Before 9-11, one of the most traumatic experiences for America, and definitely Colorado, was the massacre of students at Columbine High School. Twelve youngsters, one teacher, and two killers lay dead after an assault that could easily have claimed hundreds of additional victims (several bombs failed to ignite). The event dominated news for weeks. "Columbine" because synonymous with student shootings. People wanted to know how and what had happened, but they also wanted to know why. Some victims were pegged as heros, others were looked upon as villans; many people quickly concluded that the murderers were picked-upon outcasts, members of a goth group known as the Trench Coat Mafia, and that they targeted jocks and evangelicals. Dave Cullen's Columbine corrects many assumptions and myths, and presents a compelling argument for reevaluating the crime and what drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to attempt to destroy their own school, as well as conflicts and struggles of a comunity in the aftermath of such horror.
Cullen's style is somewhat unusual for a normal nonfiction account of such an event, often going back and forth chronologically, touching on this subject and that, laying out trajectories of many paths, but carefully picking apart arguments, while assessing blame and providing insightful explanations of what lay behind the murders. Much cannot be covered in this review, but there are some important observations. Probably the most important is that these boys did not simply "snap," nor were they victims of anything other than normal peer pressures and disappointments---Harris was a psychopath, possibly from birth, and Klebold was a depressed suicidal who Harris needed to complete his plans (he had hoped to recruit other participants). Local authories were provided with numerous opportunities to stop the duo, and later actively engaged in a coverup (a conspiracy in fact) to hide the fact that at least one family had correctly pointed out that Harris was a danger. The police very likely were too slow in aggressively engaging the pair during the attack, and missed an opportunity to save some lives (but it may be too hard to criticize their decisions on the ground). Most likely the teacher (and possibly soem students) bled to death because of poor decisions by initial responders, although it is unclear that the students could have been saved. One of the most revealing things about the book is how people react to stressful events, and how witnesses see and report their observations. Eyewitness testimony is not always accurate. The media comes in for some blame in running with stories that were untrue, although there does not seem to have been some active effort to defraud; clearly they did not ask the right questions nor determine how accurate some of the claims were. Some evangelicals can be blamed for continuing a fiction that they knew was untrue (after the truth came out) because it benefitted their worldview---Cassie did not give her life in confessing belief in God (actually, another young lady, who survived, was most likely the genesis of that story, although she was vilified and accused of being a copycat). The two killers were not part of the TCM. Proponents of lax gun laws deserve criticism, especially in allowing easy access to weapons (though much blame deserved to be put on the two adults directly responsible for providing the guns and ammo). However, if the duo had been delayed, the likihood is that they would have eventually gathered their arsenal and attack; the only advantage would have been the possibility that their plans would have been fully discovered. Eric did not target any one group of students: he hated all humanity, or at least those who he felt were inferior, and he may not even have seen his victims as human. He was filled with hate. One could criticize the parents (possibly more in Dylan's case), but Haris was an accomplished psychopath, and they are often effective liars. Most sad was how the events were used by unscrupulous individuals for monetary gain and the promotion of specific agendas. Cullen's description of how parents and community dealt with the aftermath of tragedy was instructive.
There were heros. Several victims heroically refused to let their serious injuries keep them from experiencing life or achieving goals. Several teachers, particularly, acted bravely and decisively in getting children out of the path of danger. Some reporters ferreted out the truth. One FBI agent worked steadily to uncover causes and transmit his findings to others, so that warning signs could be taken more seriously in the future. The students deserve much credit for refusing to let their school die and for regaining control of their lives.
This is an excellent work. Not having read other accounts, I may be giving praise too easily, but I was impressed by the thoroughness of his research and arguments, and believe that most of his conclussions are accurate. There is much for parents and school administrators, and possibly health professionals, to learn from this book.