|The Erfurt Terminator|
"I thought this must be a bad film. I thought this kind of thing only happened in America." -- Thomas Rethfeldt
The American Condition
Until 26 April, 2002, high school rampages were considered exclusively an 'American condition.' That's when Robert Steinhaeuser, an expelled 19-year-old student, donned the customary black and, with as Austrian-made Glock 9mm in one hand and a 20-gauge shotgun in another, went hunting for teachers through the halls of the Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt, in eastern Germany.
An expert marksman, Steinhaeuser was bent on killing as many teachers as possible in revenge for being expelled from school for forging a medical excuse. With typical German efficiency, he managed to kill 13 teachers, two students and a police officer in a 20-minute blood-soaked, frenzy of revenge. The rampage was brought to an end by a heroic History and Art teacher who confronted the shooter and locked him in a classroom. Moments later, Steinhaeuser pumped a bullet through his brain. When the smoke settled, this pleasantly-plump youngster had perpetrated the worst shooting violence seen Germany since the end of World War II.
"The so-called 'American conditions' have reached us. We cannot let these excesses of violence become a part of our daily life," said Konrad Freiberg, the head of Germany's police union. "This happens a lot in America, but it's not just an American thing anymore," said Robert Kippel, 17, a student from another school. "America is so far away and it never seemed real to me before," said 16-year-old Christin Beinlich.
Hours before the deadly rampage, Steinhaeuser told his mother he was going to school take a math exam. As he left the house, she wished him good luck. Incredibly, the youngster had been expelled from the school two months before and never told her or his father about it. "The parents thought he was going to school every day and was successfully moving toward his high school diploma," Police Chief Rainer Grube said.
A little before 11 a.m., Steinhaeuser walked into the school building -- a six-story structure featuring early 20th-century Jugendstil architecture -- and headed to the bathroom where he changed into a Ninja outfit and stashed 500 rounds of ammunition. Then he slipped on his ski mask, cocked the Glock and pumped his shotgun, and headed to where his classmates were taking a math exam.
The shooting started around 11:00, when he charged into a class and announced "I'm not going to write anything" and started firing. "The pupils ran out of the classroom and he came after us and shot a teacher next to me," one female student told German radio. Another student told Der Speigel how a teacher tapped her index finger on her forehead as if to say he was insane, to which Steinhaeuser answered by putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger.
By all accounts, he stalked through the school searching out teachers and killing them with point-blank shots from the Glock to their heads. "There were dead bodies lying everywhere in the corridors," said Thomas Rethfeldt, 18. In all, the lethal teenager shot 40 rounds and killed almost a quarter of the school's teaching staff. "I thought it was fireworks. Then the door opened, and a masked man came through the door. The teacher was standing there, and he shot her through the head, through her glasses," said student Dominik Ulbricht.
Dubbed the "Erfurt Terminator," Steinhaeuser killed pretty much everyone he aimed at. "Many of the victims were killed with headshots, he clearly was a trained marksman," said Bernhard Vogel, premier of the state of Thuringia, where Erfurt is located. Only one person was wounded on the leg from a gunshot. The other three wounded were hospitalized from shock.
During the morning rampage 180 of the 700 students in the Gymnasium locked themselves inside classrooms. One group of students held a handwritten sign pasted to a window reading "HILFE" -- Help. "It was chilling," a witness said, "I saw this big placard with the word 'Help' on it, and people moving around behind it but I couldn't tell if they were children or attackers."
The two teenagers killed, a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, were hit when Steinhaeuser fired through a closed door. It is believed that he killed them by accident, considering the meticulousness with which he hunted down his other victims.
Police were called by the school janitor at 11:05. The first squad car arrived within five minutes. By then, Steinhaeuser had made it out to the school parking lot and was chasing down a teacher. "She was running for her car and she tripped, and he shot her in the leg," said 19-year-old Christian Becker, who saw the cold-blooded murder from his classroom window. "He ran over and shot her three times in the head with his pistol."
Steinhaeuser was then confronted by the arriving officers. The rampager exchanged fire with them, killing one policewoman, before fleeing back inside the building. No more shots were heard until...
The Hero of Erfurt
"I opened the door from the art classroom and saw a masked man in a black Ninja warrior-style outfit. He held a pistol up to my chest. Suddenly he pulled off his mask. His hair was plastered to his head with sweat." -- Reiner Heise
The bloodbath was brought to an end by Art and History teacher Reiner Heise. Proclaimed by the German press "the hero of Erfurt," Heise, 60, encountered the shooter when he opened his classroom door looking for students. Instead, he encountered the business end of an Austrian-made Glock pointing at his chest. The rampager, for reasons unknown, decided to take off his mask in front of Heise.
