A boy and a girl were talking online.
BOY: if everyone was dead except say 4 or 5 of us, would you want to build up a new human race or eventually let us go extinct?
GIRL: i think i would want us to go extinct but it would be inevitable that people would have sex..
GIRL: it just is inevitable.
maybe if we were all sterile. (couldnt reproduce)
and i think all stupids should be sterile anyway
BOY: yeah, in our dreams.
it would be great if we were that lucky.
i dont think i would want to bring a child into this world.
The boy was more serious than his chat partner could have known. He thought about mass extinction all the time. He hated humans… in fact, he hated just about everything.
But he loved being online. Free information coming in, and an anonymous public stage going out, all of it unfiltered. One of the first things he plucked from the stream of 1’s and 0’s was The Anarchist Cookbook.
For his own contributions, the boy left behind some home-brew DOOM levels, and a public web page, with two lists on it. The first one was all of his answers to the prompt “YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!?” — entries on it included “PEOPLE WHO ARE MEAN TO ANIMALS!!!!!” and “when people drive really slow in the fast lane!” His list of hates scrolled for pages, on and on.
His family knew he had anger problems, and they cared about him. They made him see a counselor, who had prescribed him Luvox. Traces of the drug would be found in his bloodstream, when it was all over.
The second list — things he loved — was much shorter. “Driving FAST!” and “making fun of stupid people doing stupid things!” Most of what he identified as love, it seems, came from the way hatred felt in his heart:
YOU KNOW WHAT I LOVE!!!?
Natural SELECTION!!!!!!! God damn its the best thing that ever happened to the Earth. Getting rid of all the stupid and weak organisms……but its all natural!! YES! I wish the government would just take off every warning label. So then all the dumbasses would either severely hurt themselves or DIE! And boom, no more dumbasses. Heh.
Modern society was crooked; the human species had defied nature’s innate laws by living peacefully, and ensuring that the weak were free to multiply, overwhelming the exceptional beings and enslaving them. The way things were supposed to be — the natural order — was “might makes right.” And he believed he was mighty.
The boy was smart. He knew to keep his most antisocial thoughts to himself — or online, where no adult would find them. But he was also arrogant, so he liked to drop hints, for fun. In his video-production class at school, he made a commercial for a “hitmen for hire” revenge service, featuring him and his partner stomping through the halls of Columbine High School in their black trench coats, intimidating a bully. It was a preview of the uniform he had settled on for the attack: black duster, black military-style pants, and black combat boots. He even had a t-shirt custom-made for the day: white, with black text reading “NATURAL SELECTION” across the chest. And he would finish off the costume with a black, fingerless glove on his right hand.
He gave the matching glove to his partner. The boy in the left glove was from the same high school class, but a few months younger, still seventeen years old. He was taller at 6’4”, but also gawkier, and more shy — afterward, people who knew both boys seemed a little more surprised that Left was capable of what they did. He wore a black shirt on the day of the attack, with red block-lettering: “WRATH”.
Their code-name for the plan was “NBK” — Natural Born Killers. No one knows which one of the boys really started the whole thing; Right was the more dedicated of the pair, but the first hints of what was to come appear in Left’s journal: in late 1997 — the school year in America that almost seemed haunted by shootings — he makes an almost passing mention of a plan to obtain a gun, after which, “I’ll go on my killing spree against anyone I want.” By February of 1998, the idea has started to crystallize: he writes about his depression, and a girl at school, predicting, “Soon… either I’ll commit suicide, or I’ll get with [her] & it will be NBK for us. My happiness. Her happiness. NOTHING else matters.”
It seems Left wanted to become Mickey from Natural Born Killers… but he couldn’t get a Mallory. The girl at school barely even knew him. She would soon fade as part of the fantasy… but “NBK” would stay a two-person job. He couldn’t go alone.
