The breaking point

Gitta Sereny ponders the Colorado killings.

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Strangely for Gitta Sereny, the Littleton, Colo., massacre brings together the British journalist's two areas of greatest expertise: Nazis and children who kill. Among her books are "Into That Darkness," which she based on 70 hours of interviews with Franz Stengl, the commandant of Treblinka; "Albert Speer," an award-winning biography of Hitler's architect; and her latest, "Cries Unheard," which describes 12-year-old Mary Bell's descent into homicide and its aftermath. Not surprisingly, Sereny was distraught about Tuesday's massacre, though she found President Clinton's response encouraging.

"He was right -- we have to catch these children before their breaking point occurs," she told Salon Books, using the phrase she has coined for children's turn toward violence after a long period of unheeded desperation. "We have to begin training parents to detect the signs. All these things have a million reasons. The great danger is reading this incident as a cause for an anti-gun campaign. I'm totally anti-gun -- people shouldn't let kids near them. But a psychologist on 'Larry King Live' last night was absolutely right: If those kids didn't have guns, they probably would have had something else."

As yet, little is known about the home life of the two suicide killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Sereny speculates, though, that one of two causes must have been at the root of their homicidal behavior: sexual abuse or parental rejection. When teenagers start putting on pancake makeup and Gothic outfits, as Klebold and Harris did, they're looking for a way to communicate, and while that behavior certainly doesnt indicate homicidal tendencies, it's a sure cry for attention. "Children need adults to communicate with," Sereny says. "Every child needs an adult."

She dismisses the Nazi connection as "terribly artificial" and is certain that the teenagers' "idiot belief in ideology" had little to do with what they were actually trying to say. "This gave them their great strength," she concedes. "But you have to remember, their suicides are a statement. They are punishing their parents. In the end they couldn't get anywhere."

Rather than focusing on the killers, Sereny believes, at this point the police should be concentrating on the killers' friends and accomplices, the so-called Trench Coat Mafia. "Terrible events need to be used," she insists. "Let me compare this to something different. When I was 18, I thought that they must find one of the people from the extermination camps and find out why they did this and what they felt. But it never happened -- so I did it myself. This is very much like that. There is nobody talking to these people. If they are willing, these people must be used. We have to use them to understand."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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