Destructoid interview: Columbine alumnus responds to Dr. Jerald Block

Late last month I ran an interview with Dr. Jerald Block, an Oregon psychiatrist with an interesting theory on the role on videogames in the Columbine massacre. He suggested that rather than inciting the violent actions of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, videogames such as Doom acted as a cathartic sanctuary, and that the banning of the boys from their computers was instrumental in pushing them to murder. 

It was an unusual approach, but one which earned a lot of interest, both within the Destructoid community and throughout the internet at large. However, after it was published, we recieved an e-mail taking great issue with a lot of what Dr. Block said, claiming that his report was based on massive innacuracies in the facts of the case. The sender? Brooks Brown, the former Columbine student referenced on several occasions throughout Dr. Block’s paper due to his long-standing friendship with Klebold and the death threats he recieved from Harris previously to the shooting. Since the massacre, Brooks has written the book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death At Columbine High School and assisted Michael Moore in the making of Bowling For Columbine. He also gives youth and school talks on violence.

Obviously I was very interested in what Brooks had to say in regards to both Block’s work and what he saw to be the real causes of the massacre having lived through it, and wanted to talk to him about it. A follow-up interview was quickly arranged, during which we talked about Brooks’ take on Dr. Block’s paper, his relationship with Harris and Klebold, the effects of institutionalized bullying, personal responibility, and naturally, media violence. Hit the jump to read it.  

Destructoid: When you got in touch with us, you said that there were some basic, fundamental facts of the Columbine case which Dr. Block was inaccurate about in his report. Which of his accounts were you unhappy with, and can you give us your own accounts of them?

Brooks Brown: Primarily Doc Block was wrong with his essential premise. He claims that Eric and Dylan were banned from their computers for quite a long time – he states it lasted for about a year and a half up til the day of the shooting. Not only is this written nowhere, we actually know factually they used their computers for games throughout that year and a half, as well as for various game editing, video editing, and writing. Other facts he gets wrong are how his parents treated him, how the police interacted, etc. The only thing I can say that he got completely right is that a shooting did happen, and that’s not a good thing for such a study.

Destructoid: Could you give us some insight into the nature of your relationship with
Eric and Dylan? How close were you and how did your relationship change over the time you knew them, leading up to the shooting?

Brooks Brown: I grew up with Dylan – my parents and his were good friends, my younger brother and his older brother were good friends up until my time in junior high. He introduced me to Ninja Gaiden, and I introduced him to Mortal Kombat. He was my best friend. We stayed friends throughout junior and high school, but made other friends as well, and due to extracurricular activities we didn’t hang out as much. Once at Columbine, I met Eric through Dylan.  As we got to hang out, we started fighting – personality mismatch. We hung out a lot up until the time he threatened my life on the net, and started rumors around school that he was going to hurt me.

My parents and I decided to call the cops, which led to me not speaking to Eric and him hating me. The story is quite long, but it ends with us burying our hatchet 4 months before the massacre. It’s a long damn story, that never gets easier to tell.

Destructoid: Dr. Block admits in his paper that his analysis is speculative and invites criticism. Having read how he interprets what he sees as the facts, do you feel he is being overly-speculative? How sound do you find his logic and reasoning?

Brooks Brown: Well, if his basic premise doesn’t fit the facts, the rest falls apart. His thesis reads like a high school student’s debate speech. Neither seem to search for reasons to be wrong, but instead look at anything that shows them to be right, even if it’s spurious logic. The difference is that high school debate team members just want trophies, he wants to change how people think with no facts.

Add to that his logic. Games create a world that people, when taken away from the world, murder children.  Therefore, the games are not to blame. I beg to differ. While I agree with some degree of personal responsibility, if someone addicted to heroin robs a store to get his
fix, heroin shares the blame. And if games are, as he says, so addictive that kids can go through such extreme withdrawals they murder, games are to blame.

And everyone cheered his thoughts as pro-gamer?

