Saturday February 21, 2015

Inside the online subculture of Columbiners

Lindsay Souvannarath, arrives at provincial court in Halifax on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. Souvannarath and Randall Steven Shepherd of Halifax are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, allegedly plotting a Valentine's Day mass shooting at the Halifax Shopping Centre. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Krochak

Lindsay Souvannarath, arrives at provincial court in Halifax on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. Souvannarath and Randall Steven Shepherd of Halifax are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, allegedly plotting a Valentine's Day mass shooting at the Halifax Shopping Centre. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Krochak (The Canadian Press)

Listen 15:58

As police continue to gather evidence in the case of the foiled Halifax shooting plot, we're learning more about the suspects - and about their lives online in the shadowy subculture known as "Columbiners". These are people who are fascinated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two Columbine high school seniors who killed 13 people in a shooting rampage, and then killed themselves. 

Cara-Jade is a 19 year-old blogger in the UK who considers herself a Columbiner, and who was in contact with two of the Halifax suspects through Tumblr. Her last name is being withheld to protect her identity. Journalist Dave Cullen spent ten years researching and writing the book Columbine and has been keeping tabs on this online subculture that romanticizes the Columbine killers.  Here are interviews with them both.

What went through your mind when you first heard about this foiled shooting plot in Halifax?

Cara-Jade: I think I was a little bit scared actually. Obviously it's so far away, so there wasn't any possibility of it affecting me in any way, but I was just worried since I knew these people. 

When you say you knew these people, can you describe what kind of a relationship of a relationship you had. You knew them only online, you never spoke to them in person? 
Yeah.

And what was it that you had in common with Randall Shepherd and James Gamble?
Mostly our interest in the Columbine shootings. 

Did either of them say anything to you that indicated that something might be happening?
No, nothing at all. When Randy last messaged me, he didn't mention anything at all, he just carried on the conversation as if nothing was going on. 

Did you ever think that they were actually capable of hurting everyone, or hurting themselves?
Not at all really, no. As far as everyone was aware, they were just depressed, just like the majority of us are, and that was it really. 

So you, like these young men, consider yourself a Columbiner. What does that mean to you?
To be a Columbiner is basically just having a huge interest in the Columbine shootings and being interested in the shooters, Eric and Dylan, themselves. They [the media] portays us as people who condone these things, and honestly I can say now we really don't in any way, shape or form. It's just quite an interesting case, so we like to read up about it. We try and get to know the shooters minds.  A lot of people identify with the feelings of the shooters. So we kind of take comfort in it in a way, since a lot of us feel depressed an anxious, and they did too. So it's kind of nice since a lot of people don't necessarily have someone there who understands them and feels the same way as them.

But those shooters also appeared not to feel any empathy for their victims. Do you think you share that with them as well? 
No, anything but that. I mean, I think it's just mostly to do with the fact that they were bullied. And bullying still goes on in schools everywhere pretty much in this day and age. 

You've said your depression drew you into this world. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
For me, my depression is very downgrading. I lose a lot of motivation to do things and I lack interest in things. But this whole sort of community to do with Columbine - after researching it, I actually really want to go into studying something like psychology and criminology. Because it's all really interesting stuff, and it's honestly the only thing that I still take any interest in whatsoever. So it's actually quite nice to have something, even if it is a bit weird to most people. 

In light of what happened in Halifax, do you think that that kind of participation could be dangerous?
Oh, it really depends. Obviously, the majority of us -- I think all of us, really --  wouldn't actually carry things out like this. Obviously, as we've seen, some people are more serious than others. But I think the guys who were involved with this whole Halifax thing the other day, they didn't so much as talk about it online to other people, they sort of kept it to themselves. 

When we look at your tumblr page, it is full of graphic images, they're violent, some of them are sort of merciless. You have a section devoted to pictures of Dylan Klebold, who is one of the Columbine shooters. How would you feel if something that you posted appeared to influence someone to do something violent in real life?
I would definitely think twice about blogging about stuff like that. Definitely. I don't think it's good for people who actually have thoughts of that to associate themselves because, as horrible as it sounds and as selfish as it sounds, it gives the rest of us such a horrible image in everyone else's minds. They all think we're messed up, when we're really not. We're just normal people who have very specific interests that aren't exactly deemed as 'normal' to the public. 

Are you getting treatment for your depression?
Yes, I am. 

And how's that going?
It's going very well actually. I just had therapy today actually, with a a new therapist, so that's all getting sorted out and hopefully I will be getting more help than I have been. 

Some people speculate that the Halifax police may have been tipped off by another Columbiner who was communicating with these people online. Would you have contacted police if you thought there was a possibility of violence?
I'm not sure, honestly. Obviously I live quite far away, so I wouldn't exactly know how to go about that if I did know anything. But I don't know. I guess I kind of would, but at the same time because I knew both of them quite well, I would think twice about it. At the same time, I wouldn't want to put anyone else at risk, so I'm in two minds about that. 

Ahead of the planned plot, one of the suspects posted a message on Tumblr that read 'Valentine's Day it's going down' and people are still reposting that message. What do you think of that? 
A lot of people are just reblogging it and putting comments on it, saying, 'Look guys, how stupid were we? We didn't see this. How did we not put the pieces together?' We all just feel kind of stupid that we didn't put all the pieces together. I mean, there wasn't many [pieces], at all. That's the only thing I've seen myself. 

