book review

Columbine by Dave Cullen

I mentioned a few posts back that I was reading Columbine by Dave Cullen. I finished the book a few days ago, and here are some of my thoughts.

Personally I thought it was very well done. Cullen delved into the history of Harris and Klebold, and not just by a few months before the massacre, but rather a few years. He helped you understand how things got the point that they did. He explained the motivations of the two for committing the crime, what led them to that point, and dispelled a lot of assumptions that are still floating around about the attack. He got into the psychology of both – Harris as a psychopath, and Klebold as the suicidal disciple. It was interesting to read that Harris was the one that did most of the prep work, so to speak. Klebold contributed very little in the arming and planning. While he was absolutely a willing participant, it also seems like he was kind of along for the ride. Kind of like it seemed like a good way to kill himself – go out in a blaze of glory, so to speak.

Cullen also, obviously, spent a lot of time in the victims, and not just the ones who died. He went deep into the story of each one – their lives, their families, how they died or were injured, what happened to them inside of the school, etc. One story that really hit me was that of Patrick Ireland. He was the kid that hung out of the window of the library. I remember him well, from news coverage that day. Honestly? That image is ingrained in my head, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

But Cullen also went to places that it was probably hard to go – dispelling myths and rumors about what happened to who, and where. I guess there was a bit of a controversy around Cassie Bernall in which a story was told early on that she proclaimed her faith to the killers before she was shot. Eyewitness accounts show that this isn’t what happened – it was another girl, but an early report that it was her and her story went viral. She was proclaimed by local congregations to be a martyr, her mother went on to write a book about it. But it wasn’t actually her; it was another girl that survived the attack.

Which leads me into the next topic – the press. Cullen breaks down how misinformation was shared and it was the press that really shaped the narrative of the whole thing. This was not helped by the fact that the police department and FBI were being incredibly tight lipped about absolutely everything. There was an interesting point that by the next day a lot of kids had seen the news coverage of the day before, and were parroting back to reporters what they had seen on the news, unintentionally. It’s understandable that memories were fuzzy – when you’re in that kind of situation your body goes into fight or flight mode and the formation of memories is kind of put on hold. I’m sure you can think of a time in your life when your adrenaline was pumping (a car accident, for example), and when you look back later your memories are kind of fuzzy, if they’re there at all. It’s not surprising that these kids had the same thing happen. (This is a big reason why eyewitness testimony can be very unreliable.)

Lastly the police and FBI. They kept quiet on just about everything, and it took court orders brought by victim’s families to start getting information released. I wonder if part of this wasn’t to cover up the fact that they dropped the ball on Harris and Klebold before everything went down. They were both part of a “rehabilitation” program after they were busted for robbery. Harris was a charmer – said and did all of the right things, and he pulled Klebold right along with him. But it went deeper than that – Harris had made threats against a classmate, and his parents called the police. The police soon found Eric’s website in which he proclaimed some of his murderous ideas, and the police did nothing about it. It seemed like they tried to hide this, after the fact by destroying records and hiding warrants. The FBI and Jeffco police did a lot of things right – but they also did a lot of things wrong.

So yeah. Overall an excellent book. There are some criticisms out there that he manufactured stories, quoted people that he didn’t talk to, etc. I’ve done a little research on my own, and from what I’ve seen, everything jives with Cullen’s narrative.

One thing kind of shook me about this book, something that I had never thought about. I was a year younger than the two. As the intelligent loners, had we gone to school together, I most likely would have been at least friendly with these two. They hid their plans and inner thoughts from everyone, and their friends never had any idea what they were up to. Sure, one knew about the guns, another knew about the pipe bombs, but they didn’t have any inkling what was planned. But this could describe a number of people that I was friends with in high school. That was kind of a terrifying thought.

It’s more than likely that I’m going to go deeper down this rabbit hole – I’ve already devoured the Wikipedia pages relating to the event. I want to hunt down some more scholarly writing about the subject. But I think I need a break. That’s a pretty heavy subject matter, and I need something a little lighter for now.

2 thoughts on “Columbine by Dave Cullen

    1. I agree. He let very little personal opinion sneak it, but kept the narrative moving without it being an overly dry recitation of facts. He humanized all involved without romanticizing anyone.

      Liked by 1 person

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