Revisiting Columbine

columbineI finally found time for Dave Cullen’s work of investigative reporting, Columbine, and it’s even better than I expected. Like many, I became fascinated by the terrible events as they unfurled on television and in the newspapers. What would make two young people execute such a horrific plan? Was anyone else involved? How did they get so many weapons without drawing any attention to themselves?

Cullen’s book, based on thousands of hours of interviews with survivors, ten years worth of research, succeeds on many levels. By using a nonlinear timeline, he maintains suspense, even when focusing on events which are somewhat familiar to those who followed the tragedy and its aftermath. His slow reveal of the killers, the victims, and the investigators makes them feel like literary characters and helps readers to understand the motivations of everyone involved.

What I find most amazing about Columbine is how much it destroys the popular myths reported as news in the weeks immediately after the shooting. A “trench coat mafia” and goth culture led to the attacks? No, not really. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were complete misfits who killed their classmates after bullying and loneliness? Not according to Cullen. They were targeting jocks or Christian kids in particular? Nope, their shooting was  almost entirely random. That martyred girl who stood up for God and her religious beliefs?  She was sadly killed, but probably didn’t get a chance to say anything before she died. Cullen shatters dozens of myths, making this reader, for one, realize that I really didn’t know as much about Columbine as I thought.

The book reveals three facts that I found especially chilling. First, the high number of casualties was only a tiny portion of the deaths that would have resulted if  Harris’s plan to bomb the school and parking lots at peak hours and in stages had succeeded. Only the failure of his timing mechanisms kept the death toll out of the hundreds.

Second, the authorities new quite a lot about Harris and Klebold well before the shootings. They had made threats against former friends, committed acts of vandalism, and even been caught stealing equipment from a vehicle that had put them in a kind of juvenile probation program. Eric Harris had been caught making pipe bombs and posted regularly to a web site that authorities had seen about his hatred and desire to kill people.

Third, Harris was not particularly a victim of bullying or an outsider. He was a textbook psychopath who had many friends and fooled his parents, other students, and the justice officers whom he encountered. Reading his story, it’s easy to see how a similar killer, despite being very young, could commit a similar crime.

These and many other revelations make Columbine an excellent selection for book groups, a choice that will easily support hours of discussion. For balance, I’m going to peruse Mark Ames’s Going Postal, survivor Brooks Brown’s No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine, and Jeff Kass’s Columbine:  A True Crime Story. Although less well reviewed than Columbine, my understanding is that these books contradict some of Cullen’s conclusions.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Revisiting Columbine"

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  1.' Dave Cullen says:

    Thanks for the really great review, Neil. You clearly put a lot of thought into that. I’m really glad the structure worked for you, as that was an especially good nut to crack.

    I’m glad to see you checking out some of the other books, and curious to hear what you think.

  2.' J.T. Hosack says:

    It is due to this review from Neil Hollands that I will be sure to pick up a copy and read this. Being a young student during that time I could not process the emotion, nor the information being thrown at me from the media. I’m excited to read what Dave Cullen has worked so hard on.

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