Dave Cullen has a piece in the New York Times urging us not to draw conclusions too quickly about James Holmes, who is accused of killing a dozen people and wounding more than fifty in a Colorado movie theater -- just 17 miles from Columbine. It seems like a good time to revisit Cullen's book about Columbine....
If Columbine were just a shot-by-shot account of the mass murder at a Colorado high school, this book wouldn't be worth a minute of your time. Anyone who was alive in America on April 20, 1999, knows how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24 others and then put their rifles to their heads and killed themselves. We've all heard the story of the girl who -- seconds before she was shot -- looked the killers in the eye and told them she believed in God. We've heard about the "Trench Coat Mafia" and the violent video games. And we've heard that Harris and Klebold were social outcasts who, angered by incessant bullying, decided to get even by staging the biggest massacre ever at an American high school.
Why Columbine is worth the pain and tears it will cost you to read it: Most of what you've heard is wrong. If Dave Cullen is even remotely correct, Cassie Bernall was not killed because she told Harris or Klebold she believed in God. Harris and Klebold weren't outcasts. They weren't bullied, they didn't target jocks. And they weren't addicted to violent video games.
What motivated them?
For Eric Harris, raw hatred. A desire to kill as many people as possible -- to end the world, if he could.
For Dylan Klebold, the hunger for love. And when he couldn't find it, an all-consuming desire to kill himself.
If that's the case, then the nationwide reaction to the Columbine massacre has given us no reason to feel secure -- metal detectors and guards can't tell the difference between a kid with a bit of teenage attitude and the grinning psychopath with raging violence in his heart.
For Cullen -- a Colorado reporter who got on the story early, fell for most of the false conclusions and then spent ten years investigating the teen killers -- Columbine is the story of that psychopath, his confused sidekick, their clueless families and a local police force that was fooled by a couple of kids.
In short, Columbine presents a much more frightening story than the one you know.
Did you know that the massacre was just a few days after the school prom? That's where the book starts -- with Eric Harris having trouble scrounging up a date. That was crazy. Eric was a mover: "He had made it to the homecoming dance as a freshman, and he had scored with a twenty-three-year-old at seventeen."
The one who should have had this trouble was Eric's best friend, Dylan Klebold, who was, says Cullen, "meek, self-conscious, and authentically shy." But Dylan had a date. Probably the first of his life.
We get to know these boys fast. Dylan, the secret drunk. Eric, seemingly obedient, but really a control freak. Both smart, "technology whizzes and technology hounds." Both smokers: Camels, filtered.
Another thing: Both "planned to be dead shortly after the weekend."
Their deaths were to be Act III of the massacre. In the first act, seven big bombs would kill hundreds inside the school. In the second act, as the building crumbled and students ran for safety, Eric and Dylan would use their semiautomatics to kill the survivors. Finally, in the third act, they'd drive their cars -- filled with propane tanks and jugs of gasoline -- toward the camera crews and first responders. And then they'd blow themselves up.
Estimated body count: "2,000 students, plus 150 faculty and staff, plus who knows how many police, paramedics and journalists."
Who dreams up a plan like that? Who spends more than a year planning it? And who, when the plan doesn't work, settles for killing as many as possible before blowing their brains out?
Crazy kids. If you're charitable, vote for "sick." If not, call them "evil." But if Cullen is right, don't call them "tormented" or "misunderstood." Because they weren't. They gave away lots of clues. They got caught committing a serious crime. And they totally bamboozled their parents.
The book is built on the classical model. One chapter chronicles the massacre. The next tracks the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, especially the final eighteen months of their lives. Both are horrifying, but it's the Eric-and-Dylan story -- the story you've probably never heard -- that should terrify you. Especially if you're a parent.
In the last few years of his life, Dylan Klebold pretty much gave up. His grades tanked. And yet smooth Eric was the one who seemed to be in serious trouble. His web site had ten pages of ranting. He threatened another kid so often the kid's parents made fifteen calls to the cops. And after Eric and Dylan were arrested for breaking into a van and stealing electronic equipment, it was Eric -- who had snowed his counselor -- who took the event as a signal to ratchet up his dreams of violence.
No writer has scored an interview with either set of parents, so we cannot really know how they were unaware of their kids sneaking out at night and buying guns and writing about killing in their journals. The opening line of Eric's? "I hate the fucking world" -- it wasn't as if there was any murkiness about his feelings. Dylan? He just "craved death." Getting him to go along with the massacre plan wasn't a career effort for Eric.
And they fooled everybody.
That's the point Cullen keeps returning to. And me too. I can, dimly, grasp that a twisted kid might decide it's cool to shoot up a school -- this is a country with more guns than people and a body-count on TV shows, movies and games that makes real war look like peace. And I can, sadly, imagine how a kid who's racked with emotional pain might shove a shotgun barrel into his mouth. But what utterly stops me is the year before that: the constant lying, the double life.
We like to think that it takes years of training to become a successful double agent. But these were high school kids. And this was a good school. And they had, it seems, reasonably attentive parents.
In an interview, Dave Cullen looked back on Columbine and delivered this analysis:
It could definitely happen anywhere.... I think there's one primary reason it happened here, and his name is Eric Harris. Eric's father was an Air Force officer who moved the family across five states in fifteen years. If he had settled in any of those other locations, something horrible would have happened there. If Eric had grown to adulthood, it could have been much worse. He was a budding young psychopath, who enjoyed inflicting pain. There are psychopaths in every city and small town. Most are nonviolent, and few are as diabolical as Eric Harris. When they are, watch out. There are plenty of despondent teens like Dylan Klebold for them to snare.
Read Columbine for the stunning reportage. Admire the heroism of students and teachers. Forgive, if you can, the police ineptitude and, later, their predictable cover-up. But pay particular attention to the back story: the evolution of two would-be mass murderers. And then, instead of feeling blessed that this nightmare didn't happen in your town, you might do better to ask yourself a variation of the line you hear on television at ten o'clock: Do you know who your children are?
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]