Tag Archives: Columbine

Will Lanza Report Help Us Understand Mass Killers?

Much reporting has been done about the report on Adam Lanza and the Sandy Hook shootings released by Connecticut state investigators a week ago. But this article from the Hartford Courant caught my eye, in part because it talks about a book Lanza made years ago, and what it might reveal about his longstanding relationship to violent ideas.

The book, called “The Big Book of Granny,” includes a number of violent scenes. It’s being studied by a team at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, one which focuses on patterns and behaviors common in mass shooters — exactly the kind of research we need. Although those researchers and others agree that the book on its own doesn’t automatically indicate that Lanza would eventually do what he did, but it’s potentially a piece of the puzzle.

One expert, former FBI agent and profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, said:

Anyone conducting a 360-degree assessment of Lanza as a child or teenager — and there is no evidence there was any occasion to do such a study — would have had to have considered many other factors beyond the “Granny” story, O’Toole said.

“His mental health issues, coupled with the guns in the house would have been very concerning,” O’Toole said. “You would also want to know, were his family and social relationships strained or deteriorating? Was he becoming more adversarial? Isolated? Alienated? Incommunicative?”

O’Toole said that despite the disturbing writing sample, it would have taken Lanza years more to evolve into a person capable of doing what he did.

This is especially interesting in light of a new book, The Psychopath Inside, by neuroscientist James Fallon, who discovered that his brain matched those of the psychopaths he studied, and yet he wasn’t prone to vicious acts of violence like some were. When he dug deeper to determine why his brain didn’t turn into that of a killer, he pointed to the love and support that surrounded him, particularly in childhood:

“I was loved, and that protected me,” he says. Partly as a result of a series of miscarriages that preceded his birth, he was given an especially heavy amount of attention from his parents, and he thinks that played a key role.

Many researchers have argued over the years that it takes a complex set of ingredients to set someone up to commit a mass killing like Sandy Hook or Columbine. It looks like, with Lanza, we’re getting a little closer to understanding what those ingredients are. Particularly given, in the investigators’ report, they didn’t list his love of video games as a likely motive. Unfortunately, they didn’t come up with any motive at all.

Top 10 backward messages of 2012


James Holmes: Six months later, do we know why he did it?

We’re coming to the end of Backward Messages’ second year, and what a year it was. We had some immense tragedies, including mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut. Goths around the world also took a major hit, with attacks in Iraq and Britain, but a goth singer in the United States surprised everyone. The word “Satan” was tossed around, as it always is, describing everything from Lady Gaga to the Hunger Games.

Last year we looked back at the blog’s top 5 posts, but I wanted to go a little broader. Here’s what drew people most in 2012:

1. Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!” After James Holmes killed a dozen people in a movie theater, the press had a field day trying to answer one deceptively small question: why?

2. Young opera singer proves goth culture can nurture: Although he didn’t last long on “America’s Got Talent,” Andrew De Leon surprised his audience by (gasp!) not sounding like a monster. Go figure.

3. New Yorker cartoon: the pagan version of blackface: Why are Wiccans still depicted like ugly old hags?

4. Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic? I can’t believe I even had to ask that question.

5. Goth, metalhead beaten in separate UK attacks: In the UK, being different remains an unfortunate liability.

6. It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men: After Newtown, how long will it be before we help young men struggling with violent thoughts — and support their families?

7. Bloody bath lands Lady Gaga in hot water: This wasn’t the first or last time Gaga was called “Satanic” this year, but it was one of the more creative. She was also banned from several countries, on the grounds that her stage show is Satanic.

8. “The New Satanism” in heavy metal: Speaking of Satanic, heavy metal persists in not being as Satanic as its reputation makes it out to be, but there are a handful of musicians keeping the faith.

9. Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it? After Columbine, the press has found ways to link almost every youth-committed mass shooting with goth culture. And every time, reporters have been wrong.

10. Iraqi youth stoned to death after leaders link emo culture to Satanism, homosexuality: One of the most heartbreaking stories of the year.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2013!

Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!”


Aurora, Colorado, shooting suspect James Holmes, in a recent mugshot courtesy the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

We’ve had the weekend to begin to digest the news of what happened in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater early Friday morning. While officials spent much of the weekend de-activating suspect James Holmes’ booby-trapped apartment — where the most information about Holmes’ life is likely kept — reporters began circulating among his former friends and neighbors, gathering what shreds of information they could about a man who apparently lived little of his life on the Internet and mostly kept his interests and proclivities private.

