48. The Ghost in the Machine

November 7, 2007

Jokela High School — Tuusula, Finland

At 11:28am, an 18-year-old high school student uploaded a number of files to the hosting website Rapidshare. The zipped folder contained a series of photos, a video clip, and several written documents. One of the files was labeled “Attack Information.doc”:

Event: Jokela High School Massacre.

Targets: Jokelan Lukio (High School Of Jokela), students and faculty, society, humanity, human race.

Date: 11/7/2007.

Attack Type: Mass murder, political terrorism (altough I choosed the school as target, my motives for the attack are political and much much deeper and therefore I don’t want this to be called only as “school shooting”).

Location: Jokela, Tuusula, Finland.

Weapons: Semi-automatic .22 Sig Sauer Mosquito pistol.

The student then got on his bicycle, and rode through his village, to the school. Fourteen minutes after the file was uploaded, the first shots were fired: it started in a hallway, and then he passed through a series of classrooms, targeting students and teachers. When police arrived, the shooter was trying to burn down the school — but the two-stroke fuel he had brought along wouldn’t ignite. He shot at the police outside, then retreated further into the building. The cops finally entered the school an hour later, and found the shooter in a bathroom, dying from a self-inflicted wound.

“He was considered to be fairly shy and quiet and some pupils thought he was introverted,” the official report on the Jokela High School shooting would read. From his Social Studies and History classes, many remembered that the gunman had expressed “politically strong and changing, often extremist opinions.” Police confirmed that “he had also been bullied at school,” and that the shooter “liked to keep to himself and spent a lot of time by the computer and on the Internet.” Finally, a review of the shooter’s medical records showed that he had “suffered from slight panic disorder and performance anxiety, for which he had a prescription,” but “he was not on regular medication.”

Following in the footsteps of the Virginia Tech gunman, the files that the Finland shooter uploaded to Rapidshare were essentially his custom press kit: designed to capture the narrative for his imminent moment in the spotlight. The difference was, he didn’t need NBC; he had a YouTube channel. He had already posted his video clip, for all to see: entitled “Jokela High School Massacre – 11/7/2007”, it displayed several photographs of the school, before dissolving to a selfie of the shooter, wearing a black t-shirt with white block-text — “HUMANITY IS OVERRATED” — and aiming his pistol into the camera. The whole slideshow was set to the KMFDM song “Stray Bullet,” the lyrics of which the Columbine shooters had typed out and shared on their AOL pages almost a decade before.

The Jokela shooter also posted his materials on his “IRC Galleria” profile (the Finnish equivalent of Facebook at the time). Though few seemed to realize it yet, the rise of social media meant that it wouldn’t be up to the police or the press to release or withhold information about shooters anymore; that era had officially passed, swept away in the digital revolution.

Further in the “Attack Information” text file, the shooter shared his motives, which turned out to be another progression of the old Columbine philosophy: “It’s time to put NATURAL SELECTION & SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST back on tracks!”

In his journal, looking forward to the day of his assault on Jokela High School, the gunman seemed to recognize that his mental state was deteriorating, yet rejected the idea that there was anything inherently wrong with him, or what he wanted to do, in terminology borrowed directly from the Unabomber’s Industrial Society and its Future:

Naturality has been discriminated through religions, ideologies, laws and other mass delusion systems. Individual, who is going through his/hers natural power process and trying to live naturally, but is being told that the way he acts or thinks is wrong and stupid, will usually have some reactions which might be considered as “psychological disorders” by the establishment. In reality they are just natural reactions to the disruption of natural power process. They will have some of the following (depending on individual’s personality): feelings of inferiority / superiority, hostility, aggression, frustration, depression, self-hatred / hatred towards other people, suicidal / homicidal thought etc… and it is completely normal.

The Jokela shooter had downloaded Kaczynski’s treatise two months before starting work on his own manifesto. He wrote that “knowing as much as I know has made me unhappy, frustrated and angry. I just can’t be happy in the society or the reality I live.” He concluded that “due to long process of existential thinking, observing the society I live and some other things happened in my life… I have come to the point where I feel nothing but hate against humanity and human race.”

