1. Eric Harris on Awareness

“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!”1

Charlie Chaplin

We all know that feeling when someone is watching over us, observing our every move. This is called self-consciousness, an acute sense of self-awareness. Eric Harris, however, wrote about self-awareness in a more philosophical manner, namely the way that his individual being related to society. Eric criticized society and was annoyed by other people’s behavior. He looked at people much like an anthropologist who observes the human herd.

Eric David Harris, born on April 9th, 1981, wrote his journal entries in the year leading up to the attack, between March 10th, 1998 and March 3rd, 1999. Sometimes weeks or months apart, he wrote eighteen entries in total. They express various themes, ranging from practical matters that describe how he prepared for the attacks to themes of hatred and contempt of essentially everyone on Earth, including himself.

But besides expression of anger, Eric’s writings also offer a near philosophical social commentary. He made it a central theme to question why most people follow rules that other people literally made up, often in the interest of an imagined Greater Good that sometimes, if not always, happens to serve those people’s own best interests.

In one of his journal entries Eric wrote, “There’s no such thing as True Good or True evil, it’s all relative to the observer.”2 Who are we to not question the rules that govern our lives? If we never question what society makes us believe is good for us, then we live out our lives as members of a herd, clever and self-conscious, but perfectly unaware of how other people control our productive lives.

Eric read a lot of books, not just for his favorite English composition class3, for which he wrote many reports, but also in his spare time. He read anything from serious works by Shakespeare, Nietzsche or Hobbes to less serious works of fiction like the Aliens and Doom novels, but he also read about the ideologies of mass murderers Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson.4

Eric would often cite from these and other authors. Peter Langman, an expert on the psychology of school shooters, traced influences of specifically Hitler, Nietzsche, Hobbes and Charles Manson in an article on the ideology of Eric Harris5, but I decided not to attach much value to this analysis. For several reason. Aside from Langman’s arbitrary focus, which ignored for example Shakespeare or even Les Misérables, Langman’s approach relies on too many loose ends. In the case of Nietzsche, Langman writes, “Eric would have reveled in […]”, “Eric may have taken heart in […]”, “Eric might have been thrilled by […]”, “Nietzsche’s writing could help explain […]”, “Nietzsche may also shed light on […]”6 and so forth, while he admits that Eric’s only written reference to the German philosopher was “I just love Hobbes and Nietzsche!”7 This is not very helpful to understand Eric Harris. Someone can probably find a Nietzsche quote that may also shed light on the way Eric flavored his coffee.

While Langman’s hunches stimulate the intellect, they are indemonstrable. His approach poses the fundamental problem that he may have confused cause and effect. Did Hitler and Nietzsche really influence Eric’s ideology, or did Eric merely find validation with them for ideas that he already embraced? The difference matters, because if Langman’s view of the world is correct, authorities should immediately ban all books in order to prevent teenagers from magically transforming into mass murdering monsters overnight. In my view however, traumatized children will likely grab hold of anything they can find that supports a pre-existing emotional conflict.

For this reason, my book does not pretend to be a scientific exploration of what influenced Eric’s ideology. Instead, I assume that Eric was influenced by the culture of the eighties and the nineties. I will hopefully show some level of mainstream support for his more philosophical ideas, because finding such support questions whether Eric’s ideas resulted from a psychopathic mind. Perhaps, in order to better understand Eric’s motives, we should take note of the subtle pains that he hid in his writings.

The Book of God

In the so-called Basement Tapes, Eric referred to his journal as The Book of God. To identify oneself with a god means to lay claim to the highest authority. On a philosophical level, such a claim may also express a desire for ultimate freedom, the will to live freely and without any form of oppression.

