72° Good Afternoon
72° Good Afternoon

Why do kids kill?

OREFIELD, Pa. - Shortly after the massacre at Columbine High School, a question popped into Peter Langman's mind: What would possess a child to pick up a gun, take it to school and mow down his classmates?

His interest wasn't merely academic. Langman, a child psychologist, had been asked to evaluate ateenager who posted a hit list on his Web site.

"To be sitting face to face with someone who was thought to be a potential risk for doing somethinglike a Columbine attack was very intense," Langman says now.

"A lot was riding on what we did with him. This was a potential mass murderer." Since there was very little research at the time to guide him, Langman says, he felt an "ethical obligation" to learn all he could about the psychology of school shooters.

The result of his decade-long inquiry: a book that plumbs the lives of 10 notorious school shooters -- including Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho -- to draw conclusions about what set them off.

In "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters," released by Palgrave Macmillan justbefore the 10th anniversary of the slayings in Littleton, Colo., Langman writes that most of theshooters were severely mentally ill, their defective personalities and disordered minds causingexistential rage that found its expression in mass murder.

Harris, 18, was a psychopath -- rage-filled, egotistical, lacking conscience, writes Langman.Klebold, 17, was psychotic, suffering from paranoia, delusions and disorganized thinking. Together,they fatally shot 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 before committing suicide at Columbineon April 20, 1999.

To diagnose the conditions of Harris and Klebold, Langman examined 27,000 pages of records fromthe Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, including 5,000 pages previously unseen. While others havepointed out that Harris exhibited the classic behaviors of a psychopath, Klebold was more of amystery. His journal, released publicly in 2006, gave Langman crucial insights into his personality.

"The biggest eye-opener was the extent to which Dylan Klebold really was mentally disturbed.That was not in the literature, not in the media accounts. To realize that, you had to see his journal,"says Langman, clinical director of KidsPeace, a 127-year-old Pennsylvania-based charity withtreatment centers from Maine to Florida. "His journal is very fascinating, a very disturbed piece ofwriting." Like Klebold, four other psychotic shooters profiled by Langman "were suicidallydepressed and full of rage at the inexplicable unfairness of life," writes the 49-year-old psychologist.

"In addition, they were not living in reality. They all believed that people or monsters conspired todo them harm. ... They were confused and desperate and lost in the mazes of their minds." At first,Langman's conclusions might sound obvious: These kids would have to be crazy to go to their schooland open fire. But the public and the media, especially in the immediate aftermath of a schoolshooting, have usually focused on other factors: the killers' fascination with violent movies and videogames, their easy access to guns, even the side effects of psychiatric drugs.

Langman says some of these may have been factors but do not by themselves explain rampageattacks in places like Littleton and West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Springfield, Ore.Millions of kids watch violent movies and live in households that harbor firearms. Yet only a fewhave ever gone on to become mass murderers.

The most prevalent misconception about school shootings, Langman contends, is that they areperpetrated by loners or outcasts striking out against classmates who bullied them. In reality, mostshooters were teased no more or no less than their peers, most had friends, and most of the victimswere targeted at random.

But to a public grasping for easy answers, "retaliation makes sense. Kid's picked on, comes toschool, gets revenge. There's a clarity to that that we can all relate to," Langman says in aninterview in his small, sterile office north of Allentown, its shelves packed with thick diagnosticmanuals and books on therapy, psychology and child-rearing.

"I think a lot of people like a simple answer," he continues, "because if there's a simple answermaybe there's a simple solution." While writing extensively about Columbine, Langman also focuseson the blood-soaked academic year of 1997-98, when attacks at six schools horrified the nation.

He draws on the work of Katherine Newman, a Princeton University sociologist whose 2004 book"Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings" focused on West Paducah and Jonesboro, two of theearliest attacks. Newman is an anthropologist, not a psychologist, so she approaches the question ofschool shootings from a different perspective.

While many shooters undoubtedly suffer from mental illness, Newman says, their attacks can'tsolely be attributed to their psychiatric conditions. Psychology, for example, can't explain why schoolshootings happen in small towns and not big cities.

"Shooters are trying to accomplish something. They are trying to change the way that other kids intheir peer groups define them," she says.

Langman agrees: Mental illness alone is not the answer, if only because the overwhelming majorityof troubled kids are not homicidal. Rather, rampage attacks are caused by "complex combinations ofenvironmental, family, and individual factors" that vary from perpetrator to perpetrator, he writes. That doesn't mean they can't be predicted -- and stopped.

Langman talks about some of the teens he evaluated. One was a 14-year-old who "just stared andstared." Another beat up his mother and calmly contemplated a killing spree. A third built bombsand had a hit list. But not all of them posed an imminent danger.

How did he know? His conclusion depended on whether they had engaged in "attack-relatedbehavior" -- that is, taken concrete steps toward an assault.

In the wake of Columbine, such threat assessment has become commonplace at schools around thenation. But Newman and Langman say each generation of kids needs to be taught what to look for,because today's teens view Columbine as ancient history. And because a school shooting is arelatively rare event, it's easy to get complacent.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

More news