Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Columbine A True Crime Story

A few weeks ago, I wrote a book review for Dave Cullen’s new book Columbine, about the massacre at the high school on April 20, 1999. In that review I mentioned there was another new book about the massacre by Jeff Kass – Columbine: A True Crime Story, and that I would review it once I got a chance to read it. Having just finished the book, I figured now would be the perfect time to review it. I will use more of a compare and contrast style of review when comparing the two books.

The two books are as similar as they are different. Cullen’s book is more personal, and more narrative driven, intertwining the events of April 20th, with what happened both before and after. In some ways, it is similar to a novel, as Cullen takes time to get to know his “characters”. This approach leads to a more involving read, as Cullen does not shy away from conjecture at certain points – ascribing motives and feelings to people, even if there isn’t necessarily always hard evidence to back it up.

Kass’ book is more journalistic in approach. Unlike Cullen, he is not as interested in establishing characters, and does not spend near as much time on what happened after, but confines himself with what happened leading up to the massacre, the day itself, and the slow trickle of information that came out over the years that followed.

Cullen’s book spends more time on “myth busting’ and assigning blame to people than Kass’ book. In both you will find out that Harris and Klebold were not excessively bullied, didn’t belong to the Trench Coat Mafia, didn’t seem to specifically target anyone and that victim Cassie Bernall was not asked if she believed in God before she was shot. Cullen plays up the importance of busting these preconceptions about Columbine, whereas Kass simply states the truth. Kass goes easier on the media than Cullen does, not really mentioning all the media coverage that helped contribute to the myth, whereas Cullen sees it as utmost importance.

And yet, despite the differences, the two books end up agreeing on a lot of different things, even if they do not always agree on the interpretation. Cullen states definitely that Harris was a psychopath, whereas Kass states that it is the popular diagnosis, but stops short of saying it’s the truth. Cullen argues the case, where Kass argues for and against it, concluding (rightly, I may add), that we’ll never know for sure since Harris isn’t around to be tested.

The basic sequence of events in both books in the same though, save for the moments where Cullen ascribes motives or actions to people, when there is not definitive proof. Both agree that the Jefferson County’s Sheriff office screwed up massively in their investigation of Harris in the year leading up to Columbine, and that they screwed up the day of the massacre itself. Both express their frustration with having to fight tooth and nail for every scrap of information they were to receive from the Sheriff’s office after (Kass goes into far more detail however). Both think there is still more information to come out, that may never see the light of day.

The two biggest pieces of evidence that have yet to be made public are The Basement Tapes – the series of videos that Harris and Klebold shot in the month leading up to April 20th, where they talk about their plans, and the depositions of the Harris and Klebold families that was part of their settlement agreement. The Basement Tapes can be made public at time, but has been left up to the discretion of the Sheriff’s department, who has so far refused, they say, because they fear it may lead to copycat crimes (which is odd, because not releasing the tapes, certainly has not diminished the number of copycats in the decade since). It is a question that will mostly likely be asked of every Sheriff upon his election, and eventually, the tapes will be released. It’s just a matter of when. Until then, we have to rely on the Sheriff Departments description of the videos, as well as statements made by the few journalists who were able to view the tapes (neither of the authors were allowed), as well as the victims’ families. The depositions of the parents of the killers have been sealed, and will not be unsealed until sometime in 2024. Until then, we will never know for sure what the parents knew or felt, as neither are talking to the media, albeit for different reasons. The Harris’ seemed unconcerned with Eric’s legacy, and just want to move on with their lives. The Klebold are fiercely protective of Dylan’s memory, to the point that the one interview they granted – to the New York Times – came in response to an article about Harris and Klebold, in which Dylan’s father wrote a letter of complaint to the newspaper. (Strangely enough, the article that provoked the response, was much easier on Dylan than most news stories). The Harris’ don’t seem to say anything publicly about Eric – even whether or not they even held a funeral for him. The Klebold claim to want answers, but fought tooth and nail against almost every scrap of information being released.

What is it about Columbine that continues to fascinate people (myself included) more than 10 years after the day? Certainly, there were school shootings before Columbine that did not draw the same amount of attention, and even the massacre at Virginia Tech a few years ago – where the lone gunmen killed many more people than Harris and Klebold did – has not entered the modern consciousness as much as Columbine has. I think the answer is twofold. For one, Columbine played out live on TV. I certainly remember watching the coverage of that day and being horrified, and so do many others. That horror is not easily shaken off. But the bigger reason I think is because of how the information was released in the wake of Columbine. The Sheriff’s department kept delaying their official report which didn’t come out until more than a year later, and was promptly criticized for being incomplete. They denied things they knew were true – the most damning of which was that Eric Harris had been brought to their attention the year before for making death threats and pipe bombs, and they did nothing about it. They have fought tooth and nail to keep evidence secret, only releasing it when ordered to. They have kept the Basement Tapes under wraps. It took them eight years before they released all of Harris’ and Klebold’s writing, which provided further insight into their minds. The parents have never spoken publicly about what happened. There are still questions left to be answered. This was a tragedy that garnered international attention, and yet, we still do not have all the answers.

For me though, the answer is much more personal. I was the killers age at the time of the attack, and as much as I hate to admit it, I shared some things in common with them. I recently read a checklist, put together by some psychologist, about the ten warning signs to watch out for if you worry your child may do something like Columbine. As a teenager I met seven of the ten criteria. The three I didn’t were 1) I had no minor run-ins with either the police or school administration 2) I didn’t have an unhealthy fascination with guns or bombs and 3) I was not excessively bullied. The others 1) Violent video games (I was a Doom Master!), 2) Violent Movies (two of Harris and Klebold’s favorite movies were Apocalypse Now and Natural Born Killers - two of my favorites), 3) Violent music (I still listen to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails thank you very much), 4) Few friends in high school, 5) no girlfriends in high school (boy, I was ever NOT getting any in high school), 6) Violent writings and or video projects for school (yeah, I was kind of twisted) and 7) no belief in a high power (yep, I was an atheist back then, like I am now), fit me perfectly. So I wondered then, what made them snap so horribly, whereas for the most part I was pretty happy in high school, despite my isolation (which was, pretty much self imposed)? Ten years later, I am closer to understanding, but I still don’t know for sure. I am now pretty sure however, that checklists that like that are full of shit. The bottom line is that both of these books help to shed light on Columbine, so if you have any interested in the subject, I suggest you read at least one of them.

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