By Dave Cullen
Hachette, 417 pages, $26.95
Early in 1999, the principal of Columbine High School installed four surveillance cameras in his cafeteria to keep students from leaving their trays out. The grainy, colorless footage caught each dull lunch period in 15-second bursts. Four months later, the cameras logged Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold calmly walking through with rifles. It is just about the only public image there is of the two teenagers during the horrific hour they spent shooting their teachers and classmates. They appear alone in the video, ignoring the few students cornered under tables in the background. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News later won a Pulitzer for its arresting photographs of the victims and survivors—all taken outside the school or after the shootings.
But little in the public eye would become clearer about the killers themselves. They remain the hazily glimpsed madmen of that cafeteria footage, their faces obscured but their guns clear. In almost every way the killers were seen through lenses that were meant to survey the commonplace, not its horrific exceptions, and America’s poor understanding of the Columbine murders is largely a story of that mismatch between the unthinkable and its national audience.
Dave Cullen, an adept journalist, has spent ten years immersed in the Columbine killings in order to bring them into focus. From a dreary and forbidding mess of details he has assembled Columbine, which is surely the definitive account. What Cullen calls “setting the story straight” is partly a task of solving the vast jigsaw puzzle of the disaster—of fitting together the many interviews, articles, videos, and conflicting recollections so that the event might be fully grasped. His scope, however, spans far beyond the shooting itself. In strong, electric prose, Cullen explores every angle possible, from origins to aftermath. His depictions bear an obsessive specificity that is at once coldly precise and deeply sympathetic. His reconstruction of each murder, each bullet hole, each pipe bomb, is no less careful than his all-inclusive inquiry into the lives of the victims, the grief of their parents, the missteps of the national media, and the various shockwaves rippling through Jefferson County, Colorado.
If the killings are indeed a puzzle, then the last, crucial piece at its center is the psyche of the killers, a core whose contours may never fit snugly into the crisp picture that Cullen has pieced together. Indeed, much of this bookchronicles the effort to solve Columbine’s killers, which for many meant framing the calamity within larger issues—primarily violence in the media, insufficient gun control, and high school bullying. Asking what Columbine meant to America assumes that it had to have a larger societal meaning. Yet neither the facts of the massacre nor the motivations behind it tell us as much about life for the average American as does the need to turn Columbine’s history into a cautionary tale. It became a rhetorical center of gravity for discussions of American violence. It was studied as a microcosm rather than an anomaly.
The bulk of initial reporting on Columbine hastily boiled its origins down to “known threats.” Eric and Dylan were outcasts, the media explained, and their grievances turned volcanic after years of rejection, teasing, and numbing exposure to violence. Ostracized from the mainstream, they had joined the school’s “Trenchcoat Mafia,” a club of Goths who wore black clothing and rocked to satanic music. When they charged into school, they meant to kill minorities, Christians, athletes, and anyone who had oppressed them. Gun culture, Marilyn Manson, brutal Internet gaming, and possibly Luvox, Eric’s dubious antidepressant, bolstered them.
That was the standard profile, and it was convincing. Parents recognized something in these tales of cliques, bullying, jocks, Goths, pharmaceuticals, and “snotty rich white kids.” The conclusion was double-edged, since it both explained the cause and suggested it could be an epidemic. Since Columbine was like any American high school, perhaps any school might be an incubator for killers; perhaps any loner might spiral into lunacy and find a gun.
Columbine’s two thousand students, most of them traumatized, were unreliable witnesses, not least since many simply echoed what news networks had already reported. A feedback loop swiftly closed between the assumptions of reporters and the hysteria of students. Cullen’s insight into how contemporary journalism is practiced is particularly useful in revealing how misinformation radiates from panic, and how the event’s national reporters, eager to rein the chaos into coherence, scrambled for provisional building blocks to write their stories.
Reporters covered the day in a language of archetypes, and national issues descended on Columbine as much as they rose out of it. Flurries of analysis have filled the years since Columbine, too, from books and articles about teen violence to first-hand accounts of the shootings. Most prominently, the radical filmmaker Michael Moore produced Bowling for Columbine (2003), a shock-value documentary that used the shooting as a springboard to caricature America as a nation besotted with guns and violence. By contrast, Cullen helps us to see that much about Columbine is the story of a county, not a country.
Readers can learn the truth about Eric and Dylan in Columbine—so far as one may know it or care to know it—with disturbed fascination. The service of Cullen’s impressive psychological portraiture is its authoritative rejection of the initial thumbnail biographies, a feat that would have been far more valuable a decade earlier. In the first few years after Columbine, however, law enforcement kept most of the killers’ papers and footage strictly confidential.
