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Columbine

A decade after the Columbine school shootings, a journalist shines a light into the dark corners of the case.

By April Austin / April 13, 2009



Ten years after Columbine, the memory of a suburban high school under siege from two teenage gunmen has not faded. The details that found their way into press reports at the time only heightened the sense of shock and did little to explain the killers’ motives.

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Dave Cullen, a Web journalist who covered the tragedy, has spent the last decade shining a light into the dark corners of this case, including the minds of the perpetrators. The result is his dark but compelling new book Columbine.

(Cullen's isn’t the only Columbine book coming out this month: A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, Jeff Kass, has published “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” A piece by Kass will also appear in the April 19 issue of the Monitor’s weekly print edition.)

The Columbine backstory was unusually complicated. It involved a law-enforcement coverup, exhaustive media coverage, lawsuits, and federal investigations.

Cullen draws together the threads of this tangled narrative in a style that sometimes mimics hard-boiled police detective novels. He uses slang and quotes from the killers’ journals and videos, with no obscenities held back. The book is arranged in a manner that lets him tell two stories: the evolution of two troubled teenage boys into killers and background on the investigation.

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and started randomly shooting. They had planned the attack for months, assembling an arsenal of weapons with the intention of killing hundreds of people. Their bombs failed, but the boys shot 13 people dead and injured 24 more before committing suicide.

At the time, it was the nation’s deadliest school shooting.

Early in the media coverage of the shootings, conjectures were rife about the killers’ motives: Harris and Klebold were said to be members of the Trench Coat Mafia; they were victims of relentless bullying on the part of jocks; they idolized the nihilistic music of Marilyn Manson; they were racists who bought into Nazi ideology.

Very little of this turned out to be true. The reality, as Cullen explains it, was far more complicated.

Instead of anger against just a few individuals or cliques, Harris’s rage encompassed the entire human race. He craved Armageddon. Harris didn’t “snap” on the day of the shooting. Instead, his writings show he had been moving toward such violence for years.

Harris was a smart, engaging kid who believed he was a superior being. He was obsessed with killing, conflagration, and weapons, but he wrapped these ideas into school assignments in a way that, with one exception, earned him praise for his creativity, rather than censure or suspicion. He was a convincing liar when confronted by his father. These and other traits, as experts assess them in hindsight, indicate Harris may have been a psychopath.

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