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Halifax Shooting Plot: Who Are The 'Columbiners'?

02/17/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/18/2015 05:59 EDT
A connection between the accused in the alleged plot to commit mass murder at a Halifax mall on Valentine's Day and the cult of Columbine on the web has shone a light on a fringe community that has existed largely in darker corners of the internet.

An online subculture of "Columbiners" has flourished for years, drawing devotees of the teen gunmen who massacred 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

James Gamble, the 19-year-old found dead in his family's Timberlea, N.S., house, reportedly posted images of Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as well as Nazi iconography before police recovered his body and three rifles last week.

Lindsay Souvannarath, a 23-year-old American from Geneva, Ill., arrested at the Halifax airport in connection with the alleged  shooting plot along with 20-year-old Randall Shepherd, of Halifax, also made references to Columbine and described security-camera stills from the 1999 shooting spree as "violent delights."

She titled her Tumblr blog School Shooter Chic.

Romanticized shootings

Although online communities dedicated to the topic of Columbine have long existed, the "Columbiners" term didn't come into prominence until about five years ago, according to journalist Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. 

As a frequent media commentator on the Columbine events, Cullen has faced online death threats from those who "idolize and worship" Klebold and Harris.

"A lot of these are kids, and they're usually angry with me," he said.

Others romanticize the Columbine events, interspersing posts depicting death scenes with photos of pin-up girls.

"There are people who are just interested in the crime and are typically obsessive about it, but there's also definitely a fandom," he said.

"There's a subset of those who are females. A lot of them are fan-fiction types of things of girls with their imagined sexual exploits with them," Cullen said.

'A Columbine fan club'

Ever since the 1999 shooting rampage, there’s been an underworld of fascination around Columbine as "a cultural marker," said Ralph Larkin, a sociologist and author of Comprehending Columbine.

"It's embedded in mythology, and even though many young people online have absolutely no personal memory of it, it had a tremendous impact on those who felt themselves to be disenfranchised or bullied," he said.

To Columbiners, Larkin said, Klebold and Harris achieved what they had always intended — infamy after their deaths.

Just as "Beliebers" fawn over Justin Bieber and "Directioners" have One Direction, "Columbiners" write admiringly about Harris and Klebold.

On one Tumblr account, a blogger using the handle "Mrs. Eric Harris" includes a profile describing Harris as "flawless" and "godlike."

"Someone called us a Columbine fan club," she wrote. 

"No no no, we're not a fan club," another blogger replied. "We're a society."

'A case of reference'

Gamble would have been a toddler when the Columbine school shooting took place and Souvannarath would have only just begun elementary school.

But age doesn't matter when it comes to this kind of fandom, said Mary Ann Campbell, director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick.

"It's more about what it represents to them; the stick-it-to-the-man kind of thing for anyone feeling isolated, or like they don't fit into a mainstream kind of society," she said.

Campbell, a psychologist specializing in criminal behaviour, said that although a rash of public shootings perpetrated by young gunmen have occurred in recent years — notably the Sandy Hook and the Aurora movie theatre killings — Columbine still resonates as "a case of reference" for mass shootings committed by youth. 

"We see they have a morbid obsession with suicidality and homicidality," said Alan Lipman, executive director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Violence.

"There's also the implication of some type of triggering event, or rejection," he said, referring to an image posted to Gamble's blog accompanied by the message: "Valentine's Day it's going down."

The primary age for a "psychotic break," according to Lipman, is in one's 20s, although he stressed that most people with psychotic illnesses are not violent.

"But when you have people who are alienated, essentially suicidally and homicidally depressed, in their late teens or early 20s, and enraged at a world they feel has slighted them, such individuals could be drawn to Columbine as an emblematic expression of acting out," he said.

Lipman said that few would actually be driven to act, and are merely exploring a morbid fascination with true crime.

Police said a tip helped them prevent the alleged Halifax shooting spree. It could have come from anywhere, even from within the Columbiners community.

"Maybe it was someone who was in the party and backed out. We just don't know," Campbell said.

The Columbiners crowd extends beyond geographic borders.

Misinformed fans

Shepherd and Randal, both Nova Scotians, were reportedly corresponding online with Souvannarath in Illinois.

In 2007, gunman Pekka-Eric Auvinen, an 18-year-old student in Finland, killed eight people before committing suicide at a high school. 

Auvinen, a known Columbiner, had corresponded by email with Dillon Cossey, 14, a Pennsylvania boy who was arrested after a friend told police he planned to commit a Columbine-style attack at his school.

Cossey also maintained a MySpace page that paid tribute to Klebold and Harris.

Being an "obsessive fan" doesn't necessarily mean attention to detail, however.

Cullen noted that one Columbiner's intro page on her website expressing admiration for Harris contains an inaccuracy in nearly every line, right down to erroneously claiming the gunman's favourite film was Natural Born Killers. It wasn't, according to Cullen.

"Most of what she says in her overview is wrong and just demonstrates a cursory knowledge, as someone who's obsessed, but not obsessed enough to find out if she's got it right," he said. "This is who we're dealing with here.

"And when it comes to looking for heroes, they've got the wrong hero, too."

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