Heise recognized Steinhaeuser and instinctively started talking. "Robert," Heise said. "Pull the trigger. If you shoot me now, then look in my eyes." Steinhaeuser looked at him, lowered the pistol, and replied: "No. That's enough for today, Mr. Heise." Heise then told him they should talk and motioned as if to lead him into the classroom. As Steinhaeuser momentarily let down his guard, the teacher quickly shoved the 19-year-old into the room, closed the door, locked it and ran to the principal's office. "I didn't have time to be afraid." In hindsight, the teacher doesn't know why he survived while his peers were murdered. "Perhaps he just liked me. Perhaps he didn't think I was bad," Heise said.
Soon afterward, police commandos swarmed through the building and closed in on the killer. Steinhaeuser, perhaps tired of indiscriminate murder, put the Glock to his head and blew his brain out. Officers securing the building described the school hallways as covered in blood and littered with bodies. In fact there were bodies everywhere; in classrooms, in hallways and in bathrooms. Police spokesman Manfred Etzel said it was a "horrible."
Twelve hours later, police discovered that what they thought was Steinhaeuser's personal web site had been updated. At first, police believed Robert might have had an accomplice, but soon concluded that the alteration was done by hackers trying to bring attention to themselves. Eventually, Erfurt police chief Rainer Grube brought to question the actual authenticity of the site, noting that the youngster's home computer did not have Internet access.
The alleged www.robert-steinhaeuser.de homepage turned out to be a prank. The top of the page contained a banner headline which read: "Teachers and other low life forbidden. " The first link on the site was to the Gutenberg Gymnasium. The bottom of the web page had a line from Pink Floyd's 1979 hit, Just Another Brick in the Wall: "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone."
The City is Weeping
The night after the shooting, all of Erfurt's church bells rang in mourning. Erfurt's historical St. Mary's cathedral was filled with mourners who prayed and wept inconsolably. Psychiatrist moved in to help the students cope with the mounting horror of the massacre. An impromptu memorial of flowers spilled down from the school's front steps to the street as crowds of shocked citizens gathered around it in a candlelight vigil under the steady rain. "Why?" was the question on everyone's lips as the city, and all of Germany, wept.
"We cannot find words for what we feel in Germany right now," German President Johannes Rau said. "Germany is in mourning in the face of these incomprehensible events." The government ordered flags flown at half-staff, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party canceled an election rally that was planned for that weekend. "We are stunned in the face of this horrible crime," a grim-faced Schroeder told reporters. "All explanations we could give right now don't go far enough."
Erfurt is a medieval city of 197,000 people in the former communist East Germany. The capital of the eastern state of Thuringia, Erfurt dates back to 1250, when it served as a key crossroads for medieval trade routes. In the 16th Century, it was the home theologian Martin Luther. It is also known as the birthplace of 19th Century sociologist Max Weber. But the Nazis, World War II bombings and the ruinous communist regime have taken a toll on the buildings of its rich historic core. "It's a terrible shame that Erfurt is now known around the world for this crime," said Erfurt resident Jens Probst, "I only wish the town could have become famous for other reasons."
School administrators said classes would be canceled for at least a week to give students time to mourn the loss of their teachers and schoolmates. Erfurt Mayor Manfred Ruge said that after meeting the school's parents, teachers and students, they had resolved to clean up and reopen the building as soon as possible, to "seize the chance to make a new beginning."
The school remained sealed for three days as police searched for clues to piece together the horrific chain of events. Once investigators finished, work crews moved in to remove all traces of blood-soaked mayhem. "It will take years to get over this," said senior Michaela Seidel in a news conference following the meeting with the Mayor. "At this time, none of us understands anything."
Seidel, who had finished her final math exam and left the building 10 minutes before the shooting began, said that they had discussed putting a memorial outside the school, but decided it would be inappropriate. "We don't want a huge plaque in front of it that reminds us of what happened every time we pass by."
The Monday after the shooting, all of Germany paused for a minute of silence to honor the victims of the school suicide attack. Also, all school in the city were closed in honor of the fallen Gutenberg Gymnasium students and teachers. Christiane Alt, director of the Gutenberg Gymnasium, told Germany's public TV channel, "We are traumatized, but we have to do our jobs so that students can, with time, return to their normal life."
