I had occasion recently to recall a paper I read several years ago. The paper was about burial practices of the Natufian culture, the industrious Neolithic people who built some of the first settled villages of the ancient Near East; the occasion for recalling it was an article about Kip Kinkel, a man currently serving a lifelong prison sentence for killing his parents, two classmates, and wounding 25 others in his high school cafeteria in 1998.
Kinkel’s rampage happened nearly a full year before the Columbine massacre. The latter brought the issue of school shootings to national attention, and kicked off a copycat phenomenon that likely played a role in dozens of subsequent mass shootings. Kinkel’s Oregon killing spree did not receive the same dramatic coverage as the Columbine attack, but it was mentioned in national news and was likely noticed by the Columbine shooters themselves. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold chose the same location for the focus of their attack - the packed cafeteria - and dressed similarly to Kinkel in long black coats to hide their weapons.
The similarities between the two shootings, or the killers themselves, seem to end there. Much has been written about the motives of the Columbine killers, and I won’t try to settle the debate here. Both Harris and Klebold were certainly suicidal, full of rage and spite, and had become obsessed with the media coverage and infamy they expected to accrue after they were gone. Harris was certainly a psychopath who, at least in his journal, displayed antisocial and sadistic tendencies, while Klebold was a depressive who, in general, followed his friend’s lead (though this imbalance in their relationship has probably been overstated). Yet clinicians would not have classified either of the Columbine killers as insane. Their attack was the result of intricate long-term planning, utilized diversionary tactics, and involved complicated explosives placed at multiple locations. They chose their clothing with an eye to how it would play in the media after it was all over. The two took great pains to deceive their friends and families in order not to derail their plan. Both had apparently-normal relationships with their parents, and, in a video made immediately prior to the attack, they both apologized for the shock and horror they were about to inflict on them. During the attack itself, their fire was not entirely indiscriminate. They warned a fellow student they liked to go home for the day, and, especially in the later stages of the attack, passed by some students while firing on others.
I purposely use the word “attack” to describe what happened at Columbine, and will purposely avoid it to describe Kip Kinkel’s rampage at Thurston High School in Oregon. While Kinkel’s act was obviously an “attack” in the literal sense of the term, it lacked the premeditation, intent, and even agency of the Columbine murders. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed because they wanted to die, but wanted to leave a painful mark on their way out. Though they acted far more violently, I suspect their motives included one similar to that which drove Jim Jones near the end, or Stavrogin in Dosteovsky’s Demons when he hanged himself in a place his mother was sure to find him; that is, “I may be at the end of my rope, but if I’m going down then I’ll make sure everyone feels it.” The great Soviet gulag writer Varlam Shalamov wrote that, having seen men degraded to the last human cell in their body, the final thing that remains when everything else is gone… is spite. Jim Jones, Stavrogin and the Columbine killers were full of it.
Kip Kinkel is a different animal. He began hearing voices when he was 12 years old. After being dropped off by the school bus, he was walking up his driveway when an authoritative human voice said, “You need to kill everyone, everyone in the world.” Kinkel spun around, expecting to find someone behind him, and when no one was there he ran into the house. But the voice followed him in, and was soon joined by another one, also male. He grabbed a small hunting rifle and huddled with it in his bed waiting for the voices to stop.
“The two voices soon became three, all of them male. They had a hierarchy, and Kinkel could tell them apart. They sometimes argued with one another, and they often worked together to denigrate and manipulate Kinkel. They spoke about him as if he couldn’t hear them. Everything they said was ugly, negative and violent.
The voices terrified Kinkel. They warned him that everyone would think he was a freak if he tried to tell anyone about them. So Kinkel tried to make sense of what he was experiencing on his own. He didn’t grow up particularly religious, but he wondered if they came from God. Or maybe the devil.”