While some may call this a “brush with blasphemy”, it appears that Eric rebelled against all adults in authority positions, which to him included God.8 He wrote as much in his journal: “But people (i.e., parents, cops, God, teachers) telling me what to do, think, say, act makes me not want to [expletive] do it!”9

Such a statement sounds like the everyday complaint of a teenager. But besides teenagers, many other people still feel the same all throughout adulthood. A great example is the first time that Charlie Chaplin spoke on film and said: “Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel!”10

I analyzed the journal and distilled what I found the most meaningful statements from three journal entries, in chronological order. I added my own subtitles for reference, but they are not part of the original text:

Self-Awareness—April 10th, 1998

Fictional Order—April 21st, 1998

Human Nature—May 6th, 1998

Self-Awareness

April 10th, 1998

In this first journal entry, Eric describes several of the things that a teenager does not like about the world, such as the way people dress and other people’s opinions. The entry ends with a list of types of people who in his view deserve to be killed, but a number of statements contain more meaningful insights.

E Pluribus Unum?

Too many thoughts and different societies all wrapped up together in this [expletive] place called AMERICA. Everyone has their own god [expletive] opinions on every god [expletive] thing and you may be saying “well what makes you so different?” Because I have something only me and V have, SELF AWARENESS.

America represents many different societies wrapped into a multicultural ‘melting pot’. Although America’s cultural roots are originally European (and later also African, Latin-American and Asian), Europe and America differ as much from one another as classical Roman civilization differed from ancient Greek culture.11 Social scientists identified three important differences. First, from its inception, the United States had no big church and no state sanctioned religion, which allowed people to found new religious movements, such as the churches of the Amish, the Mormons and Scientology. Secondly, unlike European nation-states, the absence of big government gave rise to free enterprise and market capitalism. Thirdly, until 1940, America lacked a “big military to threaten to take over government”, allowing for greater personal freedom so that local communities flourished.12

But as a consequence of those freedoms, we may need to America today as an economic union rather than a social one, despite a common anthem and flag.

Confronted with such diversity of culture an opinion, both Eric and Dylan Klebold frequently brought up the theme of self-awareness, also in their personal communications. Their sense of awareness set them apart from other members of society. They prided themselves that they could see the rules by which the human herd conforms to desired behaviors. While most people willingly surrender at least a part of their autonomy in favor of a sense of belonging, Eric and Dylan fully embraced autonomous opinion, even though doing so condemned them both to the status of social outcast.

While Eric mentioned twice that “self awareness is a wonderful thing”, Dylan disagreed and felt burdened by it. He wrote: “Awareness signs the warrant for suffering.”13

Follow the Leader

People say it is immoral to follow others, they say be a leader. Well here is a [expletive] news flash for you stupid [expletive], everyone is a follower!

Eric noticed society’s hypocrisy. We warn our children not to follow other people’s cults and bullies, but at the same time we quietly follow our own. Everyone is a follower, because uncertainty forces us to rely on others. One overlooked theme in leadership literature may be the question of how many leaders an organization really needs. At least in centralized hierarchies we only need one leader. Therefore motivational mantras such as “be a leader” have about the same purpose as winning the ‘employee of the month’ award. These mantras merely serve to boost worker morale, promote competition or attempt to increase worker productivity.

True leadership means to break free from the pack of followers and responsibly lead others towards a better future. But the type of leadership society and business teach us exploits other people’s productivity. Analogous to a meat processing facility, the leading cow enters the slaughterhouse first.

Better advice sounds as follows: “Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs.”14

Great Expectations

All these standards and laws and Great Expectations (Webb) are making people into robots even though they might ‘think’ they aren’t and try to deny it.

“Great Expectations” refers to a report that Eric wrote titled Great Senior Expectations, about what to expect of his last year in high school.15 He writes that he wishes to “learn to express [his] opinions and beliefs in a civilized, respectable manner.” On leadership he writes: “Being a leader is a very admirable quality. I respect people who are good strong leaders and know what they are doing, and I do not respect people who are weak, uneducated leaders. This is why I want to be a strong leader. […] If I am considering a military career, then leadership is an extremely important quality.”