The Erfurt Terminator
All evidence suggest that the unprecedented attack by the "Erfurt Terminator" can best be described as an act of revenge against the teachers who failed him, the institution that expelled him, and, perhaps even, the whole German education system. Some have interpreted the attack as an assault on authority figures.
The trouble started the year before the rampage when Steinhaeuser failed a rigorous end-of-school examination and was forced to repeat his final year. The exam, called the Abitur, is critical for a student's career, just like the A-Levels in Britain or the SATs in the United States. To enter college, a student must pass the Abitur. Without it, a student would only receive an intermediary diploma for completing the 9th grade. In effect, the student would be blocked from getting a decent job or furthering his or her education.
In February, when Steinhaeuser was expelled from school for having forged a medical excuse, he lost his opportunity of ever taking the Abitur exam again. "He desperately needed his high school diploma for status, but when that failed his world collapsed around him," the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel wrote. "It was a death sentence for the young man. It was a disgrace which he kept secret from everyone, even his own family. That's what led him to seek revenge on Friday with the executions and punishment." Not coincidentally, Steinhaeuser launched his attack as his classmates were taking the math portion of the test.
After failing the Abitur exam for the first time, authorities believe he started plotting his attack. "Everything points to the same conclusion - that he was sure he would fail again and was planning his revenge for when that time came," Police Chief Grube said. He stockpiled around 1,000 rounds of ammunition for his Glock 9 pistol. "It is impossible to buy this amount of munitions even with a license," the chief speculated. "Steinhaeuser must have bought the cartridges time and time again off the black market."
The youngster had, in total, four gun licenses; two for the guns he used in the rampage and two others for the ones he had at home. "He seemed to have devoted a lot of time and energy to weapons," said Rainer Gruge, the lead detective in the investigation. He was a member in good standing of the German Shooting Federation and joined two local rifle clubs were, in effect, he had been practicing his lethal marksmanship for over a year.
Eager to distance their activities from their most infamous member, Josef Ambacher, president of the German Shooting Federation said: "This was a case of an individual, someone who should not be connected with recreational shooting. What happened in Erfurt has nothing to do with marksmanship."
I Want to be Famous
Those who new Robert Steinhaeuser said he was shy, ordinary, a loner, unassuming, timid and lazy. He did not have a good relationship with his parents -- but what teenager does? At school he had a reputation for being a problem student and a truant, and had been disciplined repeatedly by his teachers. But no one suspected the chubby prankster, nicknamed "Steini," would turn into Germany's most savage rampage killer.
Isabell Hartung, a friend from school, described Steini as "jolly," adding that he was the type of person who was always telling jokes and trying to be the center of attention. He once told her, "One day, I want everyone to know my name and I want to be famous." In retrospect, Isabell said: "It's macabre but he seems to have made his dream come true."
During a class field trip to Berlin two years before the attack, Steinhaeuser pointed his fingers gun-style at a teacher after he was chastised for smoking. "He pretended to make a pistol out of his hand and was full of hatred as he took aim at the teacher," said classmate Cassandra Mehlhorn. "The teacher was extremely angry. Robert got a reprimand for that. He said he was just fooling around."
Police Chief Grube said that Steinhaeuser, while still attending school, proposed to make a film with his classmates in which a man takes revenge on a gang for killing his girlfriend. The man kills each gangster execution style with a gunshot to the head. In a chilling parallel to the carnage he inflicted on his former school, the avenger ends the film by killing himself.
Searching Steini's home, police found two more guns, 500 rounds of ammunition, violent comic books, videos containing "dark, blood-dripping and violence-worshipping" images and a number of computer games with "intensive weapons usage." His favorite game, "Counter-strike," is an award-wining first-person shooter game featuring terrorist and counter-terrorist units wearing masks and hunting each other down. In its official web site, its makers hope "you will be immersed in the frightening and intense world of Counter-Terrorism." In Robert's home computer, police found articles about Harris and Klebold and the Columbine killings, which might be a little more indicative than Counter-strike of what he had in mind.
Steinhaeuser lived in an tidy, middle-class apartment a block from the Gymnasium with his mother - a nurse - and his grandparents. His parents were separated, but his father visited on weekends, and the whole family would have a barbecue in the garden. "The Steinhaeusers were always friendly people," said his neighbor, Lisa Engelhardt. "He (Robert) seemed very normal."
