Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Columbine: Everything You Know is Wrong

I read Dave Cullen's book, "Columbine," months ago, but still feel passionately enough to write about it, and it seem appropriate for Tisha B'Av. "Columbine" is a remarkable, detailed account of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. Cullen painstakingly combs through mountains of legal minutia, forensic reports, mass media, and personal accounts of the attack. He weaves a narrative of the events of April 20, 1999, that manages to be both riveting and respectful at the same time. Two factors kick "Columbine" up a few notches and set it apart from any other accounts you will read about this tragedy.

First, Cullen proves that everything you think you know about Columbine is -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- wrong. For example, you probably think the perpetrators set out to stage a school shooting. You're wrong. High school murderers Eric Harris, the charismatic ringleader, and Dylan Klebold, his flunky, had meticulously planned for several large bombs to go off and cause mass fatalities at the school. Thank God, Harris was inept in his bomb-making and they failed to detonate; the killers' plans for destruction quickly were downgraded to a school shooting only at this time. That was why Harris and Klebold had only a couple of guns on them for self-defense and ran out of ammo; school shooters would have needed to pack way more guns and ammunition. The irony of this is stunning: Cullen, who read both shooters diaries (in which they foreshadowed their mayhem), illustrates that Harris had incredible contempt for school shooters, whom he thought of as wusses. These guys were planning Armaggedon, and had their plans come through, thousands, not 13 people, would have been murdered.

Cullen also sensitively debunks most of the Columbine mythology, like the myth that Harris shot Cassie Bernall after asking her if she believed in God. Cullen uses recordings from the school library (audio from the four hour ordeal was recorded in its entirety), forensics, and victim testimony to prove that this exchange never happened. In fact, we know that Harris bent down and said only "peek-a-boo" before murdering Bernall. I give Cullen huge credit for pointing out this and other myths in ways that are honest, but also show great respect for the survivors' families. Setting the record straight in the Bernall case was especially delicate because her parents chose to publish the inspirational book "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall" even after Littleton police told the family that the encounter did not happen as reported.

This brings me to another point that makes "Columbine" amazing: Cullen's deconstruction of what factors collided that allowed myths to be created and perpetrated. Some of these were as innocuous as the fact that the emergency alarms beeped for all four hours, leaving people trapped in the school unable to hear and hampered by tinnitus and pain (oh yeah, and how about trauma?). Some of the myths were born out of the peculiar psychological quirks of the human brain that make eyewitness testimony so unreliable, like the brain's need to fill in gaps in information. Still other myths were born of police ineptitude -- the police were way out of their league and refused help from larger jurisdictions better able to handle an investigation of this magnitude. One of the biggest sources of false information was the role of the mass media during the shooting. Klebold and Harris had TVs on in the school during the attack and used information from newscasts to determine their actions. Simultaneously, students were calling in to the same TV programs on their cell phones giving real-time updates on the situation, only some of which were accurate. This dynamic set up many falsehoods that dominated the media for weeks.

The other thing that makes "Columbine" a stand-out book is Cullen's analysis of the root causes of the tragedy. He reveals the ugly truth that none of us wants to acknowledge: that this tragedy was not preventable. We can have our talk shows, cry, spend money on school security, blame Marilyn Manson (hey, because when is it not fashionable to blame musicians?), and even blame K-Mart and the NRA if you're Michael Moore, and it will not prevent another tragedy like Columbine from happening. I bought Cullen's conclusion entirely: Harris was an angry psychopath and magnetic leader. Contrary to what you heard, he had many friends and girlfriends. Harris found a co-conspirator in Klebold, a depressed, suicidal loser who followed Harris blindly and viewed him as his ticket out of a hellacious world. The combination of the two proved deadly. These boys were raised in good homes by loving, present parents. They wanted for nothing. On the contrary to having no self-esteem, Cullen makes a convincing case that Harris' narcissism was a major player in his psychopathy (it's worth it to look at David's post about the narcissism epidemic). Astoundingly, Cullen manages to pull all of this off without sounding patronizing or seeming like an armchair psychologist. This was a gripping, informative book that reads like fiction.


Dave Cullen said...

Thanks so much for that review of my book, Sarah. You captured it well.

I greatly appreciate the kind words and the help spreading the word. I really did try to be sensitive to the people involved with some of the myths. It was pretty delicate. Thanks for noticing.

I'm glad you liked the analytical parts, too. I tried to keep them brief, to keep the story going, but thought they were essential. But editing, whoa--I really had to wring every spare word out to make them work in small doses.

There's much more about the book and the tragedy on my Columbine site. And for kids, I created a Students Page there, and several videos. (Some of them are designed for book clubs or classing, covering topics like the structure of the book, and my choice of characters.

FYI, for schools and book clubs, I'm offering to skype in for 20-30 minutes this fall/summer.


Sarah said...

Dave, there are no words for how happy you have made me by commenting on this post. I have spent time on your Web site, and I plan to check it out again. I agree that the analytical parts of "Columbine" were essential, and for me, very enjoyable and insightful. Thank you!

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, Sarah. It also makes me happy to hear that.

gm said...

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Anonymous said...

I've also made a review of the book and found it to be pure trash. I agree that bullying was not the motive but the thing about Cullen is that he more than likely didn't even read the witness testimony in the police records.

For example, about 100+ witnesses gave testimony of additional shooters. 40-50 actually NAMED additional shooters, giving very detailed descriptions. Yet Cullen thinks they are crazy and that anyone who suggests that there may have been additional shooters are also crazy. I'm not kidding.

The truth is that Klebold and Harris were not the leaders of the group they ran with. They were guilty of participating in the killing but they were not the masterminds. The truth about Columbine has never been revealed.

Watch, The Columbine Cause on Youtube below for more info on the witnesses who identified or named additional shooters.