Left titled his journal “Existences,” and its pages reflect that he was depressed, and suicidal (though he never took any medication for it). His philosophy overlapped with some of his partner Right’s “natural selection” rhetoric, but the perspective was different: his metaphor for life was that everyone was faced with a sheer, vertical cliff. Finding the ideal climbing partner made all the difference, because together, a couple could reach the plateau: true love. He, however, was cursed. Innately burdened. “Clinging onto the smallest rocks” and watching as everyone else climbed past. Sometimes, it felt like they climbed right over him.
* * *
One day in Creative Writing class, Left turned in a short story. He wrote it as if he witnessed the events with his own eyes: It depicted a mysterious male figure, dressed in black, heavily armed and “fueled by some untold purpose, what Christians would call evil.” It was after midnight, and the man was on foot, approaching a busy college-town pub. As he passed by, the story’s narrator could “feel his anger, cutting thru the air like a razor.”
A group of “college-preps, about nine of them” happened to be exiting the bar just then, and they stopped in their tracks upon seeing the man in black. One of them sarcastically muttered “nice trenchcoat dude.” Another, “the smallest of the group, obviously a cocky, power hungry prick,” dared the gunman to shoot, calling him a “pussy” and questioning if he was even capable of pulling the trigger.
The man in black laughed. Left described the sound of it in detail:
It was faint at first, but grew in intensity and power as I heard the man laugh. This laugh would have made Satan cringe in Hell. For almost half a minute this laugh, spawned from the most powerful place conceivable, filled the air, and thru the entire town, the entire world. The town activity came to a stop, and all attention was now drawn to this man.
The man in black took out his guns, and shot all of the “preps.” Then he pressed a button on a small transmitter he had in his pocket; in the distance, a series of explosions rumbled, what the narrator understood were “diversions, to attract the cops.”
Calmly leaving back the way he came, the man in black passed by the narrator once more. “He stopped, and gave me a look I will never forget,” Left wrote. “If I could face an emotion of god, it would have looked like the man. I not only saw in his face, but also felt eminating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness. The man smiled, and in that instant, thru no endeavor of my own, I understood his actions.”
It was two months before their attack, and they had just obtained their guns.
* * *
It was not going to be a “random” act. They had a single, specific target: the school. The place where their existences came into contact with the system, and the site of many humiliations for them both. They had long memories, and thin skin. They wanted revenge for everything, against everyone.
But if there was any one moment that pushed them over the edge, it came in January of 1998, according to what Right wrote in Left’s yearbook: “My wrath for January’s incident will be godlike. Not to mention our revenge in the commons. GAWWWD SOOO many people need to die.”
However, early 1998 seems to have been a particularly trying time for the boys: three different events stand out as candidates for “the January incident.”
The first indignity happened at the school. Left came home one day with his clothes covered in ketchup stains. He was very upset. His mother asked what happened, but Left refused to say, only explaining that it was “the worst day of his life.” Later, the story came out: a circle of boys had been “taunting” Left and Right in the commons, shoving them, calling them “fags,” and spraying them with ketchup packets in front of everyone. The exact details of the incident vary, and it may be more of an embellished rumor than whatever actually happened; but then, it was always the injury to their image that really pissed them off.
The second event happened during class. Someone in the school “reported” the boys, saying they had drugs on them; the two were taken out of class, and searched. Their lockers and their cars were searched, too. Meanwhile, the school watched, and whispered rumors that it had been a false report, just done to humiliate them. The assumption around Columbine was, the “jocks” had been behind it.
The third event happened miles away from the school, in the middle of the night. The two boys had been conducting what they called “missions” for the past year — mostly petty theft or vandalism, or sometimes setting off a pipe bomb in the woods. That particular night, they had happened upon an electrician’s van, parked unsupervised on a quiet backwoods road; the stuff inside looked valuable, so they broke the window, took a few handfuls, and drove off. Once they found a parking lot and started sorting through their haul, the cop following right behind them announced his presence, and put them under arrest. When it was all said and done, they each got 12 months in a youth diversion program, some fines, and 45 hours of community service. (This was, also, why Right was made to see a psychiatrist.) The “superior” beings had been outsmarted by the system they hated, and made to submit. Inside, they nurtured fantasies of settling the score.