In a signed letter published in local newspapers, Steini's parents and older brother apologized for the killings and said they were filled with grief and torment over the events. Horrified by the massacre perpetrated by their son and brother, they were at a loss to explain his pent-up "hate and desperation" that led to the senseless rampage. "Until this brutal, crazed act, we were an absolutely normal family and we knew a different Robert," the letter said. "We are infinitely sorry that our son and brother brought such terrible suffering upon the victims and their relatives, the people of Erfurt and Thuringia state, and all of Germany."
Peter, his older brother, was quoted in the Thueringer Allgemeine newspaper saying that the family knew Robert had trouble in school and had joined a local gun club, but that they had no clue he had bought four weapons and had been expelled from school.
In keeping with the usual finger pointing, pundits and politicians were quick to blame violent computer games, dark metal music, and horror movies for the carnage. Conservatives throughout Germany called for an across-the-board crackdown on offensive entertainment. Edmund Stoiber, he conservative challenger to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's social democrat party, accused the government of a "scandalous" failure to "take a tougher line against those who peddle these sorts of killer games." Calling the shootings "an alarm signal for our society," Stoiber said Schroeder was doing nothing to stem the rising tide of violence.
Calling the attack from the conservatives, "shameless and indecent," Interior Minister Otto Schily said: "We now must also ask ourselves the deeper question of what actually is going on in our society when a young person causes such disaster in such a way."
Investigators reported that the youngster's favorite band was Slipknot, a gore metal band from Iowa whose members all wear horror masks. First the UK's biggest-selling daily newspaper The Sun published a story stating that "a song named 'School Wars' by heavy metal band Slipknot may have prompted massacre fiend to go on his rampage." The article went on to quote a provocative line from the alleged song: "Shoot your naughty teachers with a pump gun."
Soon, the story gathered steam with several other European newspapers blaming Slipknot and their song, "School Wars," for the horrifying school killings. Viva and Viva Plus, Germany's biggest music television channels, announced they had pulled the Slipknot videos out of rotation. The UK's MTV followed suit. As lynch mobs gathered throughout Europe preparing to bring the masked musicians to justice, it became clear that Slipknot had never recorded a track called "School Wars."
In a statement issued on its web site, Slipknot -- blowing the credibility of the mainstream media covering the rampage -- responded to the apparent conspiracy against them by the European press:
"It is ludicrous to place the blame on our band or any other form of music. SLIPKNOT does not have a song called 'School Wars', we have never written a song called 'School Wars', and we certainly would never encourage people to kill others. We are a blanket of hope for our kids, not a scapegoat for attacks like this, and while we send our most sincere condolences to those affected by this, we will not take responsibility."
A writer for the Metal Hammer web site noted that Steinhaeuser also had a poster of Posh Spice in his bedroom, which brings to question, why didn't the Spice Girls shoulder part of the blame?
The "Lawlessness" of Gun Control
Like most European countries, Germany has tight gun control laws. In Germany, there about 10 million legal weapons among its population of 82 million. Mostly the weapons are kept for hunting, sport, or as collectibles. Germans, like other Europeans, do not have an obsessive relationship with their right to bear arms.
And unlike the United States, there's no politically powerful gun lobby like the NRA that invariably will always put guns before humans. German tough gun control laws require applicants to pass a rigorous test and put up with a lengthy waiting period before obtaining their weapon. "In America, you can buy a gun. Here, it's not so easy," said Romy Willart, a friend of Steinhaeuser's brother. "But this shows you can just go to a club and learn to shoot, and one year later you can come back and do this."
Ironically, while Steinhaeuser was stalking the corridors of Gutenberg shooting his former teachers in the head, the German lower house of parliament passed a law lowering the age at which children can use air guns from 12-years-old to 10. But two hours after the attack, Germany's parliament jumped into action and immediately tightened the nation's weapons laws. The proposed new amendments called for licensing of all air guns, banning several types of knives, and forcing gun owners to store pistols in steel cabinets and bullets separately. Members of parliament said they would also tack on to the bill a provision to raise the minimum age of gun ownership from 18 to 21.
A week before the Erfurt massacre, and on the other side of the world, Michael Barnes, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, gave testimony to a special US Senate subcommittee about the Bill H.R. which is designed to put the US gun industry above the law.
"The Bill is a misguided, unjust attempt to provide special legal protection for the gun industry at the expense of innocent Americans who have been harmed by the dangerous and irresponsible actions of firearms manufacturers and sellers. At the behest of the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, this bill would carve out special exemptions and protections for companies that make and sell deadly firearms in an irresponsible manner."