Eric’s personal writings contrast with what he wrote for his class. Was Eric keeping up appearances, trying to blend in, doing what was expected of him? Eric’s father was an Air Force pilot. Growing up in a military family, Eric probably felt pressured to live up to military ideals of leadership, while he privately rejected such ideals.

In this statement he complained precisely about the military obedience that turns people with a conscience into soldiers. Modern militaries have perfected the narratives that make soldiers willing to die for their countries; the Great Expectations of Honor, Loyalty and the Privilege to serve. Soldiers surrender their whole existence to an imagined greater good, officially the continued existence of their people, but in reality more often the profits of the few.

According to behavioral science, people can be motivated to postpone present gratification in favor of perceived benefits in the future. For example, when researchers promised children that they would get a greater number of marshmallows in the near future instead of just one right now, on the condition that they waited patiently, the children who best controlled their urge for instant gratification often devised strategies such as sitting on their hands or singing to pass time.16 Children who postponed their immediate needs best, grow up to become more successful adults.

But what works for children also works for adults and soldiers. Given a Great Political Ideology, people have perfected the skill of postponing gratification to the point that they can postpone indefinitely. When a feudal ruler in medieval Europe had successfully convinced his serfs that they would be rewarded for their hard work in the afterlife, then he could more easily demand taxation. In other words, people can be fooled to give up their whole lives for nothing but the promise an imagined afterlife.

The patrician elites who understand this powerful mechanism can abuse religion as a means to exploit the productivity of the common people. The perfect slave believes that he is free. Even today, how are corporations that promise old-age security and equal treatment different from feudal rulers who promised an afterlife?

Society offers little room for self-aware individuals who wish to break free from such Pavlovian conditioning. The majority of the people do as they are told, because their reproductive urges demand for a means to support a family and a home to live in. Homes need mortgages, mortgages need jobs and jobs need bosses who tell you what to do. To get a job you need a track record of ‘good behavior’, which is your resume, your college degree or your high school diploma. Without a track record you have no access to the system, and without access you will be discarded, cast out and forgotten.

Where is the freedom in all of this? Is it a surprise that many young Americans explosively celebrate ‘life before work’? Have we become a society of biological robots, programmed to act, but denied to think, and controlled by an elite of puppet masters? Is social security the new afterlife we crave? It was Charlie Chaplin who tried to warn us 75 years ago: “Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!”17

The Socratic Method

Hey try this sometime, when someone tells you something, ask “why?” Eventually they will be stumped and can’t answer any more. That’s because they only know what they need to know in society and school, not real life science.

What Eric describes here is called the Socratic Method of philosophy. Socrates confronted his fellow Athenians with their own beliefs by incessantly asking them about why they believed in them. Barefoot, he would ask about the meaning of life or the purpose of politics. He would claim not to know the answers himself, but by questioning others’ beliefs in this manner Socrates made people aware of the flaws in their own thinking.

The Socratic Method is also a way to win an argument by asking your opponent the right questions, which force him to admit that you are right.

Fictional Order

April 21st, 1998

In this relatively civilized entry Eric introduced two concepts central to his view of the world, namely the ability to question man-made reality and that everything we believe in, such as religions, nations and society, is fictional order.

Robot Factories

Ever wonder why we go to school? Besides getting a so-called education. It’s not too obvious to most of you stupid [expletive] but for those who think a little more and deeper you should realize it. It’s society’s way of turning all the young people into good little robots and factory workers. That’s why we sit in desks in rows and go by bell schedules, to get prepared for the real world because “that’s what it’s like.”

Schooling passes on to the next generation a culture’s knowledge, morals or the technology needed for economic progress. People have schooled younger generations at least since the end of the last ice age, either through oral tradition, song, initiation rites or even art; more recently through classroom textbooks and the internet.

In our time, we necessarily school children so they become masters of advanced technology and information systems that we need for our survival. Governments enforce public schooling to make sure it happens.