In the absence of much information, people’s — and pundits’ — imaginations have begun to fill in the details.

For example, Pat Brown, a criminal profiler, speculated on CNN that video games were at the center of Holmes’ murderous outburst:

“He’s probably prepared for this for a long time, just obsessing over it, gathering his weapons,” Brown said on CNN. ”[He] probably spent a lot of time in his apartment, playing one video game after the other—shooting, shooting, shooting—building up his courage and building up the excitement of when it’s going to be real for him. And it’s made his day.”

“This has been something he has really been into. And now we’re going to find, probably on [Facebook] or anybody who knows him will say, ‘Yeah, he did have a lot of interest in that. He was always playing the video games. And I’m not saying video games make you a killer. But if you’re a psychopath, video games help you get in the mode to do the killing.”

Perhaps more innocently, the Los Angeles Times circulated an article in which a childhood friend of Holmes said the suspected shooter enjoyed video games and movies as a teenager. Of course, that’s like saying a teenager enjoyed loud music, Facebook, and sleeping until noon. None of it describes Holmes with any accuracy, and it especially doesn’t say anything about his ability to plan and commit such a horrific crime. However, pundits like Brown, and anyone who believes video games cause violent behavior, will jump on such a line and consider it evidence.

In fact, much research has found no link between mass shootings and video games. Some shooters may play video games, but the one doesn’t cause the other.

There are a couple of reports that Holmes was into role-playing games. Of course, those reports are coming from fishy-looking Web sites that harbor more conspiracy theories (or, er, boxing information) than actual fact-based journalism.

Then come the religious pundits who argue that the shooting was, in fact, motivated by Satan. In the Christian Post, Greg Stier writes that a text-message exchange about the shootings:

… got me thinking about another “Dark Knight” who ruled the heart of a gunman in Aurora last night. It got me thinking about Satan’s role in the Columbine massacre on April 20th, 1999 when he invaded the hearts of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It got me thinking about Satan and the stranglehold he has in the souls of so many. Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that this dark knight, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” and he did just that last night. He used the trigger finger of this twisted madman to steal innocence, kill people and destroy hope.

Research has indicated that Eric Harris’ psychopathy and Dylan Klebold’s depression, not Satan, was ultimately behind what happened in Columbine. (Apparently Stier didn’t get that memo.) I can understand the impulse to name the Devil as a scapegoat when we don’t understand why something awful has happened, and I’m thankful that Stier is blaming a mythological figure, rather than real-life Satanists, for what went on in that midnight movie.

As long as we blame forces outside ourselves (and to some extent outside our control), we let go of our power over very real, treatable motivations, such as mental illness in the Columbine case. In other words, it means we not only let the killers off the hook, we let ourselves off the hook for not intervening if someone we love goes off the deep end in a catastrophically violent way. It wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t his fault. It was Satan. It was video games. It was role-playing games.

Speaking of Columbine, Dave Cullen, the author of the definitive book on the shootings, wrote a piece in the New York Times decrying the temptation to jump to conclusions, and we all should heed it:

Over the next several days, you will be hit with all sorts of evidence fragments suggesting one motive or another. Don’t believe any one detail. Mr. Holmes has already been described as a loner. Proceed with caution on that. Nearly every shooter gets tagged with that label, because the public is convinced that that’s the profile, and people barely acquainted with the gunman parrot it back to every journalist they encounter. The Secret Service report determined that it’s usually not true.

Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it?


One Chardon High School student told reporters Thomas “TJ” Lane “got into a gothic phase” before Monday’s shootings.

It’s not often that we get two stories like this back to back, but just days after I blogged about goth culture erroneously linked to a UK stabbing, it’s also now being connected with a school shooting in Ohio yesterday that killed three students.

Reporters began combing the Internet and interviewing classmates and neighbors as soon as the gunman’s identity, Thomas “TJ” Lane, was leaked. It wasn’t long before MSNBC rounded up one of Lane’s fellow students who said Lane “got into a gothic phase” before the shootings. Does he explain? Well, sort of:

“He kind of got into the gothic phase and kind of silenced himself from his friends,” Nate Mueller said. “But I mean, he still had friends. He was still a nice kid … I don’t think anybody really ever expected it to be him. We didn’t think he would hurt anybody.”

Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Mueller says he was one of the shooting victims. A bullet grazed his ear. That’s not to say he’s lying about Lane, but people tend to distort or exaggerate facts when they’ve just been through a trauma.