The killers were, in fact, more typical and more atypical than anyone might guess. They were not very popular, but neither were most of Columbine’s students. The pair had friends, held after-school jobs, joined clubs, went to parties, bullied freshmen, and went on dates. They were barely acquainted with members of Columbine’s benign Trenchcoat Mafia. Three days before the shootings, Dylan went to a prom with an eighteen-year-old friend, Robyn Anderson, who had unwittingly bought the guns her date would use to murder her classmates. Both killers talked excitedly to friends about graduation and their futures during the last week of their lives. Squaring the Dylan and Eric of these days with the Dylan and Eric who went on the killing spree is confounding.
But the murderous impulse was there inside them, to be sure, and they left a harrowing record even before the actual shootings. Both young men were startlingly bright and eloquent. They kept copious journals and wrote alarming essays and short stories. They also left behind what are known as the Basement Tapes, a series of videos that range from banal footage to eerie school-shooting skits and final remarks on their last night alive. For at least two years they had enthused about various forms of what they ultimately called “Judgment Day” or NBK (“Natural Born Killers”), and there are pages and pages of enthusiasm. Even among other school shooters, they stand out for the sheer intensity they sustained.
Dylan and Eric planned a massacre, but it was not exactly killing students they fantasized about; it was being killers. Judgment Day meant showing everyone—all of history, they rambled—that they were removed enough from the shabby things of their world to destroy it and themselves. For years, dwelling on the killings and the terror they would inspire had been a respite from the smallness they felt in real life, and from the disgusting mediocrity they saw all around them. But how can one explain the drastic leap from plan to action? How did they escalate from petty vandalism to hauling bombs into the school cafeteria?
Of all the possible catalysts to violence, including the several culprits who helped sell weapons to the killers, Eric seems to have been the only indispensable factor. A conference of eminent psychologists eventually agreed that he was “a full-blown psychopath,” and his profile is textbook: charismatic, remorseless, amazingly manipulative, chillingly rational, profoundly contemptuous of others, and fascinated with mass murder. By contrast, Dylan was a shy, self-loathing depressive who earned the codename VoDKa for drinking alone in his room. Dylan resented other kids, but more strongly he regretted that he felt isolated from them. For Dylan, the killings were “a way out.” For Eric, they were a way to realize his vision.
In the weeks leading up to Judgment Day, Eric was thriving. He devoured Nietzsche, Hobbes, Shakespeare, Goethe, and volumes of Nazi history books. Dylan wallowed in depression and often withdrew to his room. After what psychologists deemed the “turning point,” his arrest for breaking into a van with Dylan, Eric became driven to commit the murders, with or without help. Dylan was a passenger in many senses. While Eric wrote extensively about the killings throughout his last year of life, Dylan wrote obsessively about unrequited love. He planned to commit suicide weeks before the murders. He hated himself. Destroying his high school was an extension of dispensing with his own life.
But the Columbine shootings were no less than teleological for Eric. Violent media seems to have been more symmetrical to his inner life than inspirational to it. As Eric explained on video the night before the killings, “I declared war on the human race and war is what it is.” He was thrilled with the idea of human extinction, of any far-reaching annihilation, and he knew that Columbine was as close as he could get. He couldn’t wait any longer. “It’ll be like the LA riots, the oklahomas [sic] bombing, WWII, Vietnam,” he wrote, “all mixed together.”
The sheer expansiveness of Eric’s psychopathy becomes clearer once one realizes that the centerpiece of Judgment Day was meant to be its large propane bombs, which were beyond the duo’s technical skills—but which, it should be noted, tighter gun control would not have prevented. Had they detonated properly, the bombs would have killed hundreds of people and obliterated two floors of the school. Explosions were meant to characterize the massacre.
Once the bombs failed, the day became about the shootings, which were roving and arbitrary. None of the people they named on video were shot. The pair strolled harmlessly by dozens of trapped students in the library, classrooms, and bathrooms. In their videos, they had threatened freshmen, minorities, women, Christians, and teachers, but these were all placeholders for an amorphous impulse to destroy.
There is something Shakespearean about a villain who wants only destruction. But real life is never so literary. What so many have called a “tragedy” bears none of the meaning or moral roundness that a tragedy, in its classical sense, would offer. A Secret Service report in 2002 revealed that while nearly all school shooters have been males, there is no useful profile. And the factors that had worried parents after Columbine, especially violent music and video games, were statistically unimportant. The worst American shooting since Columbine, at Virginia Tech, claimed 32 lives in 2007, and if anything, that gunman was farther off the grid of ordinary life.
It is difficult to imagine anyone more informed than Cullen about what might have prevented the Columbine killings, or what their lasting significance in America will be. Alas, Cullen never rises beyond or above his reporting. A reader lured through Columbine’s punchily vivid scenes will turn the last page glutted on facts but starved for wisdom.
The book’s publication in April is sadly apropos in a month following two mass shootings: A seventeen-year-old boy killed fifteen students in a German school this past March 11, one day after a gunman in Alabama shot to death his own mother, his uncle, and eight others. Less than a month later, a man in Binghamton, New York shot thirteen people to death at an immigration center. Perhaps these are patterns we cannot afford to simply mourn and forget. But the world will never be safe enough for the sane among the insane.