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Columbine by Dave Cullen

I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the Columbine massacre, and given the median age of the Blogulator's contributors and readers I'm sure you do, too. I was a sophomore in high school, in study hall, when the principal came on the television to make an announcement about what was going on. I remember the pictures of the school--it looked surprisingly like my own: huge, full of concrete and green glass. My school was as large and anonymous as Columbine, perhaps more so, which made the whole thing a little scarier. The words "Trench Coat Mafia" became so much a part of SHS' vernacular that until I picked up Columbine two days ago I never realized that was where it came from.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbine, and most of them were set in stone by the media long before enough time had elapsed for the investigators to reach substantive conclusions about the incident. Columbine, next month's release from awesome-as-all-get-out publisher Twelve, is Cullen's attempt at correcting these erroneous assumptions (as a reporter who covered the massacre back in the day, Cullen feels he bears part of the burden for them) and reorienting Columbine in the minds of the American people.

Columbine is well-written and fascinating, but I'm not sure Cullen does everything exactly right here. A huge chunk of the book is dedicated to rediscovering the motives of the two killers, basically profiling them to figure out how it was that they'd gotten to the point where they were willing to kill or maim the majority of their fellow classmates (it's important to remember, Cullen points out, that the boys planned to blow up the school and pick off the survivors with their guns; the explosives didn't detonate and the rest of the attack was improvised, but in essence Columbine was intended to be a bombing, not primarily a shooting; investigators saw the boys not just as murderers, but as terrorists). To Cullen, it appears that Eric Harris was a vainglorious psychopath, and Dylan Klebold was a lost, depressed, angry boy who followed his magnetic friend's lead.

Probably this wasn't at all Cullen's intention, but to me it seems as though his sympathies for the sensitive Klebold obfuscate certain elements of the story. For example, whenever there is doubt about who killed someone, Cullen either says it was "probably Eric" or implies that it was more likely for Eric to have been the assailant. In at least one instance when evidence clearly points to Dylan, Cullen calls him "the gunman" instead of identifying him by name.

I also found it odd that there is no linear description of the library shootings. This is where most of the fatalities occurred: ten students died in that library, and the movements of the shooters were witnessed by many. The library portion of the attack emerges only in snippets, to illustrate other aspects of the shooting (such as the Cassie Bernall martyrdom rumor or Patrick Ireland's dramatic, much-publicized escape from the library and his struggle to recover from the bullet lodged in his brain).

Cullen's approach to telling the story is thematic, and while that makes some sense it also becomes confusing. Various narrative lines are shuffled together, sections ending with cliffhangers and abruptly switching topics. Sometimes Cullen will say something like "Over the next several months, [the] division chief['s]...assistant took part in several activities she later found disturbing", returning to it only much later, when the reader has already forgotten about it.

This isn't to say that Columbine is not a good book. In fact, it's a great book. It tells you just as much as you'd ever want to know about who and what and when and where and why. It's the "why?" of this story that's been driving everyone crazy for ten years. It also works hard to correct the misinformation we all associate with the massacre. The boys were not, as the media would claim, lonely outcasts bullied into desperation. They had a large group of friends and active social lives--Eric was even good with the ladies. The boys were probably picked on, but they were definitely bullies themselves, something in which they reveled. Gus Van Sant's Elephant picked up on the rumors of repressed homosexuality, but there's nothing in the evidence that speaks to that conclusion. Cullen devotes a significant amount of time--the most interesting portion of the book, in my opinion--to explaining that Eric Harris was just born bad, a classic psychopath with a massive superiority complex who took joy in lying and manipulating and completely lacked empathy. As for Dylan? Well, maybe he really was desperate. He was certainly miserable.

So much about Columbine is disturbing, but what repeatedly caught me off guard was the detached way in which the boys contemplated their own deaths, accepting them matter-of-factly. Cullen makes it clear that both Eric and Dylan planned to die at the high school. They ended up taking their own lives in the library, amongst the bodies of their victims, two of whom were still alive.

The thing about answers is that, when it comes to the mysteries of the human mind, we can never really know. Sure, all of the theories put forth by Cullen in Columbine (and in the Slate article linked above, which is a good primer) sound right, and I'm sure they are. But God, can you imagine what it would be like to literally hate the world and take pleasure in the idea of killing everyone in it? I can't. It's a mystery, that dark place, and it always will be. It's the tug of the monstrous unknowable that strikes a deep, resonant, ominous chord in me, and it's the proximity of the event--in my country, in a town like mine, in a school like mine, by and to people my age--that continues to haunt a decade later.

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