Eric Harris: Antisocial Aggressor or Narcissistic Avenger?

Coincident with my writing a paper defending Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s story “The Dead” from charges of narcissism leveled by Lacanian critics, my then girlfriend was preparing a presentation on the Columbine shooter Eric Harris which had her trying to determine whether he would have better fit the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic or for Antisocial Personality Disorder. Everything about Harris screamed narcissist, but there was a deal-breaker for the diagnosis: people who hold themselves in astronomical esteem seem unlikely candidates for suicide, and Harris turned his gun on himself in culmination of his murder spree.

Clinical diagnoses are mere descriptive categorizations which don’t in any way explain behavior; at best, they may pave the way for explanations by delineating the phenomenon to be explained. Yet the nature of Harris’s thinking about himself has important implications for our understanding of other types of violence. Was he incapable of empathizing with others, unable to see and unwilling to treat them as feeling, sovereign beings, in keeping with an antisocial diagnosis? Or did he instead believe himself to be so superior to his peers that they simply didn’t merit sympathy or recognition, suggesting narcissism? His infamous journals suggest pretty unequivocally that the latter was the case. But again we must ask if a real narcissist would kill himself?

This seeming paradox was brought to my attention again this week as I was reading 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior (about which I will very likely be writing more here). Myth #33 is that “Low Self-Esteem Is a Major Cause of Psychological Problems” (162). The authors make use of the common misconception that the two boys responsible for the shootings were meek and shy and got constantly picked on until their anger boiled over into violence. (It turns out the boiling-over metaphor is wrong too, as explained under Myth #30: “It’s Better to Express Anger to Others than to Hold It in.”) The boys were indeed teased and taunted, but the experience didn’t seem to lower their view of themselves. “Instead,” the authors write, “Harris and Klebold’s high self-esteem may have led them to perceive the taunts of their classmates as threats to their inflated sense of self-worth, motivating them to seek revenge” (165).

Narcissists, they explain, “believe themselves deserving of special privileges” or entitlements. “When confronted with a challenge to their perceived worth, or what clinical psychologists term a ‘narcissistic injury,’ they’re liable to lash out at others” (165). We usually think of school shootings as random acts of violence, but maybe the Columbine massacre wasn’t exactly random. It may rather have been a natural response to perceived offenses—just one that went atrociously beyond the realm of what anyone would consider fair. If what Harris did on that day in April of 1999 was not an act of aggression but one of revenge, it may be useful to consider it in terms of costly punishment, a special instance of costly signaling.

The strength of a costly signal is commensurate with that cost, so Harris’s willingness both to kill and to die might have been his way of insisting that the offense he was punishing was deathly serious. What the authors of 50 Great Myths argue is that the perceived crime consisted of his classmates not properly recognizing and deferring to his superiority. Instead of contradicting the idea that Harris held himself in great esteem then, his readiness to die for the sake of his message demonstrates just how superior he thought he was—in his mind the punishment was justified by the offense, and how seriously he took the slights of his classmates can be seen as an index of how superior to them he thought he was. The greater the difference in relative worth between Harris and his schoolmates, the greater the injustice.

Perceived relative status plays a role in all punishments. Among two people of equal status, such factors as any uncertainty regarding guilt, mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense, and concern for making the punishment equal to the crime will enter into any consideration of just deserts. But the degree to which these factors are ignored can be used as an index for the size of the power differential between the two individuals—or at least to the perceived power differential. Someone who feels infinitely superior will be willing to dish out infinite punishment. Absent a truly horrendous crime, revenge is a narcissistic undertaking.

Also read Sympathizing with Psychos: Why We Want to See Alex Escape His Fate as a Clockwork Orange.

And: The Mental Illness Zodiac: Why the DSM V Won't Be Anything But More Pseudoscience