Sunday, August 2, 2009

8. Columbine by Dave Cullen

On April 20, 1999 I was a senior in a suburban high school. After school let out that day, I went to my regular baby-sitting job. My two pre-teen girl charges and I had bonded over boy bands and movies like She's All That, and this afternoon started like any other. We were watching Carson Daly on MTV's Total Request Live and I vaguely remember breaking news reports about the shooting on the program – I think they had a reporter (or VJ or whatever) on the scene, and checked in with him. I can't recall if they showed music videos that day, or if they focused only on the shooting. I definitely remember footage of kids escaping.
In reading the book Columbine, it was almost shocking to realize just how little I knew about what really happened at Columbine.

Ten years later, most remember the basics: the widely accepted theory of bullied outcasts who snapped, getting revenge on jocks, Christians and minorities; the killers’ membership in the "trench coat mafia;" the existence of a hit list; and especially the story of Cassie Bernall, the girl who said "yes" when her killer asked her if she believed in God, sealing her fate.
Cullen gracefully dispels these myths and gives us a complete history of before, during and after. He is perhaps the foremost expert on the tragedy among the media, having filed his first story as a journalist nine hours after the shootings began and stayed with the story for the next ten years. The events have been pieced together from thousands of pages of police reports, home videos and journals of the killers, and countless interviews with survivors. The information Cullen has to relay is exhaustive, and yet one does not feel overwhelmed reading the book. It's engrossing, and difficult to put down and walk away from.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are exposed as shockingly normal teens, albeit ones who both suffered from mental illness. Klebold's suicidal depression left him vulnerable to the persuasion of the psychopathic Harris. Their intention was never to perpetrate a simple school shooting; a year’s worth of careful planning and preparation failed in its ultimate goal of mass murder via bombing. Cullen is able to describe their three-act plan in detail, Harris having left documentation for posterity, and it is chilling. Harris and Klebold aimed to top both the death count and long-lasting effect on the American psyche of the Oklahoma City bombing a few years earlier. Had they been successful with their explosives, more than 500 people would certainly have perished. Although Harris had published a hit list on his website, none of the people listed were killed – the intent was mass, indiscriminate murder, something infinitely harder for most to understand or accept.

The truth behind Cassie Bernall’s supposed martyrdom is particularly fascinating, an incredible example of how quickly misinformation spread and was accepted as absolute truth. So much of what we “know” about Columbine is the result of unreliable eyewitness accounts and repetitious media coverage thereof. Many of the 2,000 students in Columbine High School did not know Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, yet their tales of bullied outcasts were immediately accepted by media outlets and reported as fact, reinforcing those students’ opinions.
The stories in this book will get to you. There was – and still is – a great deal of suffering, and Cullen does not mince words. Reading about the events of the day of the killings, I began to cry and couldn’t stop for almost an hour. Yet I could not put the book down. It’s too valuable to learn the truths of this tragedy after so many years of persistent myths.


Anonymous said...

On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

"Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." --Janet Maslin, New York Times

"A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." -----Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

Magnolia said...

So, Anonymous, have you read Kass's book? Should I read to compare the two?