* * *

He was far from the first to connect Columbine and the Unabomber; Kaczynski’s own brother had expressed concerns about the dangers of the internet, comparing his brother to the internet-educated aspiring bombers from Colorado, and more recently, the designer of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was pursuing a dialogue on the subject: a recurring topic on his discussion board concerned “Anarcho-primitivism” — a philosophy that (although there are some differences) the arguments of Industrial Society and Its Future are commonly associated with. And three years before developing the Columbine game, Danny had produced an animation clip based on an allegorical short story written by Ted Kaczynski, Ship of Fools. Such writings became a major influence on the Columbine game, as Danny would explain in a post to the discussion forum in the fall of 2006:

I think more people are waking up to the idea that modern civilization delivered only empty promises and we need to seriously rethink the way we live. Ten years ago Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (I believe another “canary in the mine”) warned us of this with his manifesto, ‘Industrial Society and its Future.’ He’s serving life in prison for some very foolish mistakes but I hope his message (and mine) continue to resonate in the dire times ahead.

In Finland, the whole thing would have been next to impossible to explain, just a few years before. Even now, it seemed alien — likely, few of the shooter’s classmates had even heard of Columbine High School before that day. Yet it was as if, somehow, a black trenchcoat from someplace called Colorado had squirmed its way through the ducts of the internet, and sprang out in their tiny village across the world, bringing tragedy with it.

The same technology, ironically, was now sustaining the luddite Unabomber’s philosophy: Kaczynski’s writings might have drifted away into history after his arrest, were it not for the technological marvel of the internet, with its limitless memory and increasingly sophisticated search capabilities: everyone, connected with everyone.

Fall 2007

Newtown High School

A teacher emailed a colleague:

OH MY GOSH! Adam Lanza is ready to join my class??? I HAD BETTER GET READY! I’m so nervous!

Let’s talk… are they starting with a short visit or two or jumping right in and seeing how it goes with the potential to leave early as needed???

What about “prepping” my class before his arrival — today I have an appointment at 2:30… but we can talk on the phone tonight…

Many of Adam’s teachers had questions like these. The answers depended on the class — and how Adam was maintaining, according to his mother.

The other teacher wrote back, with the basics of how to tailor a classroom to Adam’s presence in it:

My guess is that he will start with an entire class. In my past experience, observing a class is more difficult than participating in a class. As for your other students — when in doubt — IGNORE ADAM. Any attention is tough. In terms of prepping them — just think about what you know about Adam.

* No loud noises

* No strong smells

* No sudden movements

* No unpredictable actions, noises, smells, etc.

* Speak with a purpose or “Let me work.”

* Adam may be uncomfortable around the boys, but I don’t know that for sure.

Have you talked to [STAFF MEMBER] about the math he needs for your class? Would you like me to do that? So many questions! At least our jobs are never dull.

This more-experienced teacher added, “I am sure he will tell us whatever is a problem.” Likely, they were really referring to Nancy.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

One morning that year, Nancy sent an email to the high school. It was an apology. She said that Adam’s homework wasn’t done, and it was all her fault: she had “interrupted him” by cooking dinner the night before, even though she knew that the smell of food wafting upstairs would make him upset, and ruin his concentration. Even more disruptive, a repairman had showed up that morning, and came into the house to fix a pipe. As a result of the intrusion into Adam’s bubble, her son was “highly agitated.” Nancy told the staff member that they should try and make the day “as smooth as possible” for him, and she even promised that she would stay in her car in the parking lot after dropping him off — just to be ready, in case they had to abort the school day.

