© 2009 Dave Cullen
Columbine. I remember it, of course. I was in eighth grade when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned their high school into a bloody spectacle. That day on April 20th, 1999, is always referred to as a school shooting, but that label misses the point. Harris and Klebold weren’t shooters, they were failed bombers. They didn’t turn the cafeteria and library red with blood because they had a score to settle with the jocks, they wanted to depart a world of inferiors in a blaze of glory. Dave Cullen’s Columbine is a disturbing history of the April attack, one which draws extensively from the corpus of material the two deliberately left behind. Cullen’s history has a target, though, as he aims to rebuke not only the media for creating and perpetuating various myths about the horror, but the sheriff’s department for negligence and deception. Most importantly, Cullen maintains that Harris and Klebold were not abused loners who ‘snapped’, but psychologically disturbed individuals who planned the attack for more than a year.
Columbine is a receptively easy read. Cullen is a journalist, and knows how to grease the runners to captivate readers with a story. The problem is the grisly subject — or subjects. The graphic nature of the shootings isn’t dwelt on overmuch, but through Cullen’s research considerable time is spent in the head of Harris and Klebold. This is, to say the least, a toxic atmosphere. Cullen’s thesis is that Harris was a clinical psychopath, one who could lead a double life. In society, he could be productive and charming, convincing adults into purchasing guns on his behalf, and even dating a twenty-something despite being a kid working at a pizza parlor. By himself — in his journals, with people he regarded as confederates — Eric was full of contempt for society, for virtually everyone. He acted out his contempt in ‘missions’ of petty vandalism and theft, and when confronted by authority figures, could always manipulate them into believing he was repentant. Eric was joined in these missions by Dylan Klebold, a depressive misfit who nontheless managed to snag a prom date; both boys had active social lives.
There is no doubt that the April attack was a methodically planned horror instead of a loner’s ‘snap’. Not only did the boys ramble and rave in their bloodlust for months prior, but the equipment took time to purchase and put together — for their bombs were homemade concoctions, based on plans from the internet. The April 20th attack itself was a multi-stage drama of the horrific: first, a diversionary bomb in the outskirts of the city to draw police away, then several massive explosions would rock the school cafeteria at peak traffic time. Hundreds would be killed by the inferno, and as students streamed out of the exits, Eric and Dylan would be waiting for them with intent of sweeping up survivors with gunfire before their inevitable demise at the hands of the police. Still worse, their cars, parked in areas where emergency services would establish a perimeter, were rigged to blow after their deaths, adding still more chaos and death. This is no impulsive revenge quest, but a premeditated campaign of war against the humanity they loathed. Fortunately for the students of Columbine, all of the bombs failed to explode. and the murderous pair soon lost interested in shooting people after the first dozen, resigning themselves to self-slaughter.
Their campaign of death should not have been an ambush. Cullen notes that Eric’s sociopathy, his contempt for the world, often displayed itself in the arrogant way he and Dylan both leaked information. Harris’ toxic website often broadcast his hatred for the world, and numerous people were aware that they had guns and were experimenting with pipe bombs. The police, having previously arrested the pair for breaking into a van and stealing equipment from it, even had a warrant for a search of Eric’s house — one which was never executed. Although Cullen labors to dispatch many minor myths associated with the Columbine attack — the pair’s association with a ‘trench coat Mafia’, the sole targeting of ‘jocks’, etc — he rebukes local authorities far more seriously for their negligence in following up on Harris, and for attempting to conceal how high he had already registered as a potential threat from the public.
Cullen’s case is simple: Eric Harris was a psychopath who essentially co-opted the suicidal tendencies of his manic-depressive buddy into an attempt to depart a world they loathed in a manner that demonstrated their superiority over the zombies. Some parts of his argument are stronger than others: for instance, the numerous heavyweight bombs, which would have killed hundreds indiscriminately, indicate that the two weren’t just after jocks. (The intense planning obviously belies any impulsive snap, of course.) The case for Eric’s sociopathy strikes me as solid as well. Less convincing is the utter denial that Harris and Klebold were bullied, as Cullen points to their circles of friends and the fact that Harris was a bully as well. A bully can be bullied; the two categories are not exclusive, and Klebold strikes me as an easily-bullied sort of personality. While Harris’ journals are nothing but wrath and rage, Klebold is more relatable, alternating between wrath and idolization of a girl. Numerous students have also testified in interviews that the two were subjects of abuse — but who in a modern high school is not?
It is never easy to dwell on this kind of rage, and strong stomachs are definitely required to endure constant exposure to Harris’ utter lack of humanity. Cullen’s interesting approach — alternating build-up and aftermath chapters — kept me glued to the pages, and I’m grateful for a history that indicates how Columbine attempted to climb back to its feet after the attack, to reclaim the school and honor those who perished. Columbine’s story after the fact is also difficult, though, riven with lawsuits and slow-to-heal psychological wounds. But the school survives still, and these days much has changed: police have different active-shooter protocols now (immediate engagement, no more waiting for SWAT) threats of violence are often met with zero-tolerance policies, and it is doubtful in the post 9/11 world that teenagers could get away with leaving mysterious dufflebags in the school cafeteria, ticking away. Although a cry for stricter gun laws follows every shooting in the United States — understandably — Columbine also points to the limits of those laws, as the culprits’ most potentially dangerous weapons, the bombs, were fashioned from ordinary consumer goods. Thank heavens Harris had to put them together at the last minute for want of safe storage space, otherwise his serial bombing might have succeeded. Those with intent to harm will find a way to try it; good security policies are needed to counter these threats. At Columbine, I couldn’t help but notice that the sole guard was off at lunch during the attack. One guard for 2000 students?! My high school had two deputy sheriffs, and we couldn’t have boasted a thousand students on a good day. (Of course, we were post-Columbine.)
Columbine is haunting, effective reading.
- The Ashes of Waco, Dick Reavis. The boys’ April 20th assault was allegedly timed to ‘honor’ Timothy McVeigh, whose own bombing was allegedly revenge for the Waco massacre.