have value," Rohrbough said.

Brown said if the tapes had been made available publicly, psychologists and psychiatrists could have studied them, could have grasped a better understanding of their anger and their motivations.

"It's not that this information is out there," Brown said. "The truth is that there's not enough information out there."

Murray's frantic search

Nobody truly knows what motivated Murray.

His father is a neurologist who is heavily involved in trying to understand multiple sclerosis.

According to Matthew Murray's Web postings, religion was paramount in his home.

But he had been kicked out of Youth With A Mission - the Christian missionary center in Arvada where he began his bloody rampage - and he wrote extensively on the Internet about his growing scorn for religion. Along the way, he posted dozens of messages on a forum for people who had left Pentecostal religions.

He also made it clear that even in that setting he had been an outcast.

Raschke spent time this week reading Murray's Internet writings.

"It's like he was really in this frantic search for an identity," the DU professor said. "He couldn't find anything in his world view in the strict religious picture that his parents had foisted upon him."

In the absence of his own identity, he apparently looked to Harris and Klebold as he tried to figure out who he was.

"This is why these figures are appealing," Raschke said. "They're anti-heroes, they're alternatives to a persona that these frustrated, lost young people aren't able to find or to get.

"It's like, 'If I can't be anything real, I'll find someone awful.' "

Copyright 2007 The Rocky Mountain News

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