The measures that Nancy resorted to — both to accommodate Adam, and to hide from him that he was being accommodated so — became more drastic as the school year went on. She had emailed his English teacher, saying that her son “has indicated that he would like to try to learn about symbolism and use of figures of speech,” and asked, “Can you suggest any good books on the subject?” But soon after that, they gave up on interpretation; Nancy wrote again, rejecting some of the books that were on the reading syllabus. She gave some insight into Adam’s emotional world; behind the blank shell, he “worried about dying, being bullied,” and was “acutely aware that he is different from other kids.” In turn, Nancy “feared that any story that referenced these social issues in a way that Adam could identify with would bring on periods of insomnia and a loss of appetite.” Finally, she wrote, “Another thing we might have trouble with is ‘boy-meets-girl’ type [of stories.] An adapted reading list is being provided as a substitute for the standard curriculum.”

In their never-finished report, the Yale staff viewed Adam to have even more fundamental obstacles facing him whenever he tried to study literature; although he was an attentive reader, he showed “no grasp of empathy for characters’ motives, feelings or perspectives.”

* * *

That year, Nancy’s emails started carrying the signature line “sent from my iPhone;” the smartphone era had arrived at 36 Yogananda. Nancy loved hers, but Adam never got one. He had no use for them. He didn’t socialize, and he didn’t like feeling that he was “on the grid.” When he wanted to communicate with others, he preferred piloting his avatar through the realm of Azeroth. And besides: touch-screens always looked filthy.

Also that year, another video game started to compete for the slot World of Warcraft typically occupied, at the center of Adam’s cloistered daily life: the new “Call of Duty” title, Modern Warfare. It was the fourth in the series, but it was also a new beginning; this version of the first-person military shooter transcended gaming itself, becoming the moment when a new “Call of Duty” release registered as a cultural event on the same level as a new entry in a blockbuster Hollywood movie franchise. Much of that was because Modern Warfare finally shed the World War II setting, depicting instead (as the title suggested) “modern” battlefields, just like the places where soldiers were fighting in real life. The player assumed the role of elite British SAS and US Navy SEALs, and the guns depicted were like a real military arsenal: AK-47s, Glock pistols, Skorpion submachine guns, M16s, and Saiga magazine-loading shotguns. The production was lavish, and the action was fast, and most of all, the multiplayer was addictive as hell.

Adam picked up his controller, and like millions of gamers that year, began laying down hundreds of hours unlocking guns, racking up achievements, and obsessing over their “kill/death” ratios.

Peter stayed in touch with Adam, mostly via email. His son wouldn’t say much. Often it was just questions about school, or possible careers paths in the sciences. Peter had a file at his apartment in Stamford, one that grew as he tried to find ways to connect: scraps of paper listing books like The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing and The Pleasure of My Company — both depicting young men with severe OCD.

Peter knew his son didn’t have much of a social life outside of his computer — but the Tech Club was starting to draw him out, at least. “He fit in there,” Peter would tell Andrew Solomon. “They’re all weird and smart.”

Newtown High School

In October 2007, Newtown High School’s website published a list of the various activity clubs that would dot the halls after the school day was over. Among them:

TECHNOLOGY CLUB

Meets Tuesdays after school in A218. Inquisitive, investigative, and experimental, this group is not for the technology beginner. Must have an open, creative mind.

That year, Adam went to every Tech Club meeting, and he showed up to help with broadcast production at nearly every school event. The students who were members of the Tech Club that year got to know him better than anyone had in a long time: he didn’t quite make the other boys (there were no girl members that year) his friends, but they were all friendly to him, just as Richard Novia had secretly requested of them. They would try to sit with Adam at lunch, and engage him in conversation, or they would find him in the Tech Club room during his free period, and say hello. He was the small kid, in the big clothes. They noticed he would frequently take a plastic comb out of his pocket, and fix his hair. “He was a generally quiet kid and I would say he seemed overly anxious partly because of his facial expression and that he always seemed to walk very upright,” one club member would say.

They didn’t care about this stuff, but they weren’t naive about what high school was like, either. “I don’t remember anything about him being bullied or teased,” one member would say. “We in the Tech Club certainly did nothing of the sort, but I would not be surprised if he was bullied/teased at NHS, as bullying was a real problem in our schools.”

