Nathan Thill. Aaron McKinney. Dylan Klebold. Eric Harris. Their short lives drip with hate, the liquid courage that enables them to commit unimaginable crimes. Their anger runs so deep that it cannot be contained. It spills over, poisoning everyone and everything around them.
And the source of all this rage, of all this hate, of all this poison?
Although the public has a right to know, we may never know.
"Good wombs hath borne bad sons," Eric Harris says, quoting The Tempest for the camera.
If only the Columbine killers were explained that easily.
For months it was rumored that Klebold and Harris had applied their filmmaking skills to more than school projects. But not until the November 12 sentencing of Mark Manes, the 22-year-old who'd confessed to selling Klebold a semi-automatic Tec-9, did the existence of private videotapes become public record. Quoting comments made by the killers on those tapes, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office asked the judge to hand Manes a hefty sentence -- and Judge Henry Nieto obliged, giving Manes six years in prison. The DA's office also said it would like to keep the tapes out of the public domain -- and Nieto has been obliging about those sorts of requests, too, having already ruled that the autopsy reports on Harris and Klebold's thirteen victims would remain sealed.
But Jeffco authorities forgot to plug another leak. The sheriff's office had already given out a copy of a Columbine cafeteria tape showing Klebold and Harris that ultimately wound up on national television; a photo taken from that tape is on the current cover of Time magazine. Inside that same magazine, of course, is a detailed accounting of Harris and Klebold's three basement tapes, a story made possible by the Jeffco sheriff's department.
Once the DA's office acknowledged the tapes' existence in open court, it was only a matter of time before some media outlet got them -- and with the Columbine investigation drawing to a close, time was running out. That Time would get the scoop is no huge surprise, since the national media has an appeal the local press lacks (see Sheriff John Stone posing for a four-color photo in full uniform and holding one of the actual weapons of destruction!); and a national magazine seems so much more dignified than television (horrifying as the written excerpts are, the tapes themselves are much worse). That the DA's office has disavowed any knowledge of the sheriff's dubious deal with Time is also no surprise -- although it would have been politic, not to mention sensitive, for the DA to make sure the victims' families were aware of the tapes' contents even before Manes's sentencing, where many family members were not only in attendance, but spoke.
"I just know I want to kill the little fuckers who fucked with me," Klebold says to the camera. "It's going to be like Doom, man."
The public has a right to know -- even if the public does not like what it hears.
By all accounts, the Klebold and Harris tapes are at once less helpful and more horrific than one would hope. From beyond the grave, the killers display the overwhelming hatred that would soon fuel their deadly mission. Their anger is so strong -- for Harris, it stretches back through his family's many moves; for Klebold, it spreads wide across his extended family -- that it cannot be easily explained, much less understood. Their motivation is not Nazi philosophy but Hollywood fantasy. They are Beavis and Butthead with bombs and no sense of reality, rebels without a clue.
These tapes are among the few clues they left behind. We can listen and try to learn.
"The public has a right to know," Sheriff Stone told a reporter, in explaining one of his early misstatements to the press.
But the public has a right to know more than the official spin on a story.
It was much easier to imagine the actions of 21-year-old Nathan Thill, who murdered Oumar Dia at a Denver bus stop in November 1997, when he was presented as a skinhead spouting simplistic racist slogans. But at Thill's recent trial in Pueblo, the defense team made things complicated. Thill is brimming with hatred, but that's because he's been spewing rage since he was a small child, a child so disturbed that he was in therapy at five, in the juvenile justice system five years later.
Thill gave a convincing performance as an unrepentent racist when he confessed to a Channel 7 reporter shortly after killing Dia, an African immigrant. So when two jurors who'd listened to all the testimony about Thill's short, unhappy life decided they could not convict him of first-degree murder and so make him eligible for death, the public criticism was long and loud. So loud, in fact, that it almost overwhelmed the voices that urged the public to try to understand what was really at the root of the crime, what had made a little boy go bad.
One of those voices belonged to Stephen Sampson. "My wife and I do foster care, and we have a deep concern for the children that our 'system' does not help," he wrote in a letter to the editor. "It is a very sad situation that someone else had to suffer to bring Nathan's internal turmoil to this point where others might want revenge. You see, I am black, and Nathan was my foster child for a few months of 1992. My regret is that the only net that Nathan was able to find was laced with racism and hate."
Hatred runs deep in Aaron McKinney, too. In October 1998, he and Russell Henderson met 22-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay student, in a Laramie bar, beat him and strung him up on a fence in the cold Wyoming night. Shepard died five days later. His murder was a hate crime -- in reality, if not by statute.
Henderson pleaded guilty to the crime; McKinney was convicted of first-degree murder this fall.
And that is where any attempt to understand the source of McKinney's hatred ends.
After his conviction, Dennis and Judy Shepard cut a deal that removed the possibility of a death-penalty sentence for their son's murderer, leaving McKinney serving two life sentences, with no chance of appeal. "Mr. McKinney," Dennis Shepard said at sentencing, "I'm going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday or the Fourth of July, remember that Matthew isn't...May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it."
If McKinney is thankful, we will never know it. Because the plea agreement arranged by the Shepards and the Albany County prosecutor gagged not just McKinney, but every member of his defense team. They can't talk about the case now, or ever. The public has no right to know more.
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"Best of all," Dennis Shepard told McKinney, "you won't be a symbol. No years of publicity, no chance of a commutation, no nothing -- just a miserable future and a more miserable end. It works for me..."
But by crafting such an unprecedented agreement, the Shepards may have created a legal symbol that one day could be as well-known as Miranda. Even a convicted murderer should have the right to free speech -- although not the right to benefit from it financially. Under the McKinney agreement, "the understanding ends, but not the notoriety," says Billie Edwards, a Wyoming ACLU attorney who condemns the deal. "The remedy for hate speech is more speech. The remedy for actions like this is to learn more about them."
"More rage, more rage," Harris tells Klebold as the camera rolls. "Keep building it on."
You cannot create an antidote for poison unless you know how the poison was created.