Has anything that's happened here, made you rethink what you're doing online?
A little bit, but I still have a huge interest in Columbine regardless. It won't faze me. The only thing that I will be careful with is sharing too much personal information on my blog, and that's it really, I think.


You just heard Cara-Jade. What struck you about what she had to say?
Dave Cullen: First of all, I think it's great that you're giving her and people from that group a voice. I think that's really important, because I worry about those kids. The specific thing she said that jumped out at me, when you ask her to explain what these Columbiners are, or how they perceive themselves, she said these are people who identify with the killers and take comfort in it. The obvious question is, why do you take comfort? These are people who committed mass murder. But I think I understand why, because I've spent years with these kids online. And what's generally going on here, which is what I heard from her, is that nearly all of them have bought into this completely false narrative about the Columbine killers: that they were these loner outcasts who were miserable and hating life in high school, brutally bullied, and they struck back at the jocks who were bullying them and turned the tables on them, it was sort of a 'revenge of the nerds' fantasy. And none of that is true. 

Why are these myths so persistent that an entire subculture has grown up around them?
Well, that's the fault of the media, myself included. We jumped to a lot of conclusions within in the very first day, I was astounded to see when I went back. We came up with these ideas about the killers on very little information, and once these ideas take hold, it'd kind of forever. And so, they [Columbiners], like most of the public, believe these myths. 

Cara-Jade told us that she's dealing with depression and it seems there's a community of depressives among the Columbiners. What is the connection there? Were the Columbine killers known to de depressed? Why are depressed kids drawn to that phenomenon?
Right. Well, one of the killers, Dylan Klebold, was extremely depressed - suicidally depressed. There's this mistaken notion about both of them, though, about being outcasts. I think if you're an outcast in high school, you're probably going to feel depressed. So think the depression is very closley related to the fact that these kids are feeling like outcasts, they don't fit in in high school. And so they're identifying with these two kids they've been told, fit that same mold.

You have corrected the Columbine narrative, you've talked about how these killers were not who initially they were thought to have been, and you've published a book on it. What's been the reaction from the Columbiners to the work that you've done?
I lot of these kids talk online on a lot of these websites, and they have this notion going in that my book is just a bunch of lies, they constantly accuse me of being a liar. They don't want to hear it. 

The Columbiners seems to enjoy or revel in images of cruelty and death. Have they ever said anything to you that's been threatening or in any way connecting you to violence?
Yes, I got one just this week. I think it said, 'This is what I picture when I imagine killing Dave Cullen,' and then had a picture of Eric Harris. I got a more explicit one a couple years ago, actually I got a couple of them in one week, describing how she wanted to kill me. I turn all of those over to the FBI. I've gotten some other threats in the past on my Youtube page about people threatening their own high school, and a couple of those turned out to be real threats. 

So do you feel safe? I mean, that's very, very serious. 
Mostly. It scared me now and then. Most of these people who are saying it don't mean it. They're lashing out. Just as the kids who have swastikas and nazi stuff on their site - I know most of those kids don't really care anything about Nazis or about Hitler. They think it looks cool, makes them look tough. Although it's scary because there is going to be that one kid out there who does mean it literally. 

Let's talk about the threat that apparently was posted on one of the the Tumblr pages of one of the suspects  in the Halifax plot. It was a message that said, "Valentines Day it's going down." How alarming would something like that be to you if you happened to see it one of the pages of the Columbiners?
For all the Columbiners, if there are kids out there who are feeling guilty about that, I don't think that have to feel guilty about that one. I looked at that and I thought that could mean anything. That's not a very overt threat at all. If somebody says, "I wanna kill everyone," that needs to be taken seriously. It's a very low-level threat. It's low risk.  If somebody says, "I'm going to go down to science room number four tomorrow morning at 11:15 with my AK-47 and these other explosives and kill X-teacher who I hate for blah blah blah..."   Any of those elements of who, what, when, where, and how are big danger signs, and the more elements you have, the worse. By the way, I was also alarmed actually with Cara-Jade that she said she wasn't sure if she would report one of the people if she knew it was for real and they were going to be in danger. That's troubling because we really rely on people out there when they hear a threat, to report it. Because for everybody out there listening, if you don't report it and people do die, that is on your head. 

Cara-Jade says that she will continue to participate in this community online. Are Columbiners complicit, intentionally or not, in violence because of that?
I think that there is definitely a danger there. The only reason I hesitate is because, these are also kids who are hurting, and I don't want to make their life more miserable. They are not primarily to blame. The people who do it are primarily to blame. But I also do want to make them aware that they are sending out the signal to other people that it's alright and that it's acceptable within our group. 

If you could say something directly, if you had one message to the Columbiners that could really get through to them, what would that message be? 
My message would be to get treatment, to talk to your parents or a counsellor or somebody, to get you see a shrink or something to help you individually. That's going to be your best route out of this and to happiness. I understand that talking to the kids online can be very good to vent, to talk to people who understand and so forth, but this community is probably not the healthiest road out for you.