But the weight of our increasingly complex civilization may have become a heavy burden on the shoulders of our children, a burden which they carry from kindergarten through college, university and career life.

Each new generation of people dreams of a better future than the one their parents had. What happens when we roll the cost of our increasingly expensive future on to next generations who may no longer be able to afford it? Children study longer hours, while parents take second jobs to afford their children’s education.

As a consequence of industrialization, we force our children to overachieve only to compete with other overachievers, at the expensive of personal freedom and happiness. We demand technological progress to make life easier, but at the same time we force our children to behave more like machines. The machine world dictates the rules and people follow.

American educationalist Horace Mann first introduced public schooling in 1837, after which it became a model for Europe and other parts of the post-Industrial world. The Industrial Age demanded that governments organized schooling on a national scale for at least two reasons: first, standardized schooling reduced the cost per educated individual, which made schooling the masses feasible; and second, business and industry could more easily dictate their need for specific types of workers.

We did not design schools to get the best out of people, but to fit the best people to available job descriptions, regardless of talent. Even if every child was born with the ability to graduate from university, business dictates that approximately 3.5 million US truck drivers have to go to work tomorrow morning, but they do not need university degrees. The question is, do the right number of people always come into this world to be truck drivers, or do we deliberately ‘undereducate’ people to make them fit assembly lines? Many schools educate for the marketplace. Schools have no real incentive to educate classrooms full of geniuses. As a consequence, many people will leave schools less intelligent than they were when they entered.

Class inequality therefore is not accidental—it is deliberate, by design. We designed modern education systems to meet the needs of the Industrial Age, an age which never really ended, but expanded and accelerated into the 21st century. Possibly, schools like Columbine High School merely supply uncritical workers to local business and industry. Such schools indeed smother their students’ ability to think for themselves. The machine world allows no room for autonomous thought, perhaps with the exception of the ruling class.18

School operate like factories with bell schedules that dictate what students think about; English class—BELLShistory class—BELLS—math class—BELLS. Such mental abuse ‘educates’ talented kids to become assembly line workers, chicken farmers or bureaucrats. We sit in desks in rows because that how offices make efficient use of commercial floor space. Eric Harris saw through this Pavlovian machinery.

We train people for the mechanical efficiency of industry, at the expensive of our humanity.19 Or in other words, we used to grow more potatoes to feed more people, nowadays we breed more people to sell more fries; people are the means of production.

Fictional Reality

Why can’t we learn in school how we want to, why can’t we sit on desks and on shelves and put our feet up and relax while we learn? Because that’s not what the “real world is like.” Well hey [expletive], there is no such thing as an actual “real world.” It’s just another word like justice, sorry, pity, religion, faith, luck and so on.

In this statement, Eric continues on the theme of education and questions why he has no personal freedom to “put his feet up and relax” while he learns. Perhaps we can find less totalitarian ways to educate people. Perhaps children need the freedom to learn how and what they want.

But Eric then introduced an idea that historian Yuval Harari now calls fictional order. Fictional order is a collective belief that some socially constructed reality is true. We create fictional order ourselves whenever we found a new company or think of a new name for a product or service. Other examples of fictional order include any commercial brand, a politician’s social status, the artistic value of a painting, but also friendship, religion, entire corporations, sports teams, nationalities or even the United Nations.

Fictional order may appear real to us, because much of it does not change during our lifetimes. People born in the Unites States today may expect there still to be a United States by the time their grandchildren grow up. But it is not a given, the like any country even the United States may fall apart someday, because fictional order only exists for as long as there are people who believe in it.

But as individuals born into the fictional order that our ancestors, parents and peers created through their actions and choices, we can in most cases neither influence nor change it, because we need a majority consensus to do so. Harari writes that “a fictional order can only be maintained when large parts of the population—especially large parts of the security forces and the elite—really believe in them”.20 Especially children and teenagers will therefore find it hard to question the rules of society, because they lack the power to convince others.

