Saturday, August 14, 2010


(News-Herald, August 12) All people concerned about violence in schools owe it to themselves to read Dave Cullen’s book Columbine. Sure, everybody knows the story. Two socially outcast Goth kids who were tired of being picked on snapped and went on a shooting spree for revenge on the jocks who had tormented them.
But here’s the thing about that story that everybody knows—it’s wrong.
Cullen was one of the first journalists on the scene, and he prepared for this book with hundreds of interviews and extensive study of the tapes and documents that have become available in the decade since the attack. His book made most of the major lists last year, but it deserves more longevity than just one year’s hot read.
Here are some things you might now know about Columbine without this book.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not social outcasts. They had friends, dated girls, played some sports. They were both better than average students—brains. They were not gothic; there was nothing to see about them that would have suggested they were anything other than completely mainstream kids.
They were not members of the Trench Coat Mafia. That group had come and gone years before; they were not connected to those students.
They were not an interchangeable pair. Eric was smarter, sneakier, scarier. Dylan was less secure, louder.
There were plenty of signs of trouble, particularly with Eric, who was not above going after old friends who crossed him. The local police possesed (but concealed for months afterwards) previous complaints about Eric which they had not acted upon.
The attack that occurred was Plan B. The intended attack was far worse; Harris had built bombs intended to rip through the cafeteria and collapse the floor of the library just above it. The bombs were in place—the two simply carried them into the school in duffle bags. The only reason that hundreds more weren’t killed was that Eric had made some wiring mistakes. There was no “snapping” involved—the attack had been planned for months.
The attackers were not beaten down outcasts, and they definitely did not suffer from low self esteem. From his journals, it’s clear that Eric’s problem was the opposite—he felt that he was smarter and therefore better than all the other stupid useless sheep of the world.
Could the parents have stopped this? Eric did the bulk of the planning and preparation, and he was an accomplished liar, proud of his ability to snow anybody, including his parents (that was part of how he knew he was better than everyone else). His parents were not abnormal or abusive, but Cullen does make it clear that when Eric did get in trouble, they preferred to handle things at home, working to keep any blemishes off his record so that his college prospects wouldn’t be hurt. Generally he would fake remorse and promise to behave, and his father would run interference with the authorities.
Dylan’s parents were also “normal,” but hands off. Though Cullen doesn’t say it explicitly, one implication is clear—Eric Harris, probably a sociopath, was always headed for trouble, but had Dylan never met him, his fate might have been far different.
There are other lessons in the book. The press bungled Columbine badly, particularly in the way they used students as expert witnesses when many students only knew what they had heard from the media.
There’s also a lesson in how people will cling to fiction. Many folks have heard about Cassie Bernall, made famous as the girl who said yes when asked if she believed in God and was then killed for her answer. That story, based on one student’s scrambled memory of events in the library, turned out to be inaccurate fairly early in the investigation, but the Bernall family has clung to it as well as publishing a best-selling book about their daughter.
The real story is in some ways more inspiring than Cassie’s fictional martyrdom—Val Schnurr was the girl in the library who actually declared her faith, and Dylan spared her. Nobody has written a book about her.
Why read a book about events so far in the past? The police response provides that lesson. Police reaction has been criticized, but they did what they had been trained to do. Their response was appropriate for some other situation, just not the one they were actually facing. Understanding what really happened has helped police develop responses that actually help. It’s better for us to know what really happened.


starviego said...

"It’s better for us to know what really happened."

My philosophy exactly. That's why you had better read this if you want to know what really happened:

Peter A. Greene said...

Ah, what really happened-- a great site for finding info about all your favorite conspiracies. I hadn't realize that Columbine was a conspiracy as well, but for those who don't want to follow the link-- turns out the whole thing was staged by the government in order to raise support for gun control.

This is a site that is thorough, debunking everything from JFK's assassination to the Big Bang. How could they possibly be wrong?

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review of my book, Peter. (And the sense of humor with my favor conspiracy theorist, who follows me around the web.)

It's especially nice to see teachers discover the book. And I like what you said about it deserving to last. I hope you're right! Haha.

There's a lot more info about COLUMBINE at the link, including reviews, an instructor guide, and a massive cache of evidence.

And here is a book trailer that summarizes it and the killers’ motives in three minutes:


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