2. What Mueller describes as “gothic” actually translates to “solitary.” These two concepts are not synonymous.

At this point, the term “goth” has become so distorted in mainstream culture — which is a product of the way it’s been linked to violent crimes, and the way outsiders view goths as depressed, lonely, alienated kids — that it no longer holds meaning when reporters use the term. It’s pretty much become a euphemism for a certain kind of outcast, violent-prone teen. But what does that mean for the millions of actual goths who are happily ensconced in their social scene — and who are decidedly peaceful, pacifistic people?

Of course, the link between “goths” and school shooters was popularized in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, when a source claiming to be a Columbine student (he wasn’t) described Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s penchant for black trenchcoats and industrial music as “goth.” But those boys weren’t anything like almost all goths — teen or adult — you will meet. And, so far, I don’t see any evidence that Lane is, either.

That said, people who knew Lane differently are tending to describe him pretty differently. One of his friends told CNN:

Haley Kovacik said she’s in “complete shock” that Lane — whom she described as a “a very normal, just teenage boy” — could be behind the shooting. “He did have a sad look in his eyes a lot of the time, but he talked normally, he never said anything strange,” Kovacik told CNN. “It was a really big shock.”

And, as police revealed Lane’s identity, and a lawyer took up his case, they told reporters:

Thomas “T.J.” Lane … came from a violent family. His father was arrested numerous times for abusing women, including Lane’s mother, according to court records cited by The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Students say that Lane was shy and targeted by bullies. Although the shooting took place at 7:30 a.m. in the Chardon High cafeteria, Lane was enrolled at Lake Academy Alternative School, an institution for “at risk” youths.

It may be years before we get an accurate picture of this boy — as accurate a picture as we can get, filtered through the lenses of trauma, law enforcement, legal defense, and journalism. If we can learn something about Lane that will accurately help the right people identify the next school shooter, great — but so far, there doesn’t seem to be any one single “shooter trait” present in all these young men.

And certainly, “gothic” isn’t it.

Fear leads to anger — and goth-bashing


Thirteen-year-old Casey-Lyanne Kearney was stabbed to death. Her accused killer has been called a “goth.” Not likely.

On Valentine’s Day, Casey-Lynne Kearney was crossing Elmfield Park in Doncaster, England when a woman allegedly stabbed her and left her to die.

Police, who called the assault random and isolated, arrested 26-year-old Hannah Bonser, a Doncaster resident, for Kearney’s murder and and for possession of two knives. Her trial is scheduled to begin July 2.

Even before Bonser appeared in court to defend herself, neighbors described her to the UK’s sensationalism-prone Sun as a goth:

… neighbours in Doncaster described her as having the look of “a Goth” — sporting dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses. She was said to be “addicted” to computer games.

One resident, who asked not to be identified, said: “The police were round here and they took some boxes of stuff from her flat. She was like a rocker, gothic type. She was very quiet.”

Talking to the neighbors is one of the oldest tricks in the reporter’s book. There are a variety of good reasons for this practice, but what neighbors say must always be taken with a grain of salt — these days, many people don’t know their neighbors particularly well, or may even have conflicts with them that drive them to say things they shouldn’t.

Not only are those descriptions very vague and patched-together, they don’t really describe an actual goth. (And, you can see in the court link, Bonser doesn’t look particularly goth.) Most of the time, it takes more than dark hair and “dark-rimmed glasses” to identify a goth. (Also, nice how the slipped in the “video games” angle too, eh?”)

More than that, though, these flimsy descriptions reinforce the false idea that goths are a remotely violent group. This idea, popularized after the Columbine High School killings in Colorado in 1999 (committed by two young men who were also falsely identified as goths), has been tough to shake. People outside the goth culture see the black hair, theatrical makeup and clothing, piercings and studs, and assume their fear of such an off-putting appearance must mean goths are aggressive. In fact, the most aggressive thing about goths is probably their appearance. Religioustolerance.org notes, “Goths tend to be non-violent, pacifistic, passive, and tolerant.”

Often to a fault. In fact, goths are much more often the victims of violence, as in the cases of Sophie Lancaster and Melody McDowell, both of whom were coincidentally assaulted in England.

In some ways, the comments made by Bonser’s neighbors constitute another kind of attack on goths — and reveal the layers of misunderstanding and discomfort that exist against them in modern society.

When someone on UK Yahoo Answers asked why goths are so stigmatized, another responded:

Unfortunately a lot of people (especially those who live in small towns & don’t have a lot of life experience, or even those of a low level of intelligence) will always feel threatened by something that is outside their own experience and/or they do not understand.

