Dave Cullen’s Columbine debunks many of the myths that help us make sense of Columbine as a disaster but that aren’t actually correct, and his book lays what seems sure to be the definitive account of both what happened and what lessons one should take.
Lies connecting the shooters with dislike for jocks, homosexuality, trench coats, violent video games, and more fall under Cullen’s research scythe. In one instance, he cites media portrays as showing that:
[Columbine] was terrorized by a band of reckless jock lords and ruled by an aristocracy of snotty rich white kids in the latest Abercrombie & Fitch line.
Some of that was true—which is to say, it was a high school. But Columbine came to embody everything noxious about adolescence in America.
In other words, the massacre quickly came to be symbolically imbued with fears and thoughts and desires regarding a range of subjects disconnected from what actually occurred. That pernicious effect isn’t just problematic because it’s wrong—it’s problematic because it fails to teach what one should learn from Columbine, like what to look for in dangerous teenagers, how to respond to such dangers, and the like. One painful moment comes early in Columbine, when a police officer named Deputy Gardner “followed protocol and did not pursue Eric inside” the school on April 20.” It seems like a minor detail, but the protocol was wrong: he should have attacked given that active shooters were inside. Today, he probably would, and Cullen details how the change in protocol occurred and its impact.
One problem with Columbine reporting is that the media and the public at large sought and still seek scapegoats. For example, in one survey Cullen cites, the parents of Klebold and Harris “dwarfed all other causes” for the massacre, “blamed by 85 percent of the population in a Gallup poll.” No wonder they hired attorneys. But the two killers lead relatively normal lives: their parents were together and nothing they did seems to have any relation to their children’s decision to murder. The parents might have responded more harshly to earlier infractions, but problems with school administrators and the like aren’t uncommon. Nothing probably would’ve helped Harris at the time if he was a psychopath. As a result, Cullen shows that searching for a single answer regarding why they acted is wrong—the question is why each acted individually, which an FBI agent named Dwayne Fuselier realized almost immediately.
What drove Harris is clearer than what drove Klebold. Harris was a psychopath, and Cullen gives a weak description of what that means on page 187 (“Psychopaths appear charming and likable, but it’s an act. They are coldhearted manipulators who will do anything for their own gain”) but makes up for it with a much stronger, fuller definition on page 242. A New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” complements Columbine by explaining what a psychopath is in greater detail.
Klebold, however, remains more enigmatic. He was depressed and apparently weak-willed, allowing him to be dominated by Harris. Depression and social problems haunted him. He’s harder to describe for that reason, and because a relatively simple diagnosis eludes him, it’s hard to say as much about him in such a short space and still convey a sense of the book.
Columbine is filled with fascinating details. Cullen observes that “Kids nearly always leak. The bigger the plot, the wider the leakage.” Klebold and Harris leaked all over the place, but too few people took them seriously, and what’s most significant is that the few who did so were ignored. The institutions that come off looking worse in this book are the Jefferson County Sheriff and Police offices, both of which are implicated in, by order of decreasing importance, information coverups, disseminating false information, and reacting slowly to the event itself. They kept avoiding information release until forced to via lawsuit, denying the families of victims knowledge about the case, out of a combination of incompetence and fear. Stories like this make “The Agitator” an important blog.
There are other examples of lies and tawdriness. Cassie Bernall died in the attack, and her parents capitalized by publishing a book called She Said Yes claiming that Bernall was shot for answering in the affirmative when asked if she was a Christian. Even when it became clear this hadn’t happened, her youth pastor, Dave McPherson, said that churches and publishers would ignore the story. He was right.
Just below the section about information leakage, Cullen says that “Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile. There is no profile.” (emphasis in original). It’s the same conclusion Malcolm Gladwell described about profiling any sort of criminal in “Dangerous Minds” for the New Yorker. The stereotypes create false leads. The only consistent finding Cullen notes is that “All the recent school shooters shared exactly one trait: 100 percent male,” although since then he says a few female shooters have appeared.
In Columbine, we learn everything about what happened, a vast amount about the aftermath, and a great deal about “why,” but also that we’ll never get to a perfect answer about why some people commit crimes like the Columbine massacre while others in similar circumstances don’t. He tries to answer the question in When kids become mass murderers for Salon.com, but even then we’re left with incompleteness (he’s also interviewed interviewed at Salon, where many of his early pieces about Columbine were published). Despite knowing all the facts, some events retain their inner mystery—perhaps explaining our collective fascination with them.