Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Columbine By Dave Cullen

On Monday of this week, I posted a story about School Shootings in the movies, and was unaware that the day, April 20, represented the 10th Anniversary of the Columbine Massacre. When I did discover it, a flood of memories came rushing back to me. I remember that day I was at a friend’s house working on a school project. When we were finished, I waited for my mom to show up and pick me up, and we turned on the TV. We were flooded with images of Columbine. Crying students, struggling to comprehend what happened. News reporters who were still not sure (although this was nearly four hours after the massacre began) what exactly had happened, and how many were killed, and if the killers themselves were still alive. Over the following weeks, the news dominated TV and the papers, and I was, to be honest, slightly obsessed with it. I had been the killers age when the massacre took place. I was shy and quiet, and a bit of an outcast, although I cannot really say that anyone picked on me. I was mainly left alone – by everyone – in high school. It was, at least in part, my own choice. So while I understood the isolation that the TV kept saying these kids felt, I never did understand why they picked up guns and decided to kill. All the video games they had played, I had played. All the movies they had watched countless times (notably Natural Born Killers), I had watched countless times too. I owned all the CDs of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. What had set these kids off? I never really did understand.

Now, however, I think I do. At least in part. After I realized that it was the 10th Anniversary, and a new book was being published about the massacre, I went out and picked it up. Dave Cullen’s Columbine floored me. Many of the things I thought I knew about Columbine turned out to be untrue. This is a thorough picture of everything that happened – both leading up to April 20th, April 20th itself and the years that followed.

First of all, it doesn’t really seem that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were picked on all that much at Columbine. There was one incident where some jocks threw ketchup on the group of them – but that was in January 2008 more than a year before the massacre. Neither one mentioned the incident in the journals they kept. Both mentioned picking on younger kids and “fags” in there though. The two also never belonged to the Trench Coat Mafia. This was a group of video gamers, who wore trench coats, but most of them graduated in 1998. Both Harris and Klebold knew the group, but weren’t really members. This characterization at least made sense – they did wear trench coats the days the day of the massacre, but this appears, at least in part, to have been a practical measure. How else could they transport the guns without being noticed?

The pair did not target any one group. They didn’t just shoot the jocks, or the minorities or the Christians or the preppies any other group. The shooting appeared to be random. They shot who they wanted to, and didn’t shot the people they didn’t. Their plan was to blow up the cafeteria and kill 500 students, perhaps more, in the blast then pick off students as they fled the building. Then, after they assumed the police had killed them, their cars would explode killing even more people. They didn’t want to kill only specific people. They wanted to kill EVERYONE.

It was widely reported that one of the victims was asked if she believed in God, and when they answered yes, they were shot. This, also, appears to be untrue. That victim never had a chance to speak. Harris knocked on the table she was hiding underneath in the library and said “peek-a-boo” then bent over and shot her. No discussion, just murder. Klebold did ask another girl if she believed in God, and she stumbled for an answer, first saying no, and then yes. When asked why, she said it was because it was what her parents believed. Klebold scoffed, but didn’t shoot her.

Hitler’s birthday appears to have nothing to do with the day they chose. Harris was fascinated by Nazis, but I don’t think it was because they killed Jews. It was because they killed so many people they felt were “inferior” to them. Harris believed everyone was inferior to him. The original date of the attack was supposed to be April 19th, which does have significance. That was the day that the FBI and ATF raided the compound at Waco, killing the Branch Dravidians. Two years later, on the same day, Timothy McVeigh retaliated for that with the bombing of Oklahoma city. Harris and Klebold wanted to outdo McVeigh.

So then why did Harris and Klebold go on a shooting spree? What caused them to do it? They had their own separate reasons. Harris is perhaps easier to understand. He was a psychopath, pure and simple. He saw everyone as inferior to him, and as such, he was frustrated that he had to spend so much time with the “zombies” and “idiots” that surrounded him. On the day of the massacre, he wore a shirt that said “Natural Selection”. He believed that mankind had interfered with natural selection with all their medical advances and special ed programs – keeping the weak (i.e. everyone else) among the strong (i.e. himself). He felt no empathy, no remorse for his actions. In fact, he felt next to nothing, as many psychopaths do. He was able to be charming and affable – able to fool all the adults in his life into thinking he was a good kid - another trait of the psychopaths. When he and Klebold was arrested in January 1998 for breaking into a van, he grew angry. What right did anyone have to punish him? He meticulously planned every aspect of the plot for a year. He made all the bombs himself. He did almost everything.

Klebold is a sadder case. He was depressed. He talked about killing himself for years before the massacre. While both he and Harris saw themselves as unique – they saw that uniqueness in different ways. Harris saw it as meaning he was better than everyone else. Klebold saw it as being worse. What he wanted more than anything was love and acceptance, and he never found it. His journal is filled with page after page proclaiming love for the girls in his school – girls he never worked up the nerve to talk to. He had one friend he felt understood him – not Harris – but when that guy got a girlfriend, Klebold became even more depressed. Harris offered him a way out. Klebold wavered on the plan for months, right up to the week before the murders, but eventually he committed. He was depressed, and blamed himself for all of his problems – directing all his anger and rage at himself. Eventually, this rage turned outwards, probably fueled by Harris.

