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Al Eisele Headshot

Looking Back at Oklahoma City and Columbine

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This week's dual anniversaries of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., prompt me to offer some thoughts about these iconic examples of irrational violence in America's heartland, both of which I have some tangential links to.

I often visited the site of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, in which 168 people died during what was, until 9/11, the worst terrorist attack on American soil, while teaching at the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 2007. (The date also has a personal resonance for me because it was on April 19, 1999, that I had open heart surgery, a stark reminder of the unpredictability and fragility of life.)

I made at least a half-dozen visits to the National Memorial and Museum, located in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City, often at night when the illuminated metal chairs bearing the names of the victims -- including 19 children -- cast a haunting light on a 318-foot-long reflecting pool in front of the demolished Alfred P. Murragh Federal Building.

As I wrote in the Huffington Post on Sept. 24, 2007 after my first visit to the three-acre site:

It's a stunning museum, but the most stunning thing is sitting in a darkened room and listening to an audio of a routine hearing underway at the nearby Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and then hearing the actual explosion and confusion that followed.

Equally unforgettable is the news footage taken minutes after the explosion and the video of the chaos that followed as rescue workers tried to dig victims out of the rubble. Especially chilling is the footage from a security camera that captured [Timothy] McVeigh driving his truck loaded with 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil past a nearby building just before reaching his target...

Ironically, my visit took place on the same day that hundreds of people gathered in Littleton, Colo., to dedicate a memorial to the victims of the Columbine High School massacre, and only a month after I had driven from Washington, D.C., to Oklahoma, passing by ... Virginia Tech, site of the latest mass murder of 32 students..."

As for the April 20 Columbine shootings by two self-hating psychopathic students that left them and 12 classmates and a teacher dead and 25 others wounded, the tragic event is expertly chronicled in two new books by Colorado journalists, one of which was written by my friend Jeff Kass of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News.

Kass, who unwisely sought my advice in finding a publisher before he found a Denver publisher for his book, Columbine: A True Crime Story, A Victim, the Killers, and a Nation's Search for Answers, is a young reporter who was a mutual friend of the late outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

But he had the bad luck to compete with Denver freelance writer Dave Cullen, whose book about the rampage carried out by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold came out at the same time and has received the lion's share of reviews.

I don't pretend to know which one is better, although naturally I favor Kass's compelling account. But both have produced exhaustively researched books that "agree on much of the gruesome details of the bloodbath and its heartbreaking aftermath, but recount the story with different styles and conclusions," as Denver Post reviewer Keith Coffman wrote on April 12.

"Cullen crafts an engrossing narrative with rich detail in Columbine, interspersing perspectives from victims, investigators and school officials with the killers' writing and videos," Coffman wrote. "Cullen, who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledged ... that thoughts he attributed to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

"Kass takes a more straightforward approach, working backward from the events of the fateful day," said Coffman. "His plodding account concentrates on the killers' backgrounds and family histories, and the frustrating efforts by some victims' families and the news media to prod authorities into releasing information. Kass reveals new -- if not bombshell -- details of the youth offender program the killers went through after their arrest for a van break-in a year before the attack."

However, Cullen's book received a decidedly mixed review in the New York Times, which, as Al Silverman, former editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club, once told me, is critical. "The most three most important places to have your book reviewed are The New York Times, The New York Times and The New York Times," he said.

Anyway, Times reviewer Janet Maslin chided Cullen, declaring that his book "must hack its way through thickets of useless data and self-promotion to arrive at any worthwhile conclusions." She said Kass's "tough account is made even sadder by the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen."

But, she adds, "Neither one of them owns this story. It could take until 2027, when the last sealed depositions about the rampage are released, for a truly definitive Columbine story to appear."

I don't know if there's any lesson to be drawn from either of these books, except that old saw that violence is as American as apple pie. After all, more than 60 people have been slaughtered in mass shootings this month alone, including 13 people in Binghamton, N.Y., and five more last week in Frederick County, Md., when a man shot his wife and three young children and then himself.

Maybe the only answer is, as I wrote two years ago about what I saw as the healing effect of the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, "History, it seems, constantly confronts us with haunting reminders of the good and evil that human beings are capable of. Oklahoma City still bears many scars, physical and emotional, from that terrible day ... but it has found strength and solace in a place where compassion and kindness overcame an evil act of terrorism."