While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel (filled with good fruit/people), a vinegar barrel will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles—regardless of the best intentions, resilience, and genetic nature of the cucumbers. So does it make more sense to spend resources to identify, isolate, and destroy bad apples or to understand how vinegar works . . . ?
—Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo
It was 11:19 a.m. on April 20, 1999 — Hitler’s 110th birthday—when Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Hoping to kill most of the 400-plus students eating at the time, the pair planted two twenty-pound bombs in the school cafeteria. Then they waited outside the building, hoping to pick off blast survivors as they staggered out.
When the bombs failed to detonate, the pair stormed into the cafeteria and opened fire. Forty minutes later twelve students and a teacher lay lifeless; another twenty-three students were wounded—many gravely. Harris and Klebold also were dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Police worked into the next day to find and deactivate the thirty bombs the pair had planted throughout the school ( Wickipedia: Columbine high school massacre ).
The FBI’s Bad Apples
What set Harris and Klebold off? The FBI’s team of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, including a Michigan State University psychiatrist and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s chief Columbine investigator, and a clinical psychologist, assert that Harris killed because he was a “psychopath.” Klebold, they say, was “hotheaded, depressive, suicidal,” and under Harris’s influence.(Dave Cullen The depressive and the psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it. posted Tuesday, April 20, 2004.)
The FBI experts are not claiming that Harris was delusional or out of touch with reality. They are asserting that he was a world-class hater out to punish humanity for its inexcusable inferiority. Is the FBI correct? Was this horrific incident the evil spawn of a remorseless teenager with a world-class superiority complex and an angry, suicidal alter ego?
The Columbine Pickle Barrel
What was the situation at Columbine before the massacre? Was this high school one of those vinegar-filled barrels that transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles, or were Harris and Kleebold bad apples who spoiled an otherwise good barrel?
A painstaking investigative report by the Washington Post describes pre-massacre Columbine as filled with social vinegar. The high school was dominated by a “cult of the athlete.” ( Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff, Dissecting Columbine’s cult of the athlete, Washington Post, June 12, 1999, Page A-1.) In this distorted environment a coterie of favored jocks—who wore white hats to set themselves apart—consistently bullied, hazed, and sexually harassed their classmates while receiving preferential treatment from school authorities.
Other students hated the abuses of “the steroid poster boys” but could do little. A former student testified, “Pretty much everyone was scared to take them on; if you said anything, they’d come after you, too.”
Here is more of what the Post found was going on at Columbine:
Bullying was rampant and unchecked. For instance, a father told Post reporters about two athletes mercilessly bullying his son, a Jew, in gym class. They sang songs about Hitler, pinned the youngster to the ground and did “body twisters” on him until he was black and blue, and even threatened to set him on fire. The father reported the bullying to the gym teacher as well as who also was the wrestling coach, but it continued. When the father took his complaint to the guidance counselor, he says, he was told, “This stuff can happen.” The outraged father had to complain to the school board to get relief for his son.
Athletes convicted of crimes were neither suspended from games nor expelled from school. The homecoming king, a star football player, was on parole for burglary yet still permitted to play. Columbine’s state wrestling champ was allowed to compete despite being on court-ordered probation, and school officials did nothing when he regularly parked his $100,000 Hummer all day in a fifteen-minute parking space.
Sexual harassment by athletes was common and ignored. For example, when a girl complained to her teacher that a football player was making lewd comments about her breasts in class, the teacher, also a football and wrestling coach, suggested she change her seat. When an athlete loudly made similar comments at a Columbine wrestling match, the girl complained to the same coach and he suggested she move to the other side of the gym. Finally, the girl complained to a woman working at the concession stand, who called police. The next day a school administrator tried to persuade the girl’s mother to drop the charges, telling her that pressing them would prevent the boy from playing football. When the youngster was found guilty, he still was permitted to play.
How important were these injustices to Harris and Klebold? Did they care about them, or even know about them? The facts are they both knew and cared profoundly. In fact, the Post reports that dozens of interviews and court records alike show that the pair’s homicidal anger “. . . began with the injustices of the jocks.”
They became convinced that favored athletes could get away with anything. For instance, a close friend reported that the pair saw a star athlete, in front of a teacher, forcefully shove his girlfriend into a locker. The teacher did nothing. Such injustices enraged Harris and Klebold. That’s why, just before opening fire in the cafeteria, they demanded that all the jocks stand up. They planned to kill them first.
In sum, pre-massacre Columbine High seems to have been the kind of place that “will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles.” The FBI’s experts clearly had fallen into something social psychologists call fundamental attribution error, which is falsely ascribing behavior to temperament or personality while underestimating the power of situational factors on the same behavior.
See ” at “Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Fundamental Attribution Error and the Columbine Massacre