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.
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.
“Eric killed for two reasons: to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it,” writes Cullen.
Klebold was another story. He was a quiet, lonely boy, according to Cullen. He had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. He admired Harris and looked to him for direction and approval. Indications are that Klebold wavered until the last minute about whether to take part in the attack, but he apparently decided that if life was not worth living, he would take as many people with him as he could.
The two began their downward spiral by vandalizing property and progressed to petty theft. They boldly declared their plans to annihilate the human race in journals and other writings, but few people took them seriously. Harris began building pipe bombs and other devices, which he hid in his bedroom closet. He kept his parents at bay by admitting to tiny infractions but lying to cover his larger transgressions. He was good at telling adults what they wanted to hear and pulled down good grades.
More than a year before the killings, Harris and Klebold were arrested for breaking into a van. Harris was also known to police for threats posted on his website, but in the wake of the shootings, county officials, fearing blame, covered up that paper trail.
The boys’ parents, teachers, friends, along with school officials and the police, failed to put together information about their activities that might have raised red flags.
Cullen’s minute-by-minute account of the shootings is gripping, not to mention deeply disturbing. Student witnesses reported that Harris and Klebold’s demeanor was haughty, derisive, and their manner of killing arbitrary. The media, at pains to ascribe a motive, latched onto the notion of two outcasts taking their revenge, and filtered every piece of evidence through that lens, according to the author.
Cullen’s assessment is that, based on Harris’s profile as a psychopath, nothing short of incarceration would have stopped him from committing a horrendous act of violence. Klebold, conversely, would have been unlikely to kill anyone other than himself; he needed Harris’s influence to turn his anger outward.
Whatever ultimately motivated the teenagers, much has been learned in the aftermath of their deed. Columbine has served as a catalyst for school officials across the country to add security measures such as metal detectors, and the mistakes by law-enforcement personnel during the siege led to a rethinking of response tactics.
The state of Colorado passed legislation making it more difficult for juveniles to obtain guns, but stopped short of closing every loophole in the law governing gun-show sales. Schools are more alert to signs of psychological disturbance in their students. These policy changes have undoubtedly contributed to lives saved in subsequent actual or potential school attacks.
Columbine stands as a grievous event, one that defies efforts to understand or come to terms with what happened. But Cullen’s humane approach, and especially his side trips into the recovery efforts of survivors, offers welcome perspective on what can be learned from this bleak tale.
April Austin is a former Monitor education writer.