Destructoid: While a lot of people have liked Dr. Block’s general approach to the issue of gaming within the Columbine tragedy, many are of the opinion that such violent events are the products of a great many causes and issues, and that if involved at all, videogames were only one small part of the web. However, both in his report and in our interview, Dr. Block discounts factors such as bullying in school, parental inaction, psychosis and use of medication. How realistic do you think this stance is?

Brooks Brown:

The perfect storm theory applies very well to school shootings. I could list off a near infinite number of factors in the Columbine shooting – the Sheriff’s indifference, the teachers who were bullies, the teachers who allowed bullies, the administration doing nothing about one student threatening another, students bullying, videogames, parents, community issues, overbearing fundamentalist religion, etc etc etc. And while the vast majority of communities have all these problems (everyone reading this can relate to most of what I said), school shootings remain rare because the ratio of these problem to other positive influences needs to be just right to cause a psychotic break.

But this is the other thing that so drove me to anger about Doc Block’s writings. He discounts bullying, when many respected psychologists and sociologists, such as Ralph Larkin, say that the psychological bullying is the direct cause. He spent years visiting, interviewing, studying, and reading police reports. Block has never been here. He even cites my book as his source for saying bullying wasn’t a problem. I’m pretty sure what my book says – I wrote the f*cking thing. Perhaps the four chapters dedicated to the bullying I experienced at Columbine weren’t enough for him.

Perhaps the stories about the choir teacher weren’t enough. The teacher who would tell the Altos and Sopranos that they “were as mismatched as a mixed marriage”, or who would tell girls who didn’t cross their legs he could “see their golden valley”. Or how his football player son decided to come coach the football team and teach choir alongside his father – becoming the only teacher who actually punched me. Bruised my arm.

Perhaps Eric and Dylan’s writings about how they were bullied, how they were shooting up the school because of it. They do say that. But maybe that source isn’t good enough for him either. Again, I could go on for hours – but he was wrong on all of those counts. The drugs were a major factor – he was on Luvox – both did not get along with their parents to a great deal, and Eric’s parents caught him hiding alcohol, building pipe bombs, and threatening to kill another student all in the same span of time – and didn’t even ground him, letting him keep his bomb making kit! That screams parental inaction to me.

Destructoid: The issue of bullying has come up frequently during discussion of Columbine. The boys referenced it as a reason for their anger, and you’ve mentioned that the school had a serious problem to me yourself. Can you give our readers some insight into what the social climate was like there? How severe was the problem and how was it managed by staff?

Brooks Brown: I’ll relate my favorite story about the administration and how they treated bullying. I was in Drama – that labeled me a fag in the eyes of sports guys. Thusly I would be berated at every turn, knocked down, tripped, and shoved. They always made gay jokes. So I told my counselor, he said he wanted to talk to my parents. So I tell my parents – we all go in. They sit and talk for a while about me, my parents fuming about how I am being treated. The counselor tells them – and I quote:

“You will just have to accept Brooks’ lifestyle choice.”

And for your confused readers, I was never gay – happily married now. But the problem is that those kinds of stories are cute – and the vast majority are not cute. Between the stories of ‘Wrestler A’ beating a Jewish kid bloody, screaming he was going to throw him in the oven, and the stories of the administration telling that Jewish kid that he needed to leave because it would ‘be easier on the school’. Or the popular girl who was stalked and threatened by ‘Basketball Asshole B’ only to get a restraining order against him officially – then told by the school she couldn’t come anymore because of it (What, you think they should kick HIM out?). The stories aren’t funny, they are not anecdotes – many have police reports, many of those jocks spent time in jail (or currently are) for their abuse, and even others blatantly admit how they were.

In a Time Magazine article about Columbine one jock was asked how the school treated the shooters. His reply was simple:

“Sure, we teased them. But what do you expect if you come to school with weird hairdos? It’s not just jocks; the whole school was disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos, grabbing each other’s private parts. If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease ’em. So the whole school would call them homos, and when they did something sick, we’d tell them, ‘You’re sick and that’s wrong’.”

