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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Bullets and bad seeds

by Philip Martin | May 9, 2021 at 8:28 a.m.

In the three weeks leading up to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris made several videotapes--nearly four hours' worth of footage--in which they talk about their plans.

They bungled most of those plans. Though they killed 13 people and wounded two dozen others before turning their guns on themselves, the bombs they planted never went off. If they had, some experts think they may have killed or wounded most of the 488 people in the school's cafeteria when the attack started.

In these "basement tapes," which were destroyed by Colorado law enforcement officials in 2015, they talked about whether Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino should direct the movie that would inevitably be made about them and their exploits. (There is allegedly at least one bootleg audio recording floating around, and partial transcripts of the tapes, including one prepared by the investigators, have been available for years, but no video copy has surfaced in six years, which means they probably got them all.)

On one tape, Harris, having directed two short narrative videos the year before--"Hitmen for Hire" and "Radioactive Clothing"--thought whoever directed the movie should include "a lot of foreshadowing and dramatic irony."

They talk about the people they hated, the respect they were not offered, and show off the weapons they've acquired and the bombs they have built. Eric displays the shotgun he named Arlene. Dylan worries that the black trench coat he thought so stylish wouldn't be practical once the shooting started.

"I'll have to take the coat off," he says. This bums him out. It's a cool coat.

On another tape, Dylan mocks his parents: "'If only we could have reached them sooner, or found this tape.'"

"'If only we would have searched their room,'" Eric adds. "'If only we would have asked the right questions."

But then Eric softens, thinking about how his mother brought him candy and Slim Jims.

"I really am sorry about this."

"They gave me my f------ life," Dylan says. "It's up to me what I do with it."

He says he's glad his parents taught him to be self-reliant and independent.

"My parents might have made some mistakes that they weren't really aware of," Eric says.

In another tape, made nine days before the shootings, Eric is in his basement bedroom, apparently alone. He sits on his bed, with a bulletin board above the headboard, with the camera probably propped up on his knee. He is worried that the police and others will make it difficult for his parents after he and Dylan do what they are going to do.

"My parents are the best f------ parents I have ever known," he says. "My dad is great. I wish I was a f------ sociopath so I didn't have any remorse, but I do. This is going to tear them apart. They will never forget it ... No one is to blame except me and Vodka [Dylan's nickname]. Our actions are a two-man war against everyone else."

They made their last tape on April 20, about 30 minutes before they made their way to the school and started that two-man war.

They are in the family room of the Harris house. Eric has the camera, directing.

"Say it now," he tells Dylan.

"Hey mom. Gotta go. It's about a half an hour before our little judgment day," Dylan says. "I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate ... Just know I'm going to a better place. I didn't like life too much ..."

Now Dylan takes the camera and turns it on Eric.

"Yeah," Eric begins. "Everyone I love, I'm really sorry about all this. I know my mom and dad will be just like ... shocked beyond belief. I'm sorry, all right. I can't help it."

"We did what we had to do," Dylan interrupts.

Children aren't adults; their brains aren't set, they make impulsive decisions, they say rash things and take risks. Empathy is not an innate ability; it is a skill that is acquired and developed over time.

Neither Eric's or Dylan's parents can be held responsible for what their sons did. Eric and Dylan burglarized a van, got caught and went through a program. Eric wrote a poem where he fantasized about being a bullet. Dylan turned in revenge fantasies as school assignments.

Wayne Harris kept a notebook where he made notes about Eric's ongoing troubles and altercations with neighbors, classmates and authority figures. A lot of people who spend a lot of time speculating about the Columbine case seem to think that he should have been aware that something was up with his son.

Once Wayne answered the phone and there was a gun shop on the other end, calling to say that the "clips were in." This perplexed him, for he hadn't ordered any ammunition. When he asked Eric about it, his son told him he hadn't ordered any ammunition either. When Wayne heard about the shootings at the high school, he called 911:

"Uh ... my son is Eric Harris and I'm afraid that he might be involved in the shooting at Columbine High School."

Eric's parents never gave a formal interview to the police. When investigators executed a search warrant on their house in the aftermath of the shooting, Eric's mom Kathy told them she would rather not have them go through her son's basement room. They did anyway.

Dylan's parents, Tom and Sue Klebold, did talk to investigators, and five years after the shootings, spoke to David Brooks of The New York Times, who reported they said they had "no intimations of Dylan's mental state." In his private journal, Dylan ideated suicide, and wrote about his depression and a dream of ascending to a higher plane of existence.

Immediately after the massacre, both families went into hiding, but Wayne and Kathy Harris returned to their home within a few days. Their neighbors even held a backyard party for them-- just to let them know they didn't blame them for their son's actions. But they moved away from Colorado about a year later. Nobody blamed them for that.

The Klebolds broke up, maybe because of fallout from the massacre.

Sue wrote a 2016 book, "A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy," that might have served her as therapy, but rubbed me the wrong way. You can seek out her TED talk about it. She points out her son died of suicide--that she's a suicide survivor.

In his school planner, in an entry for the Mother's Day he wouldn't live to see, Eric wrote down a quote from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," a line spoken by Miranda to her father Prospero, as he told her about his usurping brother Antonio, who seized Prospero's wealth, land and title: "Good wombs have borne bad sons."

Children are like bullets fired into the air. You don't know where they will land, what hurt and damage they might cause.



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