Harris and Klebold: Empty Trenchcoats with No Answers

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1999 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Many in the media continue to name potential causes of the April 20, 1999 high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado. As usual, anti-gun activists have jumped on the killings to proclaim that guns are the problem.1 The Internet, "Gothic" music, and the apparently-A.W.O.L. parents of the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, have also been blamed for this tragedy.2 No doubt the factors that contributed to this massacre were many, and one runs the risk of oversimplification in trying to identify a chief component. But I think that one episode in these school shootings goes a long way towards indicating what allowed the carnage in Littleton to happen. One of the gun-wielding students approached 17-year-old Cassie Bernall, who was reading her Bible in the school library, and asked, "Do you believe in God?"

"Yes, I believe in God," the girl replied, in a voice that reportedly was "strong enough to be heard by classmates cowering under nearby tables and desks."

The gunman laughed and asked, "Why?" just before shooting and killing the girl.3

Like "jesting Pilate" in Francis Bacon's famous essay "On Truth," who asked what truth was but "would not stay for an answer,"4 the gunman did not really want an answer to the question he asked Cassie Bernall. He and his fellow killer had no answers. The Washington Post reported that Harris and Klebold were "dabblers" in the Gothic subculture, the Internet war game "Doom," and Nazi motifs.5 Classmate Brooks Brown described Harris as "really just pure hate."6 Investigators uncovered evidence that Harris and Klebold had planned their assault for a year, timing it to occur on Adolf Hitler's birthday. However, rather than destroying the school and shooting a large number of students, as they had apparently planned, the two gunmen ended up taking their own lives after killing twelve students and one teacher.7

This ignominious end for the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia"--one minute "laughing as they went about their killing binge,"8 the next dead on the floor of the school library--seems the epitome of foolish, nihilistic waste. Nevertheless, school shootings in recent years in such places as Springfield, Oregon; W. Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi,9 and apparent copycat threats of violence in Texas, New Jersey, and other locations,10 show that the "Trenchcoats" were not the only kids with no answers. It seems evident that parents and schools are often failing to give children the upbringing they need to feel that life has a purpose and a moral center. As the Washington Times put it in an editorial,

. . . we live in a world where the absence of God from daily life is increasingly being felt. In such a secular world, human life itself loses its value, whether we are talking abortion, doctor-assisted suicide or ethnic cleansing and ultimately genocide. In a sense, they are all points on a continuum, and once the belief in the preciousness of each human life is lost, the other steps on that slope come only too easily.11

When our youths fail to see the "why" behind the belief of a Cassie Bernall in God--and worse yet do not want to see why, but simply wish to act out bestial rage that is in the end pointless and ultimately destroys them--, tragedies like Littleton emerge to shock us but should hardly surprise us.

I know that many will probably argue with the idea that a belief in God is essential to the order of society. And I have known more than one professed atheist who has lived a life of exemplary morality. But one should not lose sight of the distinction between an adult atheist who has adopted a moral code through many years of thought and experience, and a youth who is still working through the various wants, urges, and peer pressures of adolescence. The adult atheist who intellectually opts for morality can see the broad picture of what makes for a functioning society and chooses to be part of it. A young person, on the other hand, who is going through the typical "teenage rebellion" and is keen to suspect that his parents, teachers, and other authorities are really all hypocrites, sees little more than the immediate desires and peer taboos around him. To teach such youths that values are a matter of dispute and that there is "nothing to live by or look up to," as is done in public schools in "values clarification" curriculums,12 invites disaster.

In fact, I would argue that the adult atheist who "thinks" himself or herself into morality is not typical.13 Thomas Paine considered it cause for grave concern when atheism seemed to be on the verge of setting the tone for society at large in post-Revolution France. When he saw his friends "falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off" (and daily expected to be executed himself) and "the people of France . . . running headlong into Atheism," he wrote the Age of Reason--a far from "Christian" work, of course--"to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article . . . of every man's creed who has any creed at all, I believe in God."14 Paine's Age of Reason specifies that "the moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation towards all his creatures," and that "every thing of persecution and revenge between man and man, and every thing of cruelty to animals, is a violation of moral duty."15

Where Paine considered God's presence "manifested" in the world around us, Harris and Klebold saw darkness; as columnist Tony Snow puts it, the two were "evil and proud of it."16 They listened to music by such groups as KMFDM, a German techno band whose name stands for a phrase that translates as "No Pity for the Majority" and which sang songs with lyrics like "Anathematic Antichrist/I have come to take my place." Harris' web site described how to build a pipe bomb, and both youths played "death matches with violent computer games," according to one student who knew them, " . . . for hours and hours and hours." Another student remarked that "they didn't believe in God, they believed in the devil and what Adolf Hitler did."17

Wrapping themselves in a cocoon of violence and hatred, one can see how Harris and Klebold reinforced their dark impulses. As Stephen L. Carter comments in his excellent recent book Civility regarding some "technologies of incivility":

The more we are able to tailor the world to our liking, the less civil we are likely to be. Civility requires us to act with love toward our neighbors, to sacrifice on their behalf, but the cyberworld proposes that we have no neighbors--or that we can know no unimpeachable facts about them, or even that we can actively reinvent them. It is easy to be rude online precisely because the people with whom we argue are faceless . . . .18

When Harris and Klebold tailored their world into a live-action war game, reinventing the students in their school to make them faceless targets of an arsenal of guns and bombs, the result was the logical inversion of the world where Paine's "moral duty" or Carter's "sacrifice" are recognized.

