Who Hath Sinned?

On an early summer night in 1998, Kipland Kinkel was in trouble. That morning, officials at Thurston County High School found a pistol in Kip’s locker and expelled him immediately. Furious, his father picked Kip up from the polics station. They had never gotten along very well–their relationship strained at best–and, on the way home, a terrible arguments ensued. Kip’s father had, over the years, bought Kip a few guns in an attempt to “bond” through target-practice. In retrospect, this step seemed misguided; when he bought the guns, however, Kip’s father was meagerly searching for a way–any way–to bond with his ever-more-distant son. As they approached their a-frame home some twenty minutes outside of town, Kip’s father informed Kip they had reached then end of the line: Kip was going to have to give up his guns. Shouting and swearing ensued and, when they finally pulled into the driveway, Kip bolted from the car and ran up stairs, incensed.

Just a few minutes later, Kip came half way down the stairs, saw his father standing in the kitchen, and then shot him at point blank range. Both appalled and electrified with his own actions, Kip dragged the body into the bathroom and locked it inside. The phone rang, Kip answered it and found one of his school friends on the other line. They talked for an hour, the friend unaware anything was wrong. After they hung up, Kip paced the floor behind the large, front-room windo–waiting for his mom to arrive. Terrified of the reaction she might have after returning home, Kip fingered his rifle and waited. He loved his mother, they had always been rather close. How, though, would he bare her reaction to seeing her husband dead, shot by her son? Finally, after a few hours, she pulled into the driveway. Still frightened, Kip walked to the top of the stairway from the garage and waited a few more seconds. When his mom appeared on the steps, he said “I love you, mom” and then shot her–five times in the head, once in the heart–at point blank range.

The night passed as some sort of eery nothing time, the moon hovering yellow and wan above the dark, Oregon night. In the morning, Kip strapped a semi-automatic rifle to his waist, put a pistol in his belt, taped a knife to his ankle, and then–too young to drive and clad in a dark trenchcoat–took the keys to his parents’ ford explorer and drove to Thurston County High School. At about seven-thirty, he parked a block away from the school and walked past the tennis courts, toward the site of his failed education. Upon arriving, he met an acquaintance in the hall.

Kip: “You better get out of her, something bad is going to happen.”

“Something bad? What are you talking about?”

“Just leave.”

“Why, what’s wrong? Kip, what are you going to do?”

Crack!

The shot rang through the nearly-empty High School Hall while the student slumped to the floor.

Those who heard it began to call 911. Meanwhile, Kip made his way to the cafeteria. He opened the door, found the room filled with teenagers, heard the babble of students before class, and then opened fire.

48 shots. 24 students hit, 2 dead. The rifle was semi-automatic and Kip fired and fired until he ran out of ammunition (though, even then, he had filled a gym bag and brought it with him so he would have extra). Finally, a group of students rushed him and tackled him. He pulled a pistol and began to fire again, until they wrestled that away, as well.

Soon, the police arrived. Even then, as they led him to the cop car, he stooped down, pulled the knife from his ankle and attacked one of the officers. In the moments following, as he was driven to the police station and incarcerated, other officers drove to his home in the Oregon mountains and found the grisly unimiginable scene he had left there.

In the minutes following, the story lept from station to station across America–strangely familiar as this was merely the last in a string of bizarre, inexplicalbe high school shootings.

And yet, confronted with such stark horror, we cannot help but ask why? Or, more specifically, who is to blame?

Kip, of course, pulled the trigger. Maybe the blame rests squarely on his shoulders. It is difficult, however, to say so with confidence. In the months before the shootings, Kip’s journal began to speak, rarely, of “the voices.” Kip complained that they would not leave him alone. Likewise, when a psychologist interviewed Kip soon after the shootings, Kip sobbed and sobbed like a child cowering before a monster. He pleaded with the doctor: “I had to do it! I had no other choice!” And then, shouting at the top of his lungs and in apparently sincere agony, “These voices, I can’t take these voices, someone make them go away.” Staged? Perhaps. But I’ve heard the recording, and the anguish sound authentic. It is tempting, then, to diagnose Kip with paranoid schizophrenia. To the point, later diagnostic imaging showed literal holes in his brain–a factor which would have predisposed him to the disease.

Does the fault, then, belong with the pathology? Was Kip’s shooting the most bizarre and reprehensible example of lives lost to disease? Are his actions comparable, uncomfortable though the idea makes us, to the thrashings of a man with a high fever? Perhaps those who died that day are like victims of HIV or Bird Flu–casualties of a disease spread by a person who could not even understand his own illness.

Or, perhaps, we might blame the parents. They, after all, are dead and cannot protest. Yet, while they seem to have made mistakes along the way, theirs was, in large part, a record of love and trying desperately to connect with a distant son. They raised their children as best they could. Indeed, Kip’s older sister turned out beautifully, with a cheer-leading scholarship and a college degree. Both Kip’s parents taught in a local high school: his mother known for her caring and his father for his charisma. As Kip distanced himself farther and farther from them, the parents did everything they could–including taking him to a psychologist–to bring Kip back from wherever he had gone. Indeed, in a bitter irony, they even bought him guns to try to reach him, like steel olive branches in a last-ditch effort to make peace. While this seems stupid in retrospect, for parents who wouldn’t even buy him GI Joe toys when he was a boy, the purchased guns symbolize the lengths to which they were willing to go to get him back. And this care did not just come at the end. Long before he was born, Kip’s parents located their family in a cabin-like (but very modern) home in the mountains because they believed that “the world is too much with us.” Perhaps there, in the mountains, their family would escape that corrupting world–perhaps there they could be safe.

But, of course, the world now reaches nearly every nook and cranny, geographically isolated or not. Perhaps, in fact, we ought to blame the world. In another attempt to help their son, Kip’s parents believed he might “connect” if they hooked him up to the internet. When he was about twelve, then, they purchased him a computer and set it up in his room. For hours without end, Kip sat entranced by the images dancing on the screen. He lost himself in the many sordid worlds bred by the caustic and soulless facets of capitalism: first pornography, then explosives, then knives, and finally guns–single loading, manual, and semi-automatic. What did he dream while bathed in the green light of his computer screen? What twisted fantasies did he concoct as he let the terrifying strains of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the like wash over him? Was it the world that killed Kip’s soul?

We watched a documentary detailing these events as the coda to our psychiatry block here in medical school. As the final reels rolled past, we–one-hundred and fifty young people who are grappling to find ways to cure disease–watched in speechless horror, astounded by tragedy, helpless before fate. What happenned? Why? Who made the mistakes responsible for this senseless scene of anguish? Who could we have helped? Who could anyone have helped? There was no abusive home, no oppressive, inner-city slum: none of the usual culprits. Instead, there was only a lonely and troubled boy, trying desperately to stay afloat in the turbulent waters of adolescence and a couple of baffled parents doing their best to love the unloveable. What happened? Who sinned?

And, most troubling, if there are no answers: how do we stop it from happenning again.

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Published in: on August 3, 2006 at 11:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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