Had Klebold never met Harris, the chance of him doing something like Columbine would have next slim, if not non-existent. Here was a kid who talked about killing himself for more than 2 years, but never made any real attempt to do it. Not even one of those “cry for help” attempts where they don’t really mean to kill themselves. In Klebold, Harris probably saw someone he could exploit. The rest of his friends acted tough, but they didn’t have the rage that Klebold did. We’ll never really know how the two came about agreeing to do what they did, but they did a full year before they carried out the attack. Klebold sat back and let Harris make the plans. He planned to kill himself before the attack anyway, so it didn’t matter to him. But somewhere along the way, Klebold got fully on board. In February 1999, he wrote a violent short story for his creative writing class, where he imagines himself witnessing a man in a trench coat brutally murdering a group of preps. The level of similarities between that story and the Columbine massacre are striking. His teacher was concerned enough to contact the school councilor and Klebold’s parents. Nothing happened.

The fact that Harris was most likely a psychopath does not mitigate his responsibility in anyway. He was not insane. He knew the difference between right and wrong, he just didn’t care. It also probably helps to explain why the massacre was limited to only 13 victims before the two killed themselves. From the moments they started firing to the moment they killed themselves, approximately 45 passed. 17 minutes into the massacre, they stopped killing. For the next half hour, they roamed the school, shot up empty classrooms and the office. But they left the classrooms full of kids – where they looked in the windows – alone. They left the kids hiding in the cafeteria alone when they went their in a last ditch effort to set the bombs off again. In the library – where 10 of the 13 were killed, there were more than 50 students. They shot less than half of them, and killed fewer than half of those. They had the time (it would take the SWAT team more than three hours to reach the library) and the ammunition to inflict much greater causalities then they did. They still possibly could have killed hundreds, like they imagined they would with the bombs. But 17 minutes after the shooting started, it stopped. Why?

Psychopaths get bored easily. Shooting people was fun for a while, but then it just became the same old thing again. They liked to taunt their victims, both before and after shooting them, but you can only do this so many times. Harris probably got bored and so they stopped killing people. They waited around to see if the bombs they hoped to set off in the parking lot would go off – that’s why they returned to the library to get a better view. But when they failed, there was nothing left for them to do. So they shot themselves. They were done. They made their statement, and now it was time to move on.

And the fact that Klebold was depressed, and exploited, does not mitigate his responsibility either. He, as well, knew the difference between right and wrong. And although he did care, he didn’t care enough. In Eric, he saw the type of person he wanted to be – outgoing and friendly. Klebold barely had the nerve to talk to anyone about anything. He seems to be aping Harris in the videos and the on the day of the shooting itself. For a short while he was free. Klebold talked in his journal about polar opposites – Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Love and Hate – and how you have to choose your side, but hope that the side chose you back. “Why does love never choose me back?” he complained. Sooner or later, he got tired of not being chosen back, so he picked Hate – and on April 20th 1999, Hate chose him back.

After 10 years, I feel like I understand, at least in part, what happened and why it happened. Could the massacre had been prevented? Probably, if more people had paid more attention. But Harris and Klebold didn’t want people to know. Unlike many school shooters, they didn’t tell their plans explicitly to anyone. Klebold hinted at them, as did Harris on his website, but they didn’t tell anyone precisely what they planned. They hid it all.

Dave Cullen’s Columbine is a great book. Some people have complained about some factual inaccuracies in the book, but that is most likely the case for any book of this sort. Among them are contentions that Klebold had potato skins, or possibly French Fries the day of the attack (who cares? I’m not sure why this was even included in the book). But a few of them seem to be of more pressing concern. One is Cullen’s portrait of Harris as a little bit of a ladies man, even though he admits (in interviews, not in the book) that he doesn’t think Harris ever had a girlfriend (this was slightly confusing to me as well). Another was the contention that the explosions not going off rattled Klebold, who most likely headed into the school first (there is NO evidence to support this one). And finally, some complain about Cullen’s characterization of Harris as a psychopath, and the catalyst of the attack. To be fair to Cullen though, that wasn’t his conclusion. It was the lead FBI agent on the case’s conclusion – who it should be pointed out is a psychologist.

I plan to read “Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass in the coming weeks as well, as it was released just a few weeks before Cullen’s book (although, it appears that it is not available at any stores around me, so I had to order it. It was released by a much smaller company than Columbine was). I will more than likely review that one in the coming weeks. Kass, apparently, reaches different conclusions about what motivated Harris and Klebold to do what he did. Plus, his book seems to have less criticism leveled at it about factual inaccuracies.
I realize that this was less of a book review, and more of a summary, or at least filtering my own thoughts on the massacre after reading the book, as well as other sources in the last week. I realize that to most people, this is probably not an event that they would like relive. For me though, Columbine was one of the things about my high school years that I remember the most. It was shocking and terrifying. I’m not sure why I have remained fascinated by this story for as many years as I have, but nonetheless, I have. It's possible that because my fiance is a teacher, and as such is still in effect in high school, that I have become more fascinated by this again after all these years. Whatever the reason, Columbine still fascinates me, and Columbine the book was the best thing I've read on the massacre to date.

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