In 1999, Dave Cullen was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School after is was attacked by students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. By his own account, as a reporter at the time, Cullen, “ran with the pack that created the myths we are still living with.”
Just as the media rushed to an incorrect conclusion there — that the shooting boiled down to two outcast loners exacting revenge against the school jocks for relentlessly bullying them — Cullen cautions against sealing the file on James Holmes. Most often, he argues, a killer is not what he seems.
“We have this idea in our mind of what these guys are like and we have this profile, with loner being one of the key things, of someone being an outcast on the fringe of society, somebody who is different than us … and our friends,” Cullen said. “It’s really imaginary.”
Cullen went onto explain that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service have released comprehensive reports analyzing the character traits of these mass murders, only to find there is no single profile.
Rather than a single profile, there are four major types of personalities associated with mass murderers like Holmes. There is the deeply depressed —probably the most common of the four personality types; there is the clinical or sadistic psychopath, which we saw in Eric Harris with the Columbine shooting; there is the deeply mentally ill like Seung-hui Cho of the Virginia Tech Massacre, a rarely seen personality in association with these mass killings; and there is the terrorist, someone who carries out mass murder for political reasons with a clear intent and clear message.
However, Cullen said there is not enough information to support an analysis of Holmes’ character and he would not say which category or personality type Holmes fell into.
But it is human nature to want to understand tragedy and the motives of others, Cullen said, which explains our desire to diagnose Holmes prematurely.
Our listeners tuned in and some couldn’t help but hypothesize on whom Holmes is or why he carried out the mass shooting Friday morning.
“I think it is more likely a troubled past, bullying, self esteem issues, personal and family problems, potentially even passive aggressive parenting and stress put upon him,” wrote Allen in Torrance. “We would much rather assume he is "crazy" than realize the psyche can be fragile and is usually caused by other people over time.”
The events leading up to the Colorado tragedy this past Friday and the motives of the alleged shooter remain unclear, but Cullen has one piece of advice: for journalists, who continue to try and piece together this story, remember there are consequence to reporting misinformation.
“With journalists, it’s a really well-intentioned drive...we have this burning need to figure this out and help people [understand],” he said. “But when you have an audience of a million people or more, I think we in the media, have to be more careful.”
Dave Cullen, author of “Columbine,” and the New York Times op-ed “Don’t Jump to Conclusions About the Killer”