Friday, February 12, 2010

Columbine by Dave Cullen

ColumbineI didn't pay too much attention to the Columbine massacre back in 1999.  I was doing drugs, Clinton was President, and all was right with the world, so why bother.  I got the general gist from the constant and unending stream of television news on the subject:  two loner misfits, bullied in school, revenge with guns, shot a bunch of kids, including one religious girl.  End of story.

Not quite.  In this astonishingly well-researched examination of a seminal event in post-modern history, author/journalist Dave Cullen evaluates the tragedy from a distance of ten years, setting right many of the myths and misconceptions associated with that day in Colorado.

For instance, the two misfit loners?  Not really.  Although Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not Homecoming Kings, they were far from outcasts, with friends, relationships and a relatively normal school record.  Cullen does peg Harris as a budding young psychopath, but of the very charming and glib Ted Bundy stripe, not the weird, creepy Jeffrey Dahmer kind.  Klebold was, quite simply, a follower.  Never fully committed to the destruction of Columbine High, he essentially went along with Harris because he was filled with typical adolescent angst and anger, and he had nothing better to do.

Also, the plan was the total destruction of the school.  With all of the coverage of the "shooting rampage", the fact is that Harris and Klebold assembled five powerful bombs from propane tanks, and placed them for maximum effect (two in the school cafeteria, to be detonated at the precise minute of greatest crowding, one each in their cars, to be detonated later so as to kill rescuers, and one in an empty field beforehand to decoy police and fire trucks).  Because of hasty construction, all but the decoy bomb failed to explode - if they had, the death toll would have been in the hundreds:  students, faculty and first responders alike.

Oh, and the girl they shot for saying she believed in God?  Didn't happen.  Just a mistaken witness in the midst of a traumatic event, whose statement was fixed on and blown out of all proportion by a grieving mother and a media engine greedy for an emotional hook.  Like so many media stories, the actual, prosaic truth withers away beneath a patina of heartwarming sentiment.
The book is full of such debunkings, and reveals a much sadder, much more ordinary story:  That of a psychopath and his lackey, trying to emulate Christian Slater in Heathers, and succeeding only in a brief, repulsive, and self-destructive "spree" of less than an hour before running out of steam and turning their guns on themselves.  No moral; no tale of youth shunned by society seeking revenge - just a nut and a nerd out for kicks. 


  1. You should also check out Jeff Kass' Columbine: A True Crime Story. Considered by many a more accurate take on the shootings.

  2. Thank you - I'll give it a look. Although, frankly, any title that contains the words "true crime" tends to give me pause.