Direct quote – Google it and find the page from Time itself.

And this is one of the other factors that come in to school shootings – Eric was what is referred to as an “injustice collector”. I have that too – a lot of guys won’t admit to it, but we’re generally very sensitive to people doing bad things. Seeing these things depressed me, and it angered Eric.  Eric had nowhere to put that anger, I had a place to put that depression.  Most have places to put them – videogames can be a good place to get energy out. But, if you’ve read any of Eric’s writing you’ll see he was more then just a bit pissed – he was psychotic. He wrote in his journal about coming to my family’s home, cutting us into pieces and urinating on our bodies. That’s not normal anger.

Destructoid: Do you feel there was any one major contributing factor to the shooting, or were the causes of Columbine as you see them more complex than that?

Brooks Brown: There are a few major factors – two of which are what I call directly responsible. I call them that because if they weren’t there, if either of them didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be doing this interview. The first is bullying. Without anything to fuel their anger, the shooting wouldn’t have happened. The other is police incompetance. This is the side of Columbine few know – that my family contacted the police 16 times about Eric, many of which my mom said she was afraid he was going to shoot up the school. The police were aware of his pipebomb activity, and were aware of both Eric and Dylan – they were in a juvenile diversion program in which Eric told his counselor he wanted to kill and die. The police did nothing – had they done ANYTHING I wouldn’t be doing this interview.

Destructoid: Columbine is sadly not an isolated case, US educational establishments having suffered a spate of shootings by students over the last few years. Having lived through one, can you speculate on why these particular circumstances keep appearing, or do you feel it’s naive to look for a catch-all answer?

Brooks Brown: Disillusioned youth who have a great deal of anger due to bullying are going to continue to kill. The reason the same “symptoms” continue to pop up is simply cultural. Youth who don’t go out and party play videogames. Popular kids go out, unpopular stay in. That rule doesn’t cross, except with drugs – unpopular kids do them too. However, drugs ruin your desire to kill – anyone notice every shooter’s tox screen has come back clean for pot, heroin, coke, and the like? It’s because those become their own drives.

But rare is the unpopular kid who gets bullied directly, is an injustice collector, has access to guns, and is raised so poorly that murder is a great option. That’s why shootings happen, but not everyday and everywhere.

Destructoid: As as gamer yourself, how relevant do you feel violent media may or may not be to tragedies such as Columbine? Is desensitization and glamorization a significant enough problem to need addressing, or are the issues at play much bigger?

Brooks Brown: Videogames effect you. That is something you can’t question, especially if you call yourself a gamer. The words are part of our vernacular – I’ve watched myself say “LOL” out loud in response to a question on cable television. I say “Owned” all the time. I walk down the street thinking about how the area would be cool for a Tony Hawk level, or how the road i’m driving on would be fun in Burnout. Not all the time, granted – but I have caught myself blending games in with my life – and that’s okay. Just like when I was six and watching Voltron – what they said became holy in my world. Just like how I got green hair and liberty spikes thanks to my favorite style of music. We are affected by the world we take in.

That should not be a surprise. And it should not be something we shy away from admitting.  From the tattoos, to the shirts, to the money we throw away on our choice of media, we should be mature enough to admit it affects us. If it didn’t, Penny Arcade would be boring and the term “fanboy” would still be relegated to the comic world. It affects us – Admit it, but don’t let the assholes like Jack Thompson take it too far.  Just think a bit. Think about tampons. No, really.

Advertisers and marketing departments are mocked in every Dilbert strip I’ve read as being stupid, but they understand how videogames effect us while “experts” like Thompson and Block stammer and fail. It comes down to a simple word – demographics. You have to give people something they want. My grandparents have no interest in buying a PlayStation 3.  Because of that fact, I have yet to see an ad for it during the World War Two documentaries on The History Channel. I also don’t see adverts for tampons on during Ninja Warrior on G4. Or,
to cite a direct example, the banners on Destructoid. If, as the “experts” claim, everything effects us – why don’t we see more tampon ads on Destructoid? It’s a site with many readers who are rather on the rabid side. Wouldn’t that be the perfect audience for an ad? Not in the least.

