Taking Off the Trench Coat: What Eric Harris Taught America About Violent Extremism

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned Columbine, they never intended for it to go down in history as a school shooting. On April 20, 1999, Columbine High School was supposed to detonate, but the bombs failed. When the narrative of the killers emerged, they were grouped with other school shooters, and their story became one centered on mental illness and social isolation. The media capitalized on these allegations, taking the liberty to craft their own portraits of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

As Dave Cullen discusses in his book Columbine, the media wove together any gathered information — despite the inconsistencies — to provide America with some kind of explanation: they were outcast, gay, goths. They supposedly headed the infamous gang, the Trench Coat Mafia (TCM), plotting the shooting as a vengeance on the jocks that had bullied them. These profiles of the shooters cost America the opportunity to talk about the killers for who they really were: violent extremists.

Eric Harris was the mastermind behind the massacre as he spearheaded the planning and carried out the majority of the murders. After the recent anniversary of the tragedy, it is important to recognize the role Harris played in the domestic terrorism narrative. According to Dave Cullen, there was no trigger for Columbine. This conclusion separates Harris and Klebold from the image of a bullied school shooter seeking revenge on his tormentors. As Cullen describes, Harris was smart, with a busy dating life and a solidified friend group. He appeared to be a normal teenage boy. The misrepresentation of Harris in the media is problematic for two reasons: it perpetuates the myth that he fits a specific school shooter profile and restricts the lens through which his actions can be examined.

Recognizing Harris as a violent extremist is just as critical as identifying a homicidal

jihadi as one. According to former radical jihadi sympathizer, Mubin Shaikh, the red flag is not when someone has extremist beliefs, but rather when that person sees violence as a viable method to progress an extremist agenda. Harris displayed myriad warning signs of his growing fascination with violent extremism. While violent extremism exists on a spectrum, there are some behaviors that point to the need for concern and intervention, many of which Harris displayed. According to Cullen, Harris kept an online journal detailing his obsession with human extinction and fantasies of punishing authority figures. Friends and family members had caught him with homemade bombs; local police officers even knew he kept the journal. Harris had also been collecting weapons, seeking out the help of Klebold’s prom date to purchase a gun while he was still underage. These were the pertinent warning signs that were ignored; as the media rushed to label the killers as bullied, anti-social school shooters, it failed to acknowledge that their plans were more complex than a reaction to bullying.

Eric Harris’s beliefs did not align directly with a sole extremist ideology. In his journal, he ranted about the need for anarchy. His extreme aversion to authority explains his unwavering desire to destroy systems of power. Cullen suggests that Harris and Klebold targeted the source of their oppression: high school. Yet, as he reveals in Columbine, Harris was also obsessed with Nazi ideology; Harris even confessed in his writing that he had a fantasy about killing more people than the Holocaust had.

Though he cannot be considered strictly a neo-Nazi, nor strictly an anarchist, it is undeniable that Eric Harris was a violent extremist who craved notoriety. Columbine was a calculated political statement inspired by extremist movements of the past. According to “The Structure of Violent Extremist Ideologies” provided by Edventure Partners, there is a common arc in the progression of extremists, with Harris’s egocentric actions and vision for April 20th clearly explained by Edventure’s six core elements: he utilized an “us vs. them” attitude, believed violence to be the only plausible solution, and he planned his suicide as the ultimate final message. While classifying Harris as a violent extremist is not as automatic as the suicide pilots on 9/11, his actions are much more similar to those violent radicals than they are to a victim of incessant bullying. Eric Harris was misclassified as solely a school shooter, when in actuality, the shooting was only one piece of his extremist scheme.

Countering violent extremism (CVE) is a pressing challenge in the world today, yet the

accepted definition of violent extremism needs to be widened. The actions of Eric Harris illustrate that the profile of a violent extremist is fluid; Harris had a normal childhood and lived as a normal teenager before violent extremist propaganda engrossed him. Identifying an ideological affiliation is less relevant to CVE than recognizing a proclivity for violence. Harris’s beliefs were inspired by an amalgam of ideologies, but one thing is indisputable: he believed violence was necessary to make the world listen.