Fictional order plays an important role throughout human history. Egyptian pharaoh Khufu could only convince his people to invest time and resources into building his great pyramid, because his people already believed that their pharaoh’s safe passage to the stars would bring prosperity, safety and security for themselves and their children. The Egyptians believed that their pharaoh linked the people to the world of the divine. But without such religion already in place, without already having established this fictional order of a divine pharaoh in the minds of common Egyptians, they would not have moved a single boulder of rock to build Khufu his pyramid.

This brings up the question of power, which is itself fictional order than only exists because people believe in it. Those who successfully create new fictional order definitely have power, and those who already have power are most likely to influence or create new fiction. Power therefore means the ability to instill a belief onto others. However, this mechanism can also work in reverse: people can freely ascribe powerful features to a leader figure, either for religious reasons or some other perceived benefit.

The United States itself was made up by its founding fathers. The belief in the value of the US dollar is entirely fictional, as is a gold standard. But we can see why such fictional order persists, because in order to dismantle it we must erase the idea of a United States from the minds of powerful people, their security forces and a majority of Americans. Even then, the world outside still considers America real until their beliefs have been updated.

This erasure process, to erase fictional order from people’s conscience, is by no means impossible. Barbarians collapsed the Roman Empire centuries ago. While Roman ruins remain today, nobody hails to the Caesars anymore. Ancient Greek culture disappeared as did Egyptian culture before it.

Sometimes we purposefully destroy fictional order when it no longer serves us. When Hitler established his Third Reich, from nothing, he claimed his order on the grounds of some Aryan superiority, but neighboring peoples disagreed. Allied forces eventually destroyed not only the cities and armies of the Third Reich, but in doing so, they also crushed the fiction of German superiority. Hitler’s fiction of a thousand year Reich only lasted fourteen years.

Science and Math

Wrong, only science and math are true, everything, and I mean every [expletive] thing else is man made.

This is a nuance of the previous statement. Eric probably meant physics instead of science, because people made up the scientific method. It echoes words of Steve Jobs, who said in an interview, “When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. […] Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is—everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”21 Perhaps it was the zeitgeist of the nineties, but it shows that ideas similar to Eric’s have some mainstream support.

Science wants to remove human interpretation from observation. When we attempt to observe the world as it really is, science expects different people to consistently find the same result when they observe the same phenomenon. But how blue is the sky? To answer such a question, science codifies observations in terms of, for example, mathematics or physics, which scientists consider to be universal languages of the universe. However, science is itself is based on the assumption that some ‘real’ reality truly exists outside of human observation, and that the mathematics on Earth are the same everywhere else.

They may be right, but paradoxically, the science of quantum mechanics now claims that the act of observation itself induces the reality that we observe, and that therefore real reality is not real.22

Herding

You aren’t human. You are a Robot. You don’t take advantage of your capabilities given to you at birth. You just drop them and hop onto the boat and head down the stream of life with all the other [expletive] of your type. Well god [expletive] it I won’t be part of it!

If it is so difficult to change fictional order, if the cost of being the fish that swims upstream is so high, then most people have an incentive to adopt the ways of the herd. People opt for a sense of belonging and security at the expense of a less autonomous life.

Human Nature

May 6th, 1998

Eric continues along the theme of fictional order in this entry. He feels that the rules of society smother his instincts.

Deleted Instincts

Human nature is smothered out by society, jobs, and work and school. Instincts are deleted by laws.

Societies and government are only created to have order and calmness, which is exactly the opposite of pure human nature. Take away all your laws and morals and just see what you can do. If the government was one entity it would be thinking, “hey, let’s make some order here and calm these crazy [expletive] down so we can be constructive and fight other governments in our own little so-called self-created ‘civilized world’ and get rid of all those damn instincts everyone has.”

