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Colorado killers: narcissists with guns?

By Barbara Lerner

The questions won’t go away. The Colorado shooting spree — the eighth in two years — forces us to face them again. Why all these wanton killings by school boys, this senseless spiral of schoolhouse slaughter? What can we do?

In the ’90s, most parents look to psychology for answers, but psychology doesn’t have one set; it has two — pre-’60s answers and post-’60s answers — and they conflict .

   Every sensate American knows the post-’60s answers. Turn on the tube and you hear them from all the talking heads. Not just establishment experts, but mainstream teachers, preachers, politicians and journalists, too. All subscribe to the conventional wisdom of the ’90s: All kids who kill are in great distress; they’ve been neglected, rejected and abused; their self-esteem is low; they are crying out for help. They need more love and understanding, more communication and parental attention, more early intervention, professional counseling and anger management training. And the reason we have more of these kids today is because we have more absent parents, more media violance, more guns.

   Will the Colorado killers fit this profile? Were they the abused offspring of harsh, uncaring parents and a cold, indifferent community, with nowhere to turn for help?

   So far it doesn’t look like it. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold both came from intact middle-class families variously described by neighbors as “solid,” “sensitive” and “utterly normal.” Both had already been through the therapeutic mill. Each boy had received individual counseling; Harris got anger management training as well. Both finished their therapy in February, two months before the crime, and both received glowing reports from their counselors.

   Maybe, when all the facts are known, they will turn out to be a lot more like Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old Oregon shooter who vanished from the news as soon as his disquieting life story began to emerge, because it didn’t fit the profile. Kinkel was a problem for this approach because he had it all, everything ’90s experts recommend. His parents were popular teachers, one of them was always there for him when he came home from school, and both did their best to make him happy, spending time with him, taking him on family vacations, helping him get whatever he wanted, even when the things he wanted unnerved them. The parents made few demands, rejected firm discipline as too harsh and sought professional help, early and often. They were in counseling, along with Kip, when he shot them both dead, killed two of his many school friends and wounded 18 others.

   Looking at cases like this, psychologists in the 1950s and earlier had a set of answers you don’t hear much any more. Here’s an updated sample: We have more wanton school boy killers today because we have more narcissists, and the step from being a narcissist to a wanton killer is a short one, especially in adolescence.

   A narcissist is a person who never progressed beyond the self-love of infancy, one who learned superficial social skills — narcissists are often charming — but never learned to truly love another and, through love, to view others as separate persons with a worth and value equal to their own. To the narcissist, other people have no intrinsic worth; their value is purely instrumental. They are useful when they satisfy his desires and enhance his self-esteem; they are as disposable as bottle caps when they don’t.

   Only the narcissist matters, and because his sense of self-importance is so grossly inflated, his feelings are easily hurt. When others thwart him or fail to give him the excessive, unearned respect he demands, he reacts with rage and seeks revenge, the more dramatic the better.

   Take guns away from kids like these, and many won’t settle for knives and baseball bats; they’ll turn to deadlier weapons — to explosives, as that overgrown school boy, Ted Kaczinski, did, or to environmental poisons, as the young people of Aum Shunriki did. Kip was on his way — police found five bombs at his house. And the Colorado killers upped the ante; they made more than 30 bombs and used shrapnel as well as bullets to blow away their victims.

   Will more counseling and anger management classes help? At best, they are palliatives in cases like these. They can put a patch over the hole at the core of these kids, the moral void, but they cannot fill the hole.

   No brand of psychology can, and earlier brands of psychology — Sigmund Freud’s especially — had the humility to recognize that. He saw the hole for what it is, a moral hole that only moral training can fill. Not just calm, rational, smiley-face, didactic lessons, but the kind of intense, gut-level experiences children have when their parents draw a sharp moral line and demonstrate a willingness to go all out to defend it, making it clear to their kids early on that there are limits to what can be accepted, actions so morally wrong that they cannot and will not be tolerated.

   Through experiences like these, normal children learn that the unconditional parental love they could take for granted as infants and toddlers can no longer be taken for granted. It is no longer unconditional; it can be withdrawn. And to avoid that frightening outcome, the child learns to see his parents as more than human pinatas, full of goodies he has only to bang away at to get. He learns to see them as moral beings with standards and values, making them his own and developing a conscience in the process.

   Many ’90s experts don’t understand this process. They focus only on self-esteem, not on esteem for others. They ask only if the child is loved, not whether the child has learned to love and respect others, and they obsess about the methods parents use to teach their kids, ignoring the content, the moral lessons they are trying to teach, insisting that any physical punishment, however infrequently and judiciously applied, is child abuse.

   These experts have no real solutions to offer, when the problem is overindulgence rather than abuse, as it so often is in the ’90s. They are part of the problem, and the sooner we recognize that, the better off we will be.

Barbara Lerner is a psychologist and lawyer who runs a consulting firm in Chicago. Write letters to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or fax us at (313) 222-6417, or send an e-mail to

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