In 1999, two teens, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a shooting rampage at their Colorado high school, killing 13. While most people were horrified by the events, another subsect of people were and continue to be fascinated by the tragedy and the two teens who committed the act. "Columbiners" is the term given to those people, many of whom are too young to even remember the event itself.
Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath, 23, and Randall Steven Shepherd, 21, were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the Halifax plot. Another teen, James Gamble, who was also suspected of involvement, was found dead after police surrounded his family's home on Friday. Each posted pictures of the Columbine shooters or made comments related to Columbine in the days leading up to the alleged attack plot. The three had supposedly had correspondence online.
Friends of the suspects, including those who had similar fascinations with violence and gore, didn't think Gamble or Shepherd would ever commit an act of violence, which raises the question: When does a fascination with violence go from an unpleasant Tumblr account to an actual act of violence? What are the warning signs, and when should friends and family members be concerned?
Patrick Wanis, PhD, a behaviour expert and psychotherapist, has extensively studied the behaviour of mass murderers. He said there are no simple answers in these situations. "Particularly when we're talking about mass murders, mass killers and massacres, there is never one simple answer. It's never black and white. However, having said that, there many, many signs," he said.
Medication is often a common factor in mass killings. "Not enough research has been done in the link between medication and murder, death, suicide and violence. If you look at most of these cases, the majority of people that committed these acts were on some sort of medication," Wanis said. In addition, he noted that the teenage brain is much more sensitive to these medications, so the side effects can be much more dramatic. Wanis encourages parents to know the side effects of any medications their children are on — even adult children — and to pay attention to signs that might indicate the medication is having a negative impact.
Chronic stress is another component that may play a role in these cases. Wanis said studies have revealed that chronic stress can actually shrink the cells in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the area that controls our ability to make decisions and control our impulses and emotional desires. Teens and young adults in particular are dealing with hormonal, emotional and physical stressors in addition to the pressure of daily life to fit in. This combination of constant stress can push some people over the edge.
Those factors combined with extreme isolation, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of extreme disappointment or feeling like a victim are what often drive people to be fascinated by events like Columbine, Wanis explained. Evil acts are inherently powerful, and it's that power these people are seeking. It gives people a sense of security and a sense of significance. Even in death, they can obtain infamy, much like Harris and Klebold did.
Wanis explained that all people have the capacity to commit evil acts — even murder. We all have a fascination with events like Columbine — just look at the media coverage if you disagree with such a bold statement. The problem lies in what these people are fascinated with and their inability to separate violence from reality. Author and psychotherapist Edie Raether explained that, after a period of time, anything you see frequently becomes normal. "When a young child plays violent video games, the mind is mesmerized and in an altered state and thus more receptive to what is experienced. To kill becomes common and 'normal,'" she said. A similar process takes place online when people involved in these communities obsessed with Columbine, Hitler and other violent acts become desensitized to it. "Within that subculture a new cultural norm is established," she explained.
A change in behaviour, particularly in the form of withdrawal, either from people or from activities, is often the first sign that something is wrong. Talking about death frequently or of murdering people or other obvious signs like the collection of weapons should be red flags. While this may sound obvious, unfortunately it isn't always given the attention it deserves.
The good news is that there is hope for people who are feeling isolated, hopeless and powerless and for their families. "There are always signs, characteristics and symptoms that say this person is going to commit an act of violence," Wanis said. Preventing violence starts at home. "We recognize that one of the greatest human desires and needs is love and connection," Wanis explained.
Edie Raether agrees. "Until we make parents more responsible for the actions of their children in these types situations, violence will continue to threaten our society. Anyone can be a parent, but 'parenting' requires effort, communication, caring, time and a lot of hard work," she said.
Simple phrases like "I am willing to listen" and "I support you" can make a huge difference in the life of a person who feels extreme isolation. Simply being aware of the stresses and anxieties in someone's life and being willing to acknowledge them and show them you care can go a long way toward preventing a depressed or unstable person from turning their negative thoughts into violence toward others. Don't assume someone else will help — take action. Wanis encourages people to go to the authorities for help too.
Luckily the Halifax plot was prevented before it became a tragedy, but one teen is still dead, while two young adults sit in jail. Their story isn't an isolated incident, and unfortunately a similar event will likely happen again. That's why it's crucial for everyone to have a better understanding of what signs lead to violent acts and what they can do to help.
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