Or, to quote a certain wise green muppet, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

When will we stop being so afraid of one another?

Marilyn Manson gets burned again


Christina Paz told police that Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails’ music told her to burn her dad’s house. Should we buy it? Photo by Flickr user Pipistrula.

Here we go again.

Christina Paz, a 29-year-old El Paso resident, set fire to her father’s house two days after Christmas. Nobody was hurt in the blaze, though the home was seriously damaged. Paz told police that she set the fire because there were messages in Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails’ music telling her to do it.

Those same bands, she said, also told her that:

“her mom and dad for trying to kill her on Christmas Day, that they had planned to sodomize her and chop her up with the help of a neighbor.”

These are some outrageous, likely psychotic, beliefs. And yet, they’re reported practically as fact by the El Paso Times reporter, alongside facts such as Paz grew up in the house, her father was in a nursing home, and her relationship with him was “complicated.”

Her arson method? She painted a bed with super glue, then struck a match. When police arrived, she was standing in the front yard, and turned herself in. She’s being held on bail.

Unfortunately, her arrest makes it less likely that she will be evaluated for the number of medical causes of psychosis, from brain tumors and infections to hormonal imbalances and some forms of epilepsy. This woman needs a competent doctor, not a prison sentence.

Meanwhile, we see two bands dragged through the mud, however falsely. For the record, neither band has songs that encourage people to set fires (or suggest that their families plan to victimize them in the way Paz believed). Manson was falsely implicated in the Columbine High School shootings, even though Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not fans of the band. Erroneous reporting by overly eager reporters led to the idea that this music could incite violence, and the reputation has stuck, many debunkings later.

There has never been any proof that music alone can provoke violent behavior. The many, many court cases that have attempted to prove a link have been thrown out. And fans of music — loud, angry music especially — says the music soothes them, calms their more aggressive impulses. It doesn’t worsen them.

Who are you going to listen to: the one music fan who claims she heard hidden, arson-fueled messages in the music and acted upon them, or the millions of fans who didn’t?

If you dress goth, are you asking for trouble?


Melody McDermott was brutally attacked on a tram in Manchester because she is a goth. She’s now recovering from a broken eye socket.

Four years ago, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster was walking through a Lancashire park at night with her boyfriend when they were beset upon by a group of teenage boys. The teens assaulted Robert Maltby first, then turned on Sophie when she tried to protect him. Robert recovered, but Sophie died of her injuries.

This was no isolated incident. Goths throughout the UK and America face bullying and assault on a regular basis, mostly because of their appearance. In greater Manchester, it happened again last month.

Melody McDermott was riding a tram with a male friend on Oct. 5 when a group of males began shouting at her. Without warning, they pushed her to the ground and one or more began stomping on her face. She was left with a broken eye socket, but is recovering. Her friend suffered a black eye.

After Lancaster’s death, many in the goth community rallied in favor of calling such attacks hate crimes — until then, a “hate crime” only included an attack based on race or sexual orientation. According to Wikipedia, In May 2009 the Justice Minister Jack Straw said while he could not change the law, he could amend the sentencing guidelines to require judges to treat an attack on a member of a subculture as an aggravating factor.

Although the Columbine High School shootings mistakenly convinced many that goths are aggressive, most are actually so pacifistic that they will not fight back when assaulted. Their combination of unusual appearance and unwillingness to hurt people unfortunately makes them vulnerable.

Since the attack on Melody, goths from all over the world have come forward to talk about members of the subculture as recurring targets for violence. “When is this hate and bullying going to end?” asked one woman. “My 9 year old gets picked on just ’cause she had brain cancer and me and her dad are goth.”

“This shows how important it is to class sub-culture to the list of hate crimes,” said another. “If they had beaten her for being gay/black/muslim they would get jail time for sure, but because she’s just a girl in black clothing, they will get off with a fine/community service. I am so sick of this.”

Unfortunately, such attacks leave others frightened: “Every time there’s a hate crime, I’m a bit more scared to go out. It’s shocking just how far some people will go. I’m scared to walk alone and I’m 20.”

But others championed Melody and wished her strength: “I hope Melody comes through this even stronger than before, and that she realises that they only hate because they don’t have the guts to express themselves like she has.”

What’s the solution here? Can we teach people not to bully and assault others just because they’re different? Should goths “tone it down” to make themselves less vulnerable?