During the club’s meetings, Adam wasn’t much for conversation, but he would follow the instructions given by Mr. Novia, and always operated a camera without trouble when it was his turn. As the year went on, he even started to come out of his shell, just a tiny bit; there would be a conversation going on around him between the other members, and every once in awhile he would contribute a comment — if it was clear to him that he was being included. From what little he said, he seemed smart.

On weekends, some of the club members would host “LAN parties” at their houses (Local Area Network, a protocol used for multiplayer PC gaming), and several boys remember Adam coming out for at least one. He “seemed to enjoy it and was chatting with people there,” if awkwardly.

The members of the Tech Club from that year are unanimous on one thing: Adam never brought up violence or guns to any of them, even once. The only account that mentions violence at all comes instead from Richard Novia, who remembers being concerned about Adam’s response to some of the video games they played: “Adam had shown, at that point […], some high interest in the violent aspect of those games.” Of course, the students, being teenagers, had all played violent video games before. But as Novia saw it, that was different. “They’re healthy… healthy kids. Adam was not a healthy child.”

* * *

Mr. Novia had asked the other members to be on the lookout for any “odd behavior” Adam showed. They knew he didn’t mean the compulsive use of hand sanitizer, or the way Adam wiped down a game controller before he would touch it. It was something more. Most of them would witness what Mr. Novia was really talking about: sometimes, you could be saying something right to Adam’s face, just you and him, and he would suddenly stop responding. End of conversation, and he’s looking down at the floor. Sometimes he would go and walk off to some out-of-the-way spot and just sit still, by himself, totally silent. When that happened, one of the other members would go and tell Mr. Novia: “You need to go take a look at Adam.”

Novia had gotten used to these episodes over the years. No matter how much Adam appeared to improve, there were always the bad days, when the fear would get him and he would totally withdraw inside himself. It didn’t take much to trigger it, either: any kind of break from the routine, anything that would make him uncertain, could do it. Once, they were all playing first-person-shooters on the Tech Club computers — team deathmatch, the most kills wins — when someone suggested they switch to “capture the flag” mode. Adam had never played that; a new set of rules, a rush of anxiety, and suddenly his character wasn’t moving. His chair was empty, and he’d wandered off by himself.

When these episodes came, Richard Novia would go and sit down next to Adam. He wouldn’t say anything, he’d just let him get used to the presence of another human being for a few minutes. Half an hour, if that’s what it took. Then, he’d ask: “How we doing?”

If Adam responded, then they would go back to the group together. Crisis over. But sometimes, Adam still wouldn’t come out of his shell, and Mr. Novia would have to call 36 Yogananda: “Nancy, you need to come up to the school.” This was old hat by then, and Nancy would already be getting her keys as Novia explained, “He’s having an episode and I’d prefer that he’d go home.” She would never complain, she would just drive down the hill and pick him up. (Once, it happened while the Tech Club was having a sleepover at NHS; something about being in the dark, empty school spooked Adam, and so Nancy came down and picked him up, in the middle of the night.)

One of the last times Novia saw Adam having an episode was at a school event where they were filming. Richard decided to try something different; he had been reading the DSM-IV, and understood that people like Adam sometimes responded to technology better than they did to other people. So when he sat down next to Adam, who was in mid-episode, he just took out a “gadget” he had with him — “a Palm Pilot, something like that” — and put it between them. A minute or two passed, but eventually, Adam’s hand drifted down, and picked it up. After fidgeting with the device for a bit, he was ready to come and help with the production. He still wouldn’t speak, but he’d come out of his cave.