And judging from the "copycat" syndrome after Littleton (whose gunmen may have been inspired by previous school shootings, for all anyone knows), the problem is not an isolated one. Much like the bomb-making materials and shotgun barrel which were reportedly found by investigators "lying in plain view in the bedroom of one of the boys" who were responsible for Littleton, red flags are ignored by parents at their peril. As Tony Snow puts it, "Sometimes nothing fires a youngster's anger as much as adults who, seeing him behave like a monster, don't care enough to say: 'Stop.'"20

We need adults who will say "stop," who will care enough to teach young people that there is a moral duty to our fellow creatures which is grounded in our Creator. We can no longer afford parents who tune out and drop out because they are too busy, or because they don't want be "judgmental" or "impose their values" on their children. As the example of Harris and Klebold shows, someone will step in to fill the values vacuum that parents leave--perhaps someone like Adolf Hitler or KMFDM. On the other hand, Cassie Bernall's life demonstrates the qualities that should be in the people we need to make up a coherent society, qualities that developed because, unlike the two gunmen, she found Someone to believe in.

Ironically, Harris and Klebold, who propelled themselves into the afterlife, are probably still asking the last question they asked Cassie Bernall. But the "why"s now are not punctuated with laughter. They are questions like "Why did we dedicate our lives to an act of violence? Why did we waste our potential and the potential of all those other students because of hatred? And why did we think we could escape God's judgment?" They did not want answers during their lives, and now the answers are all too late in coming.

Cassie Bernall knew the answers. She knew better than to be "afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do" (Luke 12:4). If we are not to have more Littletons, we need to have more Cassie Bernalls, and fewer kids who are so bottled up with rage at adult neglect and indifference that they no longer care whether any of life's answers make sense.

(April 26, 1999)


1 For example, see the absurd commentary by Roger Simon entitled "What Will Heston Say?" (special AOL feature, downloaded 4/22/99). It is, of course, much easier for lazy pundits to adopt the media dogma that gun availability and the NRA are to blame for all violence than to admit the truth that "More concealed handguns, and increased gun ownership generally, drives down murder, robbery, and aggravated assault" (--Jeff Jacoby, "What the media don't admit: Guns make us safer ," Boston Globe, 6/18/98.)

2 See Linton Weeks, "As Always, the Internet Angle," Washington Post, 4/22/99; Eileen McNamara, "Parents must have known," Boston Globe, 4/25/99.

3As reported in Eileen McNamara, "A martyr amid the madness," Boston Globe, 4/24/99. Another student, Rachel Scott, may also have been killed by the gunmen because she was known to be a Christian; see Tom Kenworthy & Daniel LeDuc, "Suspect's Diary Details Plan to Kill," Washington Post, 4/25/99.

[ADDENDUM 5/29/2010: The FBI subsequently claimed that the Cassie Bernall exchange never happened; see Greg Toppo, “10 years later, the real story behind Columbine,” USA TODAY, 4/14/2009. However, acolumbinesite.com gives this additional detail in its page on Ms. Bernall:

“For a long time after the shootings, it was believed that she was the girl in the library who was asked by one of the shooters: ‘Do you believe in God?’ and was subsequently shot because she said ‘Yes’. There is still controversy surrounding this -- according to the Columbine Report, several witnesses claim that the conversation occurred between gunman Eric Harris and surviving victim Valeen Schnurr. Valeen herself has verified this fact. However Joshua Lapp, a witness to the library shootings, said in his interview with investigators that the shooters asked several people if they believed in God and the answers given didn't seem to dictate who was shot or not.”

It therefore would seem that the question attributed to the shooters was indeed asked, even if the specific conversation attributed to Ms. Bernall cannot be verified.]

4 Francis Bacon, The Essays, ed. John Pitcher, NY: Penguin Books, 1985, p. 61. Bacon is referring to John 18:38, probably also with reference to the Geneva Bible's marginal note on the verse.

5 Paul Duggan, Michael D. Shear, & Marc Fisher, "Shooter Pair Mixed Fantasy, Reality," Washington Post, 4/22/99.

6 Valerie Richardson, "Gunmen's troubled behavior should have been warning," Washington Times, 4/22/99.

7 Ellen O'Brien & Lynda Gorov, "School killings plotted in diary," Boston Globe, 4/25/99; Kenworthy & LeDuc, "Suspect's Diary Details . . . ."

8 Sam Howe Verhovek, "15 Bodies Found as Police Search Colorado School," New York Times, 4/22/99.

9 Ibid.

10 Reuters, "Copycat threats stir fears," Boston Globe, 4/24/99.

11 "The tragedy of Littleton," Washington Times, 4/22/99.

12 William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong: Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 22 & ch. 1 passim.

13 As would Robert H. Bork, who has an interesting discussion of the interrelation of morality and religion in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, NY: ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 1996, pp. 272ff.. Bork admits that "Reflections on experience can provide the major premises and the minor premises from which conclusions on morality follow," but argues that "to suppose that an entire society may be made moral in this fashion is merely laughable. We are not a community of over 250 million reflective men and women able to work out the conditions of contentedness and willing to sacrifice near-term pleasures for long-term benefits" (p. 277).

14 Letter to Samuel Adams of January 1, 1803, in Eric Foner, ed., Paine: Collected Writings. NY: Library of America, 1995, p. 418.

15 Age of Reason, Part I, in Foner, op. cit., pp. 718-9.

16 Tony Snow, "Snacking on life-splitting agony," Jewish World Review, 4/22/99.

17 Richardson, "Gunmen's troubled behavior . . . ." The German phrase is "Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid."

18 Stephen L. Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. NY: Basic Books, 1998, p. 199.

19 Kenworthy & LeDuc, "Suspect's Diary Details . . . ."

20 Snow, "Snacking . . . ."

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