I usually don’t care too much for true crime books. Reality is all too real, and there’s enough of it to keep me occupied that I don’t need to have current events recounted in order to understand them. But Columbine turns out to be different.
If you have children, your interest had to be piqued in April of 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their high school a few days after attending their prom, with a arsenal of weapons and homemade bombs, and proceeded to kill 12 of their class mates and one teacher, injuring, some critically, another 24. I had a daughter who was a year younger than the two of them at the time, a junior in high school. I was mystified by the mere thought of two teenage boys imposing such havoc and horror on their fellow students. It was not something I would ever contemplate as within the realm of possibility when I was in high school.
Like the mass media at the time, I assumed they snapped. Something fired off in their immature brains at the wrong time, causing them to kill in an indiscriminate manner. I bought the stories that the main stream media pumped out at the time, and then didn’t really give it much thought, having arrived at my conclusion, putting it behind me, content with the notion that it was an aberration, one that would never happen again.
But then I read Columbine by Dave Cullen. Cullen was a reporter who filed stories about the shootings at the time, as the tragedy enfolded, but who stuck with the story until he had this book, long after the rest of the press had packed up from this story and moved on to the next. After the dead were buried, and the injured had recovered, there continued a massive investigation into the causes and nature of the crime. There was no one to really prosecute, other than the numb-skulls who naively helped the shooters get their weapons, but there was still a need to understand how it could happen, perhaps to help prevent another occurrence of the same or similar violence. Easy and facile explanations were not helpful.
It turns out that our common misconceptions are just that – misconceived. These two did not just snap and go on a shooting spree as a lark. This was a well planned, long term operation on their part. It had its genesis in youthful rage, but it was rage that could have been dealt with at any number of times and places without this outcome, if the right people had looked in the right place at the right time. There was a triggering event, but it occurred over a year prior to the shooting. In between, Harris and Klebold spent a considerable amount of time and effort putting it together. They telescoped their intentions on numerous occasions. They wrote extensively about it, and even videotaped their intentions over a period of time. They left a large volume of information for us to pick over.
As it turns out, they were not part of the “Trench Coat Mafia”, nor a Goth cult; they did not want to retaliate against bullies and jocks; they were not picked on in school. It was not lax gun laws, or Satan, behind the shootings. Harris was incredibly well read and bright, but he was a psychopath who just wanted to kill. Period. He was consumed with irrational hatred. He was incapable of empathy with other humans, and hid it well. Klebold was simply depressed and wanted to die. He never thought he would be around for the target date, because he thought he’d be dead from suicide long before. He couldn’t summon the nerve to do it earlier, and, only a few days before the shooting, psychologically committed to it, primarily because he knew he wouldn’t survive it. The two of them turned out to be a lethal combination .
Their intention was to blow up the school, and as students and teachers reacted to the chaos of exploding bombs, shoot the survivors as they fled. They planted large bombs in the cafeteria, and bombs in their cars designed to explode after emergency personnel arrived on the scene, but, fortunately were incompetent at fuse making, so when they didn’t go off, they entered the school and started shooting. They had ample opportunity for more potential victims, but eventually the killing got boring, and when they realized the car bombs were not going to explode, they sat down and shot themselves.
Cullen does a fine job of recreating the event and an even better job or recreating the subsequent investigation, and explaining why it happened. One of the myths that came out of the initial stories was the one about Cassie Bernall, who was shot after she professed her belief in god. It didn’t happen that way, was most likely confabulated with the story of another student who was shot first, professed her belief in god, and survived, but the press continued to market it, as did her mother with a book, and the religious continue to believe it to this day. A telling quote from the book:
The evidence against martyrdom was overwhelming, but Cassie’s youth pastor saw stronger forces at play. “You will never change the story of Cassie,” Reverend Dave McPherson said. “The church is going to stick to the martyr story. You can say it didn’t happen that way, but the church won’t accept it.”
He didn’t mean just his church. He meant the vast Evangelical community worldwide. And to a large extent he was right. Book sales continued briskly. A vast array of Web sites sprang up to defend the story. Others just repeated it, without mentioning that it had been debunked.
Clearly, a good example that truth has no place in religion. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good marketing tool.
Incidentally, Columbine is only the 4th most deadly school massacre, though if those bombs had gone off it would have easily been the first. The one with the ignominious distinction of 1st place is the Bath School Disaster, the result of someone with a better knowledge of explosives.