A series of digital photos was left on one of the Tech Club’s hard drives from that year, apparently from the day they had their pictures taken for their ID badges. Several of the photos are of Adam, submitting to a camera’s lens for the first time since St. Rose of Lima, two years before. He is standing outside the control room at NHS, a giant blue-and-white “NTV” logo painted on the wall behind him. His shirt is so oversized that its short sleeves come down to his forearms. Pen caps peek out of his breast pocket, and his hair is a mop, combed down perfectly smooth. The prospect of even getting this photo taken was likely enough to trigger one of his episodes; while his face is captured in an emotionless, bug-eyed stare, at the bottom edge of the photo, clutched tightly in his hand, is what appears to be a Palm Pilot.

Kingston, New Hampshire

Marvin and Nancy had drifted apart over the years. They each had domestic priorities — marriages crumbling, and children with special needs. But Marvin still heard from his old friend now and then, checking in via email.

He would swear that Nancy said, around this time, that Adam was being bullied at school. Verbally, and physically. Sometimes, according to his mother, he would even come home with bruises on his body. Nancy said it was getting so bad, that she had to come to the school, and practically go to class along with Adam, to ensure he was safe.

* * *

Whether or not her son was a victim, there was indeed bullying at his school. In one incident that made local news that year, a group in a detention class had been ganging up on a particular kid, and he reported to it to the administrators; the next time he ended up going to detention, the bullies got some packing tape, and wrapped it all around him while he was sitting in his chair. His arms restrained, one girl wrote “SNITCH” across his forehead in permanent marker, and added a Hitler mustache on his lip, while the others emptied sugar packets all over him. Then they got his chair onto a moving dolly, and paraded him through the after-school halls of NHS; when they came to a stop, the chair fell over, and the bound victim sustained a head injury when he hit the hard vinyl floor. The offenders posted photos of their torment on Facebook, and uploaded video of the boy taped to the chair to YouTube, leading to their being identified.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

The most remarkable thing happened that year at 36 Yogananda: Nancy’s son hosted a party. It was a LAN party, the same scenario he had participated in at other Tech Club members’ houses, but this time he was welcoming others into his own comfort zone.

Nancy could hardly believe it. It seemed like there hadn’t been any social visitors allowed at their house in years, much less a whole group of them. But when the day came, there they were: a bunch of teenage boys, in the basement with their laptops, playing Starcraft and Warcraft III with her son.

As the guests recalled, Adam only asked that they take off their shoes before entering, and be “respectful of the house.” They didn’t venture to the upper floors of 36 Yogananda, but Nancy came down and said hello. They thought she was very nice.

The basement looked pretty much how Ryan had left it, with all the anime scrolls on the wall, and a bed in the corner. Some elements might have been Adam’s additions: a “Tanks of World War II” poster on the wall, next to one of Nintendo’s Pikmin. A plush Pikachu doll off in one corner. A boxed set of Romance of Three Kingdoms on the bookshelf.

He showed his guests some of his old console games, and even let them borrow some. One of the kids liked Pikmin, but didn’t have a Gamecube to play it on; Adam said he could take the console, too.

Nothing unusual happened at the party. Nobody saw any firearms. The next day at school, some members who missed the party heard it was “fun.”

They liked the shy kid from 36 Yogananda. “Overall, I considered Adam Lanza to be normal and thought no different of him from other members,” one would say. “The smartest kid in Tech Club,” said another. Nancy’s son sat right next to them in the tech rooms, when they would watch anime movies, and he shared mixed CDs he made of the soundtracks. They knew he didn’t like to be touched, but they got the point were comfortable doing it anyway, sometimes poking Adam for laughs. He seemed to take it in the good-nature it was intended.

One time, they were all having a conversation, and Adam made a joke; everyone froze for a second, stunned, and then they all started laughing, right at the same time. Soon afterwards, “We gave Adam a group hug and he seemed to let us do it without a problem.” Looking back, they said, “We really did try to befriend him.”

They knew he didn’t have any real friends, but they couldn’t have known just how significant it was, that they had even been allowed to cross the threshold. After the party, when the house was empty again, Nancy wrote a message to Peter. “It was nice to hear Adam talking to the other kids and everyone joking with him and treating him so well.”