Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Columbine by Dave Cullen

What is Columbine to you?  Before April 20th, 1999, Columbine was simply a school to most people, if not the flower for which it was named. After the devastating shooting that took 13 lives and terrorized hundreds more, Columbine was a symbol of mass murder and disaster. Maybe you have heard of Columbine, maybe you haven't. But whatever Columbine was to you before reading this book, will surely change.

Columbine is a media driven narrative. As the events of the Columbine shooting unfolded, that narrative wasn't completely wrong, but it was incomplete at best. Stories portrayed the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as members of a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia (true). They were painted as bullied outcasts (true), out to get the jocks and preps who victimized them (not true). Cullen explores where these stories originated and their veracity. He gives an overarching perspective of Harris and Klebold that provides much needed context for the events that occurred on April 20th and helps correct the media narrative.

Columbine is a case study in sociopathy. Cullen meticulously deconstructs not only the events of April 20th, but the days, months, and even years leading to "judgement day," as the pair called it. In addition to using media coverage and police reports, because the boys wrote extensively in journals and left behind a trove of tape recorded material, Cullen is able to examine the boys' own words and actions. Drawing heavily from research by FBI Agent and clinical psychologist Dwayne Fuselier, Cullen shows that despite their penchant for violence, the boys were different psychologically. And it is this psychological perspective that is one of the most interesting things about this book. The discussion of sociopathy was intriguing and disturbing. To say Eric Harris is a psychopath because he meets a series of criteria is one thing, but to show how he bragged about manipulating others as a cover-up for his depravity was eye-opening.

Columbine is not what it seemed to be. What didn't come out in the media (at least not during the initial media storm) was the full extent of what the boys planned. They didn't see themselves as "just" school shooters. In fact, they made fun of school shooters. Their intentions were much more grandiose and included a plan that was formulated more than a year in advance. The bulk of the bloodshed would actually be achieved through the use of bombs, in an event that they hoped would surpass Timothy McVeigh's body count from the Oklahoma City bombing. They placed bombs on school grounds, but they didn't detonate as planned.

Columbine is healing. Cullen doesn't just focus on the shooters. He also talks about the victims and how they deal with the aftermath, both physically and mentally. While he only focuses on a few victims, he gives a range of reactions and perspectives, ultimately ending with the school itself. Particularly how each year's students have reacted and evolved to the events of 1999.

So whatever Columbine means to you, this thorough, well-researched narrative gives understanding to the misunderstood. It sheds light on the darkness created by an event that changed a suburban school from just another school to a symbol of terror. You'll learn Columbine is many things at once; a school, a flower, a book, a nightmare, a memory, and so much more than what you thought it was.

NOTE: One perspective that is missing from the book is that of the Harris and Klebold parents. They didn't give interviews and pretty much stayed out of the media for years. Here is an interview I found from Dylan Klebold's mother, Sue.

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