The Bill, which would repeal any legislation that would force gun manufacturers to implement safety measures such as trigger locks or childproof guns, would also protect the same manufacturers from suits stemming from unintended deaths or injuries sustained by children or other innocent victims who might accidentally handle a weapon. "It would immunize an irresponsible industry that is already grossly under-regulated. In short, this bill would be a perversion of the basic principles that underlie our justice system."
In their standard take no prisoners attitude, loudmouth American gun pundits used the Erfurt tragedy to point out that the deadliest school rampage to date happened in a nation with strict gun control laws, showing that "the best defense is armed defense." Sure, if every teacher at the Gymnasium was "packing heat," perhaps someone would have stopped Steinhaeuser. But is that the type of society we want to live in? Perhaps the NRA and their lackeys should restrain from speaking when someone kills 16 people with the very product they champion and worship.
"The expelled student-turned-gunman knew that his path would be virtually unobstructed," wrote Tim Richmond for the gun-centric Objectivist Center, "A society that recognized the individual's right to protect himself might have permitted a brave teacher or student the means of self-defense against the determined assassin." The Objectivist Center, coincidentally, describes itself as a national not-for-profit think tank promoting the values of reason, individualism, freedom and achievement in American culture, which, in the real world, means gun-culture freaks.
Other NRA- wannabes, like John K. Bates of the Conservative Truth, enjoyed a little Europe bashing over the events, pointing out that "anti-gun arguments are flawed." With a final kick in the face to all the dead and wounded in Erfurt, Bates concluded his 12 May article with: "One has to wonder how many of the faculty in Erfurt wish they would have had some outlawed guns on that tragic afternoon."
Pulling a Columbine
There have been many possible explanations given for the Erfurt shooting, ranging from Steini's love of guns to his obsession with violent computer games to his thirst for revenge against the teachers who failed him, but none adequately explain the level of mayhem the gun-toting freak brought to his assault. The same could be said for the other school shootings featured in this book.
It seems that the level of violence in every new school attacks is upping the magnitude of the one preceding it. Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, The Tipping Point, examined how certain "behavioral epidemics" follow mysterious "adolescent imitative rules," in a way that may or may not make sense. Gladwell states that when trends reach a "tipping point," they become epidemic and will follow their own rules. "These are epidemics in isolation: They follow a mysterious, internal script that makes sense only in the closed world that teenagers inhabit."
"The post-Columbine outbreak of school shootings is... happening because Columbine happened, and because ritualized, dramatic, self-destructive behavior among teenagers -- whether it involves suicide, smoking, taking a gun to school, or fainting after drinking a harmless can of Coke -- has extraordinary contagious power."
The author stated that he expects more kids to "Pull a Columbine" because teenagers are becoming increasingly "isolated." As a consequence, they have created their own world "ruled by the logic of word of mouth, by the contagious messages that teens pass among themselves... Columbine is now the most prominent epidemic of isolation among teenagers. It will not be the last."
Three days after the Erfurt massacre, in a perfect example of an "epidemic in isolation," a 17-year-old student in the small, impoverished Bosnian town of Vlasenica, 30 miles northeast of Sarajevo, shot to death a teacher, wounded another and then committed suicide. Using his father's 7.65-mm handgun, Dragoslav Petkovic shot and killed his history teacher, Stanimir Reljic, 53, outside the St. Apostola Petra i Pavla School, then walked into a classroom where -- in front of 30 students -- shot his 50-year-old math teacher, Saveta Mojsilovic, wounding her superficially on the side of the neck. Seconds later, the 11th grader put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger as horrified students stampeded out of the classroom.
The day before the shooting, while playing basketball, Petkovic told his best friend, 17-year-old Ognjen Markovic that Reljic, the murdered teacher, disliked him and feared he would not give him a passing grade. Witnesses said Petkovic approached Reljic outside the school and asked him for another chance to improve his grades. When the teacher refused, he opened fire.
"According to the teachers of the school and other residents who knew him, the student who committed this murder was never perceived as a person who was capable of doing such a thing," said Ostoja Dragutinovic, the mayor of Vlasenica. "He was quiet and not such a bad student." Dragomir Zugic, the school principal, described Petkovic as "quiet and sensitive," and said the boy might have been influenced by the Erfurt shooting.
"I'm begging my mother to forgive me, and I'm thankful to her for everything she has given me. I'm thankful to my father for all the good advice and to my older brother for the help he always gave me," The suicidal teen wrote in a letter he left behind in his room. In the note, he asked to be buried in Vlasenica and that his belongings be distributed among his six best friends. The letter concluded by saying, ominously: "People learn from their mistakes."