* * *
As this was going on in the suburbs, Timothy McVeigh’s trial was underway in the city; a federal judge had determined that there was no way the bomber could get an impartial jury in Oklahoma, and chose Denver as the venue instead. The trial went on for months, plus the sentencing proceedings. The notorious bomber was on local TV and in the Denver newspapers all the time.
Right, in particular, appears to have become fixated on the Oklahoma City bombing. The scope of the destruction was unprecedented, and McVeigh’s face was on the cover of TIME magazine, cast in an aura of terror. Yet the bomber was defiant, never expressing a shred of remorse for attacking “the system.” And McVeigh had chosen a date that was already notorious, and forced comparisons: April 19th. The burning of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. When the day came around again in 1995, he detonated his truck bomb in Oklahoma City. One fireball, overlapping another. Striking back.
So, the two boys in Littleton chose a date for NBK: April 19th, 1999. Not because they considered themselves McVeigh’s comrades, either; more like his competition.
The “system” materialized before them in one structure, the source and the symbol of nature’s order being violated: Columbine High School. Their plan was detailed, but the concept itself was simple: they were going to blow up their high school, and then shoot as many survivors as they could. Then, they would die.
* * *
Right turned in a class assignment in late 1998. It was an analysis of the recently-enacted “Brady Bill” (which by now had been expanded to apply to long guns as well as handguns). He wrote that there were still “a few loopholes” in the law, and that “the biggest gaping hole is that the background checks are only required for licensed dealers…not private dealers.” Indeed, this rule was commonly known as the “Gun Show Loophole,” as it allowed attendees at the shows to “sell shotguns and rifles to anyone who is 18 or older,” as Right put it in his essay. No background check at all.
Prom was approaching, then. But Right wasn’t attending. His mother mentioned something about that to her hairdresser: that her son wasn’t able to find a date, and she had felt so sorry for him earlier that day, sitting next to him on his bed as he reflected, “Sometimes being a teenager really sucks.”
Left, meanwhile, did have a date for the prom. She wasn’t his Mallory, but she was eighteen, and she liked him, so he knew he could exploit her. He got her to buy most of their firearms for them, at a gun show in Denver, passing neatly through the exact loophole that Right had written about. There was no background check, and no forms to sign; handing her two friends their straw purchases, the girl asked if they were going to shoot anyone, and they assured her: they weren’t that stupid.
Prom was on Saturday, April 17th. They got a limo, and Left wore a tux, a flask of Schnapps tucked in his jacket pocket. Classmates saw him laughing and carrying on that night, exchanging pleasantries with the same people he was planning, shortly, to incinerate.
The team had some last-minute difficulties obtaining ammo, and ended up delaying “NBK.” The attack on Columbine was rescheduled for the next day — which, it so happened, was Adolf Hitler’s birthday; that may have just been coincidence, but the boys certainly didn’t mind.
April 20, 1999
Columbine High School
5:30am: Left’s parents hear him yell “bye” on his way out the door. It’s his usual time to leave for school. They assume he is headed to his 6:00am bowling class.
6:00am: The bowling instructor takes roll. Left and Right are recorded absent.
8:25am: In second period, Columbine’s closed-circuit “Rebel News Network” plays the school’s daily announcements on the televisions in the classrooms. The “thought for the day” is a senior prank, making reference to the marijuana-themed “holiday” that some students would be ditching class for. The text scrolling across the screens reads “You don’t want to be here today. 4/20, 4/20”
9:12am: Surveillance cameras at a Texaco gas station, a couple miles from Right’s house, capture some blurry footage of a teenage boy buying a tank of propane. He is wearing sunglasses, and a white t-shirt with black lettering across the front.