Because the majority of readers of Destructoid are male, I’m guessing of ages 18-34 (or by some of the comments i’ve read on the site, ages 8-15). Girls do go to the site, but the overwhelming majority have no interest in tampons, so they don’t advertise here. Hopefully someone reading this sees what I am getting at – that people are only affected by what they experience if they are so inclined to be affected. That is important. If someone is not inclined to buy tampons, all the ads in the world won’t change that. If someone isn’t inclined to get McDonald’s, that ad won’t effect them. And while we like to think that murder is such an inhuman thing, it too is simply a choice. Granted, it’s a choice few make, but it falls under the advertising rule too – you don’t see adverts for the armed forces on television during Oprah, do you?

Consider all media essentially advertisements for decisions. From the Bible to the Koran to Harry Potter to Transformers to Grand Theft Auto – all of them are adverts for a certain decision. Some are simple – Potter is an easy, fun book. Some are complex such as GTA. But you have to be inclined to it to get that something out of it. I’ve read the Bible countless times and found little of use – I’m an Atheist – that advert didn’t work on me. I also didn’t enjoy Harry Potter’s first book – too sophmoric for my taste. I enjoyed the free roaming of GTA – but it resulted in me having fantasies of base-jumping, not killing. But, in everything I mentioned above, you can find adverts for any sort of behavior – sex, drugs, death, murder – if you are so inclined.

So the games do affect us – but only in the ways we are ready for them to. Just like books, just like movies, just like television, and just like advertisements. I mean, if all media affected everyone the same, marketing would be way too easy of a job, right?

Destructoid: What can we learn from Columbine, and what should we focus on in preventing future cases of youth violence?

Brooks Brown: I wish I could simply say some touchy-feely words about “tolerance” and “love”, but the truth is those things don’t work. In fact, forced tolerance and forced love is also a common hatred amongst school shooters. Workplace violence too, actually. One of the first things is to eliminate competitive sports from public schools. Such things create classes of children that are held aloft by school administration. I like to think romantically about days of yore, when sports helped kids become better people. But that’s not the case – it’s hyper-competitive, it results in very little good, and the kid in those programs, generally, turn out to be dicks. Get rid of it.

A second thing is that we really need to pay attention to religion and how it’s being rallied about throughout our schools. This too creates a class of children who feel superior to others and show it. And just like sports, it’s competitive with no purpose. It too used to teach kids morality – now it just teaches them superiority – and all school shooters share that as a common thread as well – some are considerably explicit about it. It has no place in schools, so keep it out. End of story.

Sadly, the biggest lesson is most overlooked – you don’t have to worry about school shootings, and you don’t need to destroy kids’ lives because of their music or style of dress. Odds are that they aren’t going to shoot up your school. It’s boring to hear – but you’re safe, and if you’re a parent, your kids are safe. Parents overlook this lesson all the time though – thinking that their kid wears dark clothes so therefore is a killer. You just have to use common sense. If you find pipebombs and gun manuals in your kid’s room – maybe talk to him about it? For me? Maybe get him some help – and keep an eye on him. But the average parent would – even below average parents would. My parents found out I was smoking and took all my books and comics away, and grounded me. I can only imagine what would have happened if the cops showed up with my web site where I said I wanted to blow up my town. I bet they wouldn’t have let me put a lock on my door, sneak out my window anytime, and set fire to people’s front lawns. Yeah – they were that bad at parenting.

Or you can trust alarmists like Thompson who says everything effects you. Or experts like Block who say the parents were great and bullying didn’t happen. Sure, Block claims to be on your side, but he uses fabricated facts to make you happy. If you’re a parent, Thompson claims to be on your side. Both make up facts and realities to fit themselves and their own version of reality – so look a bit deeper, and you’ll generally find the truth is much better. Or, I guess, you can read the Bible.  🙂

Destructoid: Brooks Brown, thank you very much.  

David Houghton