Book Review : Dave Cullen - Columbine (2009)
I'm obsessed with the Columbine High School massacre story.
I've been obsessed with it for close to twenty years, now. It was not a new or revolutionary crime by any means. Shooting of this sort have been happening in the United States for as long as people owned guns. It's the perpetrators and the circumstances that made Columbine such a tragic clusterfuck. See, school shooting have been traditionally perpetrated by obviously dangerous outsiders like Kip Kinkel, but it wasn't the case here. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold took their own lives an hour after starting their killing spree, which turned them into romantic figures in the media. They became the dorks who fought back. The bullied kids who took vengeance in their own hands and got away unpunished. Other shooters admitted being inspired by their actions.
The Columbine High School massacre changed the way shootings of this sort were perceived and the ripple effects of that fateful day are still being felt in our culture. It's a heinous crime with important cultural significance, whether you like it or not. What happened exactly on April 20th, 1999? What lead to such a massive, unnecessary bloodshed and this schism in our culture that is WAY more fucking important than anyone would like to admit? Dave Cullen's book Columbine is widely considered to be the best resource on the events available, so I've turned to it, hoping it would help me connecting the dots and I got a lot more than I bargained for.
Everyone you know's got everything wrong about Columbine. I'm not saying Dave Cullen's portrayal in the absolute truth, but the man's done his research.
The greatest misconception about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold is that they were bullied outcasts exerting revenge against the institution that wrecked their youth. They would've targeted jocks first and fell back on random targets when they failed to localized a cluster of varsity athletes. Nothing about that is true and what really happened is way darker than that. The Columbine High School massacre is not a successful shooting, it's a failed bombing. Harris and Klebold weren't targeting anyone in particular on that day, they were targeting everyone. Harris was the mastermind behind the attack and his goal was to make Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh look like an amateur.
The bombing part of the Columbine High School massacre is often overlooked as a clumsy attempt to punctuate the killing spree, but its the opposite. There were three phase to Eric Harris' plan: a) the cafeteria bombing, which was supposed to go off in a crowded room and make over 500 casualties b) the shooting spree that was originally meant to pick off survivors and bystanders after the fact and c) another bombing set in Harris and Klebold's car meant to pick off bystanders, press members and first responders in the parking lot. Only phase B was applied on April 20th because neither of the bombs actually went off. That's why you see them actually shooting at it in the infamous cafeteria shooting footage that leaked online. Columbine was not revenge. It was not even personal. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had nothing less than the apocalypse in mind.
That begs the still unanswered question of why? Dave Cullen provides somewhat of an explanation for Harris and Klebold's motivations in Columbine. He claims it was the act of a psychopath and a profoundly depressed young man. That the massacre was primarily a performance for Eric Harris, who aimed to create a historical display of violence in his high school. This is plausible enough. Cullen did indeed to his research, but I thought he was stonewalled by the Harris family in the process. I mean, this is understandable. They either felt an insane amount of guilt over not seeing precursor signs (which there were many of) or raised him in a climate that fostered his psychopathic drive. Anyway I thought Cullen closed the loop on the Klebold family and what lead Dylan down his dark path, but not on the Harrises. Was Eric born manipulative like this? Were there events that contributed to this brooding rage he had? Dave Cullen's portait of Eric Harris is, more or less, the only thing about his book that feels incomplete.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Columbine is how it addresses the cultural significance of the massacre. Because I really believe it does its homework there and deconstructs every possible myth tied to the events. It doesn't analyze why it became so significant, but why it shouldn't be so significant and how these urban legends about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold came to be. Columbine was the first school shooting to be broadcasted live on national television and its perception suffered from that. It was built on first hand accounts of people who had no idea what the fuck was going on and speculated on who could possibly commit such heinous acts. And perception became reality because it aired on television and the broadcast had to construct meaning as it went along. People have ran with these explanations for close to twenty years now because they fit a romantic narrative and left the city of Columbine to figure it out for themselves. Isn't that fucked up?
So, why read Columbine in 2017 aside from satisfying a personal need for better understanding of the events? The post-truth and post-facts era has been severely criticized by media who want to assure the survival of objective reporting, but Columbine serves as a reasonable counterpoint to their claims. Much more reasonable than Alex Jones, for example. The Columbine High School massacre became a cultural phenomenon because of the media's failure to treat it for what it was. Dave Cullen account is a critical reminder of that failure and the tenacious myths it created. I'm not making an anti-media rant here, but Columbine is a reminded that we need to police ourselves. Even more so when we're trying to convince other people of the sturdiness of our argument. Did the book made my obsession with this crime pass? Not quite, but it did transform my feelings. Dave Cullen provided most of the answers, not all of them, but enough to warrant its title of best resource on Columbine out there.