'Columbine' author Dave Cullen examines the Aurora tragedy

'Columbine' author Dave Cullen on how best to understand the Aurora shootings and the lessons that such catastrophes have taught us.

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    Author Dave Cullen, who wrote the definitive book on the Columbine tragedy, discovered last week that a friend's brother was injured in the Aurora shooting.
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Thankfully, mass murders are rare in the United States. But the ripples of these horrors can extend for thousands of miles and dozens of years.

Consider how two journalists – both experts on killing sprees – found themselves connected to other mass tragedies by pure chance within just the past few years.

This week, I interviewed author Arnie Bernstein, who uncovered the hidden history of a Michigan town devastated by a 1927 school bombing. Four years ago, he told me, Bernstein found himself comforting a student who had just lost two friends to a gunman at Northern Illinois University.

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And then there's Dave Cullen, a journalist who wrote 2009's "Columbine," the definitive book about the killings there. A few days ago, he discovered that a friend's brother was one of the people injured last week in Aurora, Colo. The brother, fortunately, is recovering well.

I myself can remember being a teenager and sitting at home in a San Diego suburb on a July afternoon in 1984, watching the unfolding news about a nearby shooting spree. I desperately worried that my mother, who was out, might have gone to that McDonald's, just a few miles away in San Ysidro, for a bite. (She hadn't.)

Years later, I'd have another distant connection to a similar tragedy. A newspaper co-worker of mine would get a job in Denver and suffer emotional scars from the wrenching task of covering the Columbine attacks.

Cullen, who helps journalists recover from the trauma of reporting on tragedy, wrote a commentary for the New York Times last Sunday about the importance of not rushing to conclusions about the Aurora gunman: "Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole."

I called Cullen to ask him about how we can best understand the horror in Aurora, what we can learn from Columbine and where we can find hope amid the senseless.  
 
Q: The perpetrators of these acts often seem to want to become famous. Is the media wrong to give them the very publicity they may crave?

A: Every case is different, and it's a little difficult to generalize. And I think "publicity" is the wrong word.

They are reaching for attention in a lot of cases, lashing out and wanting the world to see their pain. It's like "goodbye cruel world" – "you'll see now what you did to me and you'll understand." It's a different emotion than we get from the word "publicity." It's not so much a celebrity thing.

But I do like the idea of mentioning their names as little as possible. I'd like to see more people take that up and see where we can go with that.

Journalists have pooh-poohed it to me, saying the names are out there. That's misunderstanding the point.

We're not trying to hide their names, and we're not going to keep anyone from finding them out. The point is to use them as little as possible, so the act is known and talked about but the names are not recognized. That's pretty doable.

Q: Still, in this case, the Aurora suspect's face has been all over the media. I found myself staring into it intensely on the TV screen and trying to figure out what I could discover about him. Is that OK? When do we go too far in trying to comprehend someone like him?

A: That's national human curiosity and also intellectual curiosity, wanting to know. That's normal and there's nothing wrong with it.

When you start making guesses about what's going on in his head, that's OK at the water cooler and around the dinner table. But not so much on TV.

Q: You write in your book about how a myth of Columbine – that two young men were bullied and in turn targeted jocks – turned into the prevailing story line, even though it wasn't true. Why is that a problem?

A: Once the public believes something, there's a window where everyone is paying attention and they're riveted to the information, and after that they stop paying attention. It doesn't really matter what you tell them anymore.

Once we get it wrong, it's with us forever. There's no untelling the story.

Now, in Aurora, we're getting close to the end of the window of the first phase.

If we think we don't know why [the shooter] did it, and we're waiting for the trial to find out, that's healthy. If we're collectively made up our mind that it's XYZ motive, we'll be stuck with that. And if it's wrong, we'll learn inappropriate things from it.

Q: As the parody site The Onion noted in a mock story with plenty of truth in it, these kinds of incidents follow a kind of protocol: calls for gun control, the presidential visit, inappropriate comments from dingbat politicians, and the slow fade of interest. It's clear that gun control isn't going anywhere. What else can we do as a society to make these incidents less likely?

A: The answer is in understanding why we got things like Columbine wrong so badly.

We never got to the understanding that there were two killers there: one was a psychopath and the other a deeply suicidal depressive.

We don't have a solution for psychopathy, and we don't have any treatment for it. We don't know what to do with these people except to lock them up. But we could listen to the people who study this who are clamoring for more research dollars so we can find some treatments.

As for depression, most of these killers are deep depressives, suicidally depressed people. That's something the public has not come to terms with.

That's the area we should be addressing: catching depression in the teen years. It's really easy to screen for it and diagnose it, and in that way stop the depressive mass murderers in the making.

Q: What lessons can we learn from the Littleton community and how it's dealt with Columbine for 13 years now?

A: The victims want you to know one thing: Don't rush to healing. Give the victims time and space. The longer it goes on, the more profoundly they feel that, and the more angry they are with the public and the media.

The first week, the whole country is in mourning for them. And within, say, six months, we hear these inspiring stories of the kid in the wheelchair who's learning to walk again. We want to hear the inspirational stories of overcoming adversity.

But the survivors feel like the public doesn't want to hear any more "whining." The victims start to hear that as "How can I make you shut up. I want you to get over this so you're done, and we're done with you."

The victims resent that. They feel, "I'm not ready to heal, I don't want to process this just to please you."

Some victims need forever to be sad about it. They want time to heal and space to do it in their own way, and they don't want a lot of well-intentioned help.

Q: It's amazing how victims are often so willing to talk to the media after these tragedies. Is that good for them?

A: The jury is still out on that.

We used to think it's healthy to talk about these things, and it can be, but it can also be really unhealthy to relive them.

We're just in the early stages of understanding post-traumatic stress. I went to Tucson to talk to journalists after the shootings there as part of the DART program (which helps traumatized journalists), and we were told that if people talk want to talk about it, then go with that, and let them. But don't ask them to go back and relive things if they're not volunteering.

Q: After years of studying Columbine, what gives you hope?

A: Patrick Ireland gives me hope.

He was known as the Boy in the Window. He went out the second-story window, and the SWAT team caught him. He had one bullet to the foot and one to the brain, he wasn't expected to ever walk or talk again. After the first night, the prognosis was really bad.

But he had other ideas. He had an incredible will, and he fought back. He was able to walk again, to water ski. He walks now with a limp, but he walks well.

He ended up graduating from college and going to business school and he loves it. He got married, he's really happy, he's living a full life. He forgave the killers and put it behind him.

He's an extraordinary guy, and there are several like him.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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