He has already purchased several more tanks, at gas stations around Littleton. Meanwhile, Left is at another station, filling gas cans.
At some point in the morning, one or both of them drives to an empty field near Right’s house, and plants a backpack in the grass. Inside it is an explosive device, with a timer set.
9:30am (approx): The pair meet up again at Right’s house. His parents are both at work. The two assemble explosive devices in the back seats of their cars, and, according to their plans, “practice gear-ups.” They know they have some time to spare at this point; they had scouted the commons carefully over the last few weeks, keeping track of the exact moment when the most students would be packed into that one place: 11:17am.
Sometime around 10:45am, Right picks up a video camera. He begins filming Left, who is standing in his family room, and tells him, “Say it now.”
“Hey mom,” Left speaks to the camera. “Gotta go. It’s about half an hour before our little judgment day.” He apologizes for “any crap this might instigate” — anticipating the civil lawsuits to follow — and quickly signs off: “Just know I’m going to a better place than here. I didn’t like life too much and I know I’ll be happier wherever the fuck I go. So I’m gone. Good-bye.”
Left takes the camera, and the view flips around, filming Right.
“Yeah…Everyone I love, I’m really sorry about all this. I know my mom and dad will be just like… fucking shocked beyond belief. I’m sorry alright. I can’t help it.”
Left interjects: “We did what we had to do.”
They leave some meager possessions to their friends — “if you guys live” — and then both say a final “Good-bye.” In the footage, they are dressed in their chosen t-shirts and black pants. Two large duffel bags are visible on the floor around them.
11:00am: The pair drives separately to Columbine High School, a five-mile trip. Right parks in the Junior lot, and Left parks in the Senior lot. Neither are in their assigned parking spots.
A classmate, on his way across the street for a cigarette, sees Right in the parking lot. He asks him why he wasn’t in class for a final exam, earlier that morning. Right, taking a duffel bag out of his car, just laughs, and says, “It doesn’t matter anymore.” Right tells his classmate “I like you now. Get out of here.”
The boy can tell Right is very serious, but he is also bewildered by this statement, playing it back in his mind as he continues away from the school; the two were once friends, and had recently mended fences, but there had been long, very bitter times in between. Right had even threatened to kill him, publicly. The cops knew all about it.
11:14am: The surveillance cameras facing the commons in Columbine High School stop recording, while the custodian changes and rewinds the tape.
11:15am: Right and Left each carry duffel bags, containing large homemade explosive devices, into the commons. Blending into the dense lunch crowd, they manage to plant the bags and exit, largely without notice.
There are 488 students in the commons, and as far as intent, Left and Right have just murdered each and every one of them — “jock” and “goth” alike.
11:16am: Left and Right each return to their cars. They have a good view of the school’s front entrance, and the entrance to the commons. They count the seconds until 11:17am, awaiting the visual they have been planning and imagining for a year and a half: their school, exploding into flames and chaos. They prepare to attack the survivors of the initial blast.
11:17am: …nothing happens. The bombs don’t go off.
Right and Left meet back up, somewhere in the parking lot, and talk. It is evident that the timers on the bombs in the commons have failed — and meanwhile, the ones in their cars are already ticking.
They hastily come up with a “plan B”: apparently, to flip the order of the shooting and bombing. Now they would shoot their way into the school, and try to detonate the bombs manually, before any responding forces can stop them.
11:19am: Left and Right are seen ascending the concrete steps outside of the school, leading from the commons downstairs to a hallway entrance at the top. They are wearing their black trench coats, which conceal their guns. Around them, groups of students are streaming out of the commons, or lying in the grass, eating lunch in the sun.
One of the two shouts “Go! Go!” — and the team suddenly take out their rifles and sawed-off shotguns, and shoot as many of their classmates as they can.
The gunmen laugh and hoot as they fire. One shouts, “This is what we always wanted to do!” The other shouts back, “This is awesome!”
