The computer is a great comfort. It's another world, one in which you can reinvent yourself, become even more powerful and intimidating than the bully boys you despise. You can hurl your rage into cyberspace, to an audience of faceless strangers, and your own parents will never know--because in this world, adults are clueless. You can do what you want, be what you want.
What you want is blood, and you find it in abundance in the wildly popular computer game Doom. Lots of boys your age vent their frustrations in waste-'em-all games like Doom, but you are more deeply entangled in its mysteries than most. Something about it--the vividness of its 3-D graphics and sound effects, the frantic pace, the demand for quick wits and savagery, the game's stoic, fatalistic attitude and all-encompassing mythology of mayhem--speaks to you. It beckons to you like a lover who can show you your true self.
The game is a gory cartoon version of your own situation. You are a badass space Marine dispatched to a distant moon, where invading demons from hell have overrun your platoon and turned your buddies into zombies bent on killing you. The only leatherneck left to defend mankind against the infernal hordes, you're outgunned from the start. But you are resourceful, and you acquire noisier, more devastating weapons as the game progresses. You wipe out the zombie soldiers and the demons who command them as you move on to higher, more intricate levels of carnage.
You master Doom and its even more violent successor, Doom 2. You engage in "deathmatch" versions of the game involving two or more players, vying on a single computer or over the Internet. It isn't enough.
You spend long hours in your room designing new levels to the game, called wads, and posting them online for other fanatics to play. You alter the noises that the weapons make, the screams of your victims. Eventually you will design fields of combat that resemble your neighborhood--and, it's rumored, your school.
It's still not enough.
You hunger for recognition. You slap a plea on the side of a building in one of the wads, urging players to send comments to your e-mail address. "This one took a damn long time to do," you write in the text file attached to another wad, "so send me some bloody credit man!"
By the middle of your sophomore year, you've completed your most sophisticated wad yet, a tricky, brutal, two-level shootout that's many times the size of your previous efforts. It climaxes in an orgy of killing, the screen flooded with hundreds of demons. The player has only two options: engage in a tedious, mechanical ritual of slaughter, or end things quickly by using a cheat command to go into "God mode," in which the player is invincible. (Later, after you are no longer around to bask in the attention, the wad will be reviewed on several Doom Web sites and ridiculed for its amateurishness, its "insipid gameplay" and "Thing overload." One reviewer will compare the experience to "viewing the clown paintings of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.")
In your America Online profile you call yourself Rebldomakr. You list your hobbies as "professional doom and doom2 creator, meeting beautiful females, being cool." Personal quote: "Shut up and shoot it.--Quit whining, it's just a flesh wound--Kill Em AALLLL!!!!"
There is no question now about who you are. You are no longer Eric Harris, pathetic dweeb. You are the Rebel who makes Doom.
Even before the killings sent reporters careening into hyperbole, Columbine had a reputation as the crown jewel of Jefferson County's high schools. Its mean SAT scores are among the highest in the state. Its motto isn't "Shut up and shoot it" but "Stretch for Excellence." A recent, $13.4 million remodeling job had provided gleaming, ultra-modern facilities to go with what the school's fact sheet unabashedly describes as "our long history of excellence in all areas."
Yet in the wake of the massacre, many parents have come to question administrators' pride in the way Columbine operated. The abysmal failure to provide a safe environment for their kids, they say, demonstrates that the school's priorities were haywire.
"For some reason, the world talks about Columbine like it was something great," says Brian Rohrbough. "We have the evidence to show it's the worst school in the United States. I never thought the school was great, but I never thought my son would be murdered there."