In a report on Return From the Stars, a book by science fiction author Stanislav Lem, Eric summarizes, “[Hal] reads about a process called ‘betrization’. This process was started about twenty years after Hal left Earth. What it does is it neutralizes strong impulses and nullifies immoral thoughts. It becomes simply impossible for one to imagine harming another. […] This has changed humanity altogether, one article Hal observed had a meaningful quote in it; ‘they took the man out of man.’”. The neutralization and nullification of impulses and thoughts, do they belong to the realm of science fiction or is this ‘betrization’ the same thing we call ‘schooling’?

When Eric cites such passages, he makes clear that he found support in literature for his own worldview, instead of his views being influenced by literature. But then where did Eric get his idea that “human nature is smothered out by society” if not from his overly strict father23, his school teachers who served the status quo, school bullies and the oppressive jock culture at Columbine High School, or Eric’s psychologist, who prescribed him a suppressant drug “to stop getting angry” but who never unearthed the roots of Eric’s anger?

A Limited Life

Society may not realize what is happening but I have; you go to school, to get used to studying and learning how you’re “supposed to” so that drains or filters out a little bit of human nature. But that’s after your parents taught you what’s right and wrong even though you may think differently, you still must follow the rules. After school you are expected to get a job or go to college. To have more of your human nature blown out your ass. Society tries to make everyone act the same by burying all human nature and instincts. That’s what schools, laws, jobs, and parents do. If they realize it or not. And them, the few who stick to their natural instincts are casted out as psychos or lunatics or strangers or just plain different.

We grow up in the world with people who tell us about the fictional order that they expect us to believe in. Evolution designed children’s minds to accept parental instructions as definitive truth, which helps children to avoid dangerous situations. But while our parents pass on useful knowledge, the traditions of our culture or social skills, they can also abuse a child’s mind and teach it superstition.

Steve Jobs once said, “When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life.”

The Crazy Ones

Crazy, strange, weird, wild. These words are not bad or degrading.

Peter Langman associated this statement with Charles Manson, because it echoes statements from the book Helter Skelter which Eric’s friend Dylan had written a report on. That association attempts to prove that Eric embraced the ideas of psychopathic mass murderers. However, when we stop associating ideas with their author’s character, we can see deeper meaning.

Besides, the famed 1997 Apple Think Different TV commercial goes, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo.” Without crazy people, society never ventures off the beaten track.

1Charlie Chaplin, “The Great Dictator,” (1941).

2Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, “Columbine Documents,” 26010.

3Bill Briggs and Jason Blevins, “ColumbineTragedy and Recovery: A Boy with Many Sides,” The Denver Post Online 1999.

4Peter Langman, “Influences on the Ideology of Eric Harris,” (2008).

5Ibid.

6Ibid.

7Ibid.

8Dave Cullen, Columbine (London: Old Street Publishing, 2010), Kindle e-book, 35.

9Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, “Columbine Documents,” 26005.

10Chaplin, “The Great Dictator.”

11Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Berlin: Bibliographisches Institut, 2007).

12G. William Domhoff, “The Class-Domination Theory of Power,” http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/class_domination.html.

13Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, “Columbine Documents,” 26399.

14Farrah Gray, “Build Your Own Dreams…” (Facebook, 2012).

15Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, “Columbine Documents,” 26723-24.

16Dan Ariely, “Wait for Another Cookie?,” http://danariely.com/2011/05/15/wait-for-another-cookie/.

17Chaplin, “The Great Dictator.”

18Domhoff, “The Class-Domination Theory of Power”.

19Erwin Wagenhofer, “Alphabet,” (2013).

20Yuval N. Harari, Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit, trans. Jürgen Neubauer (München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2013), 143.

21”Steve Jobs: Visionary Entrepreneur,” (2013).

22Richard Conn Henry, “The Mental Universe,” Nature 436 (2005).

23Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt, No Easy Answers: The Truth About Death at Columbine (New York City: Lantern Books, 2002), Kindle e-book.

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1. Eric Harris on Awareness by Mathijs Koenraadt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.