Columbine seeks to explain the inexplicable
By Dave Cullen. Twelve, 403 pp, $29.99, hardcover
“Why?” That’s the magnetic question at the core of Columbine, an exhaustive, masterfully written account of the 1999 high-school massacre in Colorado. It’s also a question you may wind up asking yourself, as you wonder what you’re doing back at the scene of this decade-old nightmare. The most vital information—about motive, both the killers’ and your own—is also the most elusive.
Denver-based journalist Dave Cullen has been on this story since the April morning when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, a pair of seemingly normal teenagers, came to their high school heavily armed and murdered 12 fellow students and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves. Nearly every North American who was alive on that day can remember the stream of live-TV updates, the images of panicked kids, and the ensuing welter of near-hysterical theories about goths, neo-Nazis, and conspiracies.
In part, Columbine is a moving study of the voracious human need for story—for its reassuring frameworks and stability—in the face of senseless and wounding events. Here, myths overtook facts with alarming speed. Some of these were about the victims: for example, a student named Cassie Bernall became a virtual martyr in the eyes of evangelical Christians because of a rumour that she had proclaimed her faith in God just before being gunned down. Myths about the killers were just as durable and widespread, especially the idea that Harris and Klebold were bullied nerds who suddenly snapped and decided to target their jock tormentors—a standard high-school conflict turned lethal.
But neither of these tales is true, as Cullen explains in tragic detail. And while the falseness of the Bernall story said something poignant about the mourners’ search for a moment of redemption, the falseness of the revenge-motive story hid the mortifying scale of Harris and Klebold’s ambitions. The two were gifted, imaginative, well-liked boys, and—with Harris as chief architect—they spent a year planning. They didn’t want to kill anyone in particular. They wanted to kill everyone they could, mainly with a timed string of propane explosives that Harris built. “When all his bombs fizzled, everything about his attack was misread,” Cullen writes. “He didn’t just fail to top Timothy McVeigh’s record—he wasn’t even recognized for trying. He was never categorized with his peer group. We lumped him in with the pathetic loners who shot people.”
Columbine is a marvel of structure, empathy, and insight, flickering between the run-up to the horrible day and its complex, agonizing aftermath. Along the way, Harris is revealed as a textbook psychopath, with all of the associated cunning, arrogance, false charm, and sadism. Whether that means he was profoundly evil or profoundly disturbed—demonic or ill—is up to you, but neither offers much in the way of comforting explanation.
And it’s often comfort we’re looking for when we return to incidents like the one at Columbine—the comfort of identifiable causes, of knowledge gained in hindsight that we can turn into a kind of warning label for parents and teachers in the hope of preventing such tragedies from happening again. This is an impulse Vancouverites felt recently, when reports surfaced that an 18-year-old student at a local secondary school had been arrested for allegedly creating a “hit list” and amassing a cache of weapons. But Cullen’s account offers few general truths about school attacks, beyond the fact that there are so few general truths.
What is certain, however, is that Harris craved viewers for the death-filled spectacle he devised. Like all large-scale acts of terrorism, Cullen observes, “Eric’s one-day-only production” was focused on the millions he hoped would be watching televised reports and poring over them for years afterward. He and Dylan left behind journals, diagrams, budgets, videos, and Web sites documenting every aspect of the planned mayhem. “He’d wanted us to know,” as Cullen puts it.
After all these years, it’s still unnerving and sad to be part of the target audience.
Jun 5, 2009 at 11:06pm
Thanks for that wonderful review of my book.
I'm so glad to hear you mention the structure. That was my biggest obstacle in terms of the writing. I literally spent eight years figuring it out. How nice to hear you notice.