The lessons of Columbine

Ten years after teens Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed what remains — even as such attacks continue to happen with numbing frequency — one of the worst campus rampages in U.S. history, it's shocking to read that the shooters were almost surely disappointed by their body count.

On April 20, 1999, before the pair committed suicide, they killed 13 people and injured 24 more at Columbine High School, near Littleton, Colo. But as journalist Dave Cullen explains in Columbine, a culmination of nine years of reporting, the attack "had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed."

If the explosives Harris, 18, and Klebold, 17, planted had gone off that April day, "they would have killed five hundred people in the first few seconds. Four times the toll in Oklahoma City. More than the ten worst domestic terrorist attacks in U.S. history combined."

Cullen's book is a nerve-wracking, methodical and panoramic account. The author, one of dozens of reporters who converged outside the high school that day, stayed on to read through thousands of pages of documents on the case, interview survivors and investigators repeatedly through the years, then piece together what happened as two teenagers stormed through the hallways with pipe bombs and sawed-off shotguns.

But the shooting is only part of the story. Cullen also traces how Harris and Klebold built up to the attack, how survivors have coped and the conclusions investigators have reached on the killers' motives.

He also debunks many of the myths, most established in the early news coverage.

Readers still wondering about the Trench Coat Mafia have much to learn. Cullen also refutes the story of a young girl's Christian martyrdom described in She Said Yes, a bestselling memoir, and he discards Michael Moore's claim in Bowling for Columbine that the shooters spent the morning of the attack at Belleview Lanes. Harris and Klebold had work to do. They spent that morning buying eight propane tanks and assembling their biggest bombs.

Perhaps the deepest erroneous impression is that Harris and Klebold were social outcasts and that they attacked in retaliation against the jocks who belittled them.

The truth is that both students were engaged by school. Harris exuded confidence. He made videos that played on the school's closed circuit television system. He dated and partied, all the while keeping up his grades.

Klebold worked the soundboard during school plays and was shy with girls, but he attended prom with a date the weekend before the April 20 attack.

None of this, as Cullen explains, fits our perception of a school shooter — the isolated, picked-upon oddball — because, as the FBI and Secret Service both concluded, "There is no profile." Most of the boys who have committed such crimes have come from solid two-parent homes. Most had no criminal record or history of violence.

Harris and Klebold were exceptions in that last category. They had multiple encounters with the police and arrests. Each had been enrolled in counseling and community service as part of a yearlong juvenile diversion program, which they completed "with glowing reviews exactly ten weeks before the massacre."

Cullen lets us see where the slaughter might have been prevented.

Had the police followed up a particular complaint, had Harris' father not assumed a gun shop's call was a wrong number, had any number of people revealed what they knew about the boys' guns or pipe bombs, "Columbine" might still be a high school few people outside of Colorado knew of rather than shorthand for a national tragedy.

Harris, the clear leader of the two, was indeed a psychopath with a god complex. His megalomania went beyond calling his journal "The Book of God" and writing an English paper in which he compared himself to Zeus. Harris demonstrated the fundamental nature of a psychopath — "a failure to feel."

Such a killer baffles us, Cullen writes, "because we could not conceive of a human with his motives."

Columbine has its terrifying sections, particularly Cullen's minute-by-minute rendering of the chaos during the 49-minute assault. He puts us inside and outside the building, and he captures the disbelief TV viewers experienced in "almost witnessing mass murder" live on television.

Those first hours form a dividing line, between a time when the sound of a gun and a spatter in a hallway could still be mistaken for a paintball prank, and after.

Vikas Turakhia teaches high school English in Ohio.

Columbine

By Dave Cullen

Twelve, 432 pages, $26.99

The lessons of Columbine 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]

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