11:20am: Across town, someone reports a small fire in a field. Emergency Services dispatches one engine to put it out; responders find an un-exploded backpack bomb, and some burnt grass around it from the fuse going off. The shooters intended this to be “a diversion, to attract the cops,” and buy more time. But it doesn’t work.
11:22am: The security cameras in the commons start recording again. As the footage picks back up, students are all turning to look at something out the window. They hesitate, looking confused: is it a senior prank? A fight?
Meanwhile, there is another change evident in the camera’s view, after the recording resumes: two of the lunch tables each have large, black duffel bags placed under them. Students stand just inches away, oblivious.
11:24am: A teacher suddenly comes sprinting through the commons on his way upstairs, motioning frantically for the kids to evacuate. As if coming out of a trance, the students suddenly begin to stampede toward the exits. Others hide under the tables. Meanwhile, the sound of gunfire has moved inside the school.
11:25am: A sheriff’s deputy — Columbine’s resource officer — arrives on the scene, and witnesses Right shooting near the upstairs entrance, next to the library. The deputy shoots at Right from the parking lot, and Right returns fire. Both miss, and then Right retreats into the school, clearing a jam in his rifle. The deputy stays put, awaiting backup.
11:26am: The teacher who had warned the students in the commons has now reached the top of the staircase, and is running up the hall — when he suddenly encounters the gunmen, shooting and throwing pipe bombs near the library entrance. The teacher stops, and turns to run the other way. Right shoots the teacher, seriously wounding him. The man takes cover in a science classroom, along with a few students who begin to frantically perform what first-aid they can.
The shooters continue on, roaming the hallways for several minutes, blowing up lockers and shooting wildly.
Meanwhile, in the library, hiding behind the counter, another teacher is on the phone with 9-1-1. On the recording, she is heard periodically shouting at the fifty or so students in the library, “Get under the tables!”
She tells the dispatcher that alarms are going off, and that smoke has begun pouring into the library from the explosions in the hall. Then, in the middle of her conversation with 9-1-1, she goes quiet, as the gunmen burst into the library.
11:30am: One of the gunmen shouts “everybody get up!” — or it might have been “all jocks stand up!” Either way, no one obeys; all of the students stay in their hiding spots under the library tables. One of the gunmen says, “Fine, I’ll start shooting.”
Behind the counter, the teacher who had called 9-1-1 quietly crawls to a better hiding spot, dropping the phone’s handset. But the line stays open, and for the next seven-and-one-half minutes, Littleton’s emergency services can hear periodic, indistinct shouting, and bursts of gunfire, as the two gunmen move around the library, terrorizing their helpless classmates.
The library is large, and some witnesses will remember hearing different statements as the gunmen moved from one table to the next. Most report some variation of, “This is for all the shit you put us through,” followed by gunshots.
At one point, Right stops at a table, and asks a girl hiding under it, “Do you want to die?”
“No,” she says.
Right laughs. “Everyone’s going to die.” Left goads him to shoot her, but Right waves it off. “No, we’re going to blow up the school anyway.”
They see a boy performing first-aid on a classmate, and shoot him instead.
They find a black boy under one of the tables. Left grabs his arm, and calls him a “fucking nigger.” Right walks over to the boy and shoots him.
They throw a pipe bomb, and it shatters the big library windows. They go over to the gaping holes the in the glass, and fire shots down at the parking lot below, where more police are now arriving. They miss.
The gunmen pause to reload, when they hear an injured student across the library crying out in pain, “Oh, God!”
The shooters go over and find the girl, who has crawled out from under one of the tables. One of them asks her, “Do you believe in god?”
Panicked, she fumbles with the answer, saying “no” first, and then settling on “yes.”
“My parents taught me, and I believe.” She then crawls back under the table, and plays dead. The shooters move on.
