What We Don't Know About Columbine
By Dave Cullen
Twelve. 417 pp. $26.99
It just keeps happening.
Dunblane, Scotland. Littleton, Colo. Erfurt, Germany. Virginia Tech. Two separate incidents in Finland. And now, just last month, Winnenden, Germany.
The litany of school massacres around the world is already far too long, and it shows no signs of ending. Each new tragedy arrives with a plunging sense of déjà vu: the ravaged school buildings draped with crime-scene tape, the clusters of frightened teenagers in parking lots, the grainy prom-night photos of the victims. We feel we've already watched the shaky cell phone videos and heard the terrified calls to 911. And we recognize the shooters, too: the troubled and resentful young loners, hollow-eyed, pimple-faced, utterly harmless-looking, except when clad in black and armed like Rambo. Sad to say, we think we know this story all too well by now.
In "Columbine," his exhaustive and supremely level-headed examination of the Littleton school massacre, journalist Dave Cullen demonstrates that we really don't know this story. Drawing on almost 10 years of research -- including hundreds of interviews; 25,000 pages of documents; and the journals, notebooks and videotapes of the perpetrators -- he has assembled a comprehensive account of what really happened at Columbine High School on Tuesday, April 20, 1999. And his conclusion is arresting: namely, that the public's understanding of this supposedly archetypal mass shooting is almost entirely wrong:
"We remember Columbine," Cullen writes, "as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and [then] tearing through their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud, and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of those elements existed at Columbine -- which is what gave them such currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders."
Far from feckless pariahs, in fact, the two shooters in the Columbine case -- Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- were smart, reasonably popular kids who doled out more bullying than they ever suffered. Their shooting spree was not some precipitous act of revenge against specific tormentors, but more like an elaborately planned theater piece, worked out almost a year in advance, designed to demonstrate their innate superiority by indiscriminately killing as many victims as possible.
Harris and Klebold, moreover, were hardly cookie-cutter assassins. As Cullen depicts him, Harris was a sadistic and expertly manipulative psychopath, charming when he wanted to be, capable of simulating remorse, good will or cooperation if it helped him get his way. His underlying motivation was relatively simple: "I hate the [expletive] world," he complained in his journal. Klebold, on the other hand, was a tortured, erratic depressive who whined at length in his notebooks about love and romance even as he fulminated about "the real people (gods)" -- i.e., himself and Harris -- being "slaves to the majority of zombies." Klebold's aggression was inwardly directed and complex: "Good god I HATE my life," he wrote, "i want to die really bad now."
The ways in which the Columbine story became distorted in the retelling make for one of the most fascinating aspects of Cullen's book. It is, of course, a basic human tendency to cope with complex, emotionally freighted events like Columbine by recasting them into narrative patterns that we can recognize and more easily understand. In this process, the media (with the notable exceptions, according to Cullen, of the Rocky Mountain News and The Washington Post) were more than a little complicit, broadcasting unfounded rumors and lending credence to the testimony of alleged witnesses with ready-made explanations for what had happened. The police were better informed, but in their efforts to avoid compromising their investigation (and to cover up some damning evidence of their own incompetence), they refused to release many crucial documents until years after the tragedy. Meanwhile, some people in Littleton proved all too willing to embrace misinformation to advance their own agendas. Evangelical preachers, for instance, gave wide currency to an inspiring story of one victim's profession of faith before dying, even though evidence indicates that the incident never really happened.
Hopping back and forth in time, Cullen manages to tell this complicated story with remarkable clarity and coherence. As one of the first reporters on the scene in 1999, he has been studying this event firsthand for a decade, and his book exudes a sense of authority missing from much of the original media coverage. To be sure, the potential pitfalls in a project like this are many; accounts of suffering as fresh and as horrifying as this always carry a whiff of voyeuristic exploitation about them. But Cullen strikes just the right tone of tough-minded compassion, for the most part steering clear of melodrama, sermonizing and easy answers.
Will "Columbine" and other accounts help us to avoid the next school shooting? It would be encouraging to think so. But this epidemic is proving to be dauntingly tenacious. After each new outbreak of violence, we go to ever greater lengths to investigate the causes and understand the perpetrators. We interview parents, teachers and friends. We reexamine school policies, revamp social services, modify gun laws and police response protocols. And yet the litany keeps getting longer.
Gary Krist is the author, most recently, of "The White Cascade."