You’re too young to remember the worst high school shooting in the country’s history, but no doubt you’ve heard of ‘Columbine.’
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold begin to shoot—indiscriminately—students and teachers at their high school. As the tragedy unfurled, students trapped on the campus called not only 911, but news stations as well. Some of these students had televisions and were looking at the news while they talked. This led to the mythmaking of what we now think of as the Columbine story. Many who were trapped didn’t know what was going on around them—they had to hide for many hours (even after the shooters had killed themselves), waiting for the SWAT teams to secure the school. They saw what news programs said—school shootings are committed by outsiders, loners with no friends, boys who are bullied, goths in trench coats who are often gay. They then repeated these things back to newscasters and the myth was born. (Why these newscasters were endangering the lives of these students by chatting with them while the tragedy unfolded is beyond the scope of this review.)
In Columbine, Dave Cullen tells us what really happened that day. He disproves the myths of aliened and bullied shooters, the Trench Coat Mafia, and of religious martyrs, instead showing the reader how difficult it is to recognize and stop a psychopath. Using the killers’ diaries and videotapes and interviews with survivors, witnesses, family members, school personnel, local police, the SWAT team, FBI psychologists, and more, Cullen details the worst high school shooting in the country’s history. His research took ten years.
The truth starts with the fact that the killers were not targeting people who bullied them. In fact, they had made and planted several bombs, with the intention of blowing up the whole school and everyone in it. And yet they were fairly popular guys who had friends and dates with girls. They worked at a local pizza place. They actually appear pretty normal to others. Only with a closer look, does one see that Eric was a psychopath—and very good at fooling peers and adults alike—and that Dylan was very depressed, even suicidal, and a follower who did what Eric asked.
Eric and Dylan left many clues to their plans although they didn’t discuss them with others. I think this book is important for many reasons, but one is that it shows us that the troubles these two boys had were the same as the troubles of many teens. But they do a few things that should have set off raging alarms in friends who knew. The problem is that friends don’t imagine that people they know—and have known for years—as the type to become killers. Teen should know, without a doubt, that if friends of theirs start wanting help in buying sawed-off shotguns or are making pipe bombs, there’s a reason for that. And someone—maybe more than one someone—is going to get killed. It’s time to call We Tip Anonymous. Now.
Cullen dispels other Columbine myths as well—Danny Rohrbough didn’t die saving other s students. Cassie Bernall didn’t martyr herself by professing her faith in God and then being shot for it. We have deep sympathy for the family of murdered teacher and coach Dave Sanders (who really was saving others), knowing that he was left for hours to bleed to death and might have been saved if the police and SWAT teams had been more organized. We also find out what Patrick Ireland was thinking when, seriously wounded with multiple shoots (including one to the head), he climbed out a window, launching himself when rescuers weren’t ready to catch him. Patrick’s escape is famous because it played on live television.
This was a very difficult book for me to read. Paradoxically, I was riveted at times and couldn’t stop. But once I got to the end of a section, I had to take a break and had a hard time picking it up again. After all, there was no chance of a happy ending. But it’s important for all of us to read books like this. The fact that this book can dispel myths only after so much research is a general argument for reading books, not just instant news reports. I think the move in education away from deep, sustained reading to cursory looks at ‘passages’ from ‘informational texts’ (there’s a little Orwellian Newspeak for you) is a huge mistake. But that’s a story for another day.
I want to make one more comment on Cassie Bernall. We have the book, written by her mother, entitled She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall in our library. It is now clear that the story of the minutes before Cassie’s death—in which one of the shooters asked her if she believed in God and she answered yes; then, after he asked her why, shot her before she could answer—is not true. Knowing this, do I still think the book is worth reading?
I do think She Said Yes is worth the reading. While many are critical of a segment of the evangelical Christian community for perpetrating the martyr myth, which they knew from the beginning was most likely false, I don’t think Cassie’s last minutes are the real point of the book—or the power of it. Before Cassie became a reborn Christian, she was a pretty messed up teen. Her behavior was strange and the outcomes of her habits and friendships could have been dire. That’s the point that Misty Bernall is making. When kids do strange things, parents have to take action. Cassie’s friend was writing notes suggesting that the two of them kill Cassie’s parents and drawing horrific images of the bloody bodies. Cassie’s parents got a handle on that and helped her to turn her life around. They could only do so by being very involved.
As to what Eric’s parents might have done had they known about his psychopathic nature, it’s hard to say. Cullen argues, citing experts, that psychopaths can’t be helped with therapy; in fact, they learn in therapy how to better fool people, which is something they love to do. Of the ten types of identified psychopaths, two can be murderous, and Eric was one of those—he demonstrated in his secret journals that he was sadistic and had a God complex. All psychopaths think of people as objects and have no empathy. When I discussed this with my husband, who is a psychologist with a Ph.D., he wondered if the book said anything about Eric having been treated as an object himself as a child. I told him no, that the description of Eric’s parents shows them to be pretty normal. He took issue with the idea that a psychopath is just born that way. (I told him he’d have to read the book.)
Sadly, the reader feels that there is one way that the Columbine killings could have been prevented, and that is better police work. The police department knew a good deal about the things Eric and Dylan were doing, knew about website posts with threats etc., but didn’t notify the parents, and later destroyed evidence of their knowledge.
Columbine is an important work that sets the record straight.