They even encounter one of their friends, cowering on the library floor. The boy recognizes Left, and asks out of dumb desperation, “What are you doing?”
Left responds nonchalantly, “Oh, just killing people,” and tells him he should “get out of here” — which the boy promptly does.
The gunmen find a male student wearing a baseball cap, hiding behind a counter. “Oh, look what we have here,” Left says. Pointing his gun at the boy, he demands, “Are you a jock?”
The boy in fact does consider himself a jock — but he’s not stupid. He says no.
“Well, that’s good, we don’t like jocks,” Left replies. “Let me see your face.”
The boy removes his ball cap, and tilts his face up to the shooter. Left looks down at him, straight in the eye, and says, “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”
Fumbling for words, the boy stammers “I don’t want to get in trouble,” unsure of just what he means even as he is saying it.
“Trouble?!” Left barks, leaning down closer. “You don’t even know what fucking trouble is!”
The terrified boy scrambles to recover: “That’s not what I meant, I mean, I don’t have a problem with you guys, I never will and I never did.” Left holds his stare for a few moments, and then turns away, calling to his partner, “I’m gonna let this fat fuck live, you can have at him if you want to.”
Right doesn’t seem to be paying attention. “Let’s go to the commons.”
11:36am-11:43am: The shooters take an indirect route, wandering the halls and shooting at the ceiling, and at empty walls. They throw Molotov cocktails and bombs into some empty storage rooms, starting small fires. As soon as the coast is clear, a teacher emerges from a nearby classroom, and extinguishes the flames.
11:44am: Surveillance cameras capture the shooters as they arrive back in the commons. The once-crowded area is now mostly deserted, with a few students hiding under the tables. The shooters don’t seem to pay them any attention; they’re there for the bombs.
Right rests his carbine rifle on a railing, taking aim across the cafeteria. He knows just which bag to hit, and squeezes off a few rounds. But nothing happens.
Left walks over to the device, and fiddles with something, while Right takes a swig from a bottle of water that was left on one of the lunch tables. Then Left steps back, lights an explosive, and tosses it at the propane bomb.
One of the gas cans incorporated into the bomb’s construction has by then leaked, and suddenly, a bright column of flame surges upward, from the floor of the commons to the ceiling, engulfing the abandoned table and the backpacks around it. The shooters, appearing satisfied that their long-delayed detonation is now imminent, scurry back upstairs, out of view.
About ten seconds later, the school’s alarm system detects the fire, and the sprinklers overhead activate, dousing the flames.
11:47-11:55am: The shooters again wander the halls of their school, mostly passing through empty office areas. About eight minutes go by, and they probably notice there still has not been any explosion. They head back down to the commons.
11:56-11:59am: On camera again, Left and Right return to find that the floor of the commons is now covered in water. The sprinklers are still going off, drenching the area they came to torch. They halfheartedly toss a few more small bombs at the big bomb, but it’s useless. The two appear defeated, slouching as they leave the commons again. In their last captured moments, they are marching back up the steps, to the library.
Noon: Nearly all of the survivors they left behind have since escaped the library. The two car bombs in the parking lot were supposed to detonate around this time; they were the biggest bombs of all. It’s possible that Left and Right went back upstairs to get a good view of the police and paramedics getting wiped out by the day’s final explosion, down below the library’s broken glass wall.
It is another disappointment. Both car bombs are duds. The two gunmen squeeze off a few shots at the first responders again, out the windows, and miss.
12:05-12:07pm: One of the shooters lights a Molotov cocktail, and places the bottle on a table, near the library windows. With luck, maybe the fire will keep burning, and take the school down after all…
It’s not clear who went first. They each pulled the trigger on themselves, sometime in the three minute span just before 12:08, while a bottle of gasoline burned on the table next to them.
12:08pm: The school’s alarm system detects a fire in the library. A sprinkler turns on overhead, dousing the flame before the bottle’s contents could ignite. The flame had barely even scorched the tabletop.