Jim's Reviews > Columbine

Columbine by Dave Cullen
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's review
Jun 14, 09

bookshelves: police-and-thieves, politics-and-society, non-fiction
Read in June, 2009

If you only read one book on the Columbine massacre, this should be the one. Cullen has devoted almost ten years of research to the subject and cuts through the crap that has grown up around the tragedy and the two boys who committed the crimes. It makes for depressing reading, but it is highly readable despite that.

The widely held picture of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold is of a pair of angry loners, the products of parental neglect, who were bullied at school and who killed out of revenge. Cullen shows that this portrait is mostly a product of journalists and authorities grasping at easy explanations and (in the authorities' case) rationalizing breathtaking incompetence.

The facts are that the boys were relatively popular, smart kids, with loving parents. They could be odd, capable of over-the-top behavior (but what teenager isn't). Everyone assumed that they would be going to college in the next year. They both attended prom. In a lot of ways, they didn't seem too different from other troubled kids who somehow manage to lurch their way through adolesence.

But there were differences. Psychologists would determine that Harris was a psychopath, largely incapable of feeling empathy or compassion. Like all psychopaths, he had a huge sense of superiority over others, seeing people as having no value. Generally, he kept control of his emotions, but he could quickly become angry when things didn't go exactly his way. Like all psychopaths, he was extremely manipulative, charming people to get his way.

Klebold, a kid with an incredibly negative sense of self was a follower who was ready to be manipulated. Where Harris was calculating, Klebold was overly emotional. He was obsessed with love but was convinced that he would never be loved in turn. Friends and friends' parents liked Klebold. Still, it was obvious that he had his problems. He was an extreme depressive with a great deal of inwardly-directed rage and an obsession with suicide. Sometimes, that rage would be directed outward, and that's what Harris worked on.

Cullen pulls no punches when it comes to describing the ways both boys came to commit mass murder. He describes their troubled (and troubling) inner lives without using this as an excuse for their actions. In all, the author is very even-handed. He doesn't try to make a moral tale out of his story, but he doesn't shy away from placing blame.

Aside from the perpetrators, Cullen directs a lot of that blame at the police for their actions, both before and after the incident. (A police acquaintance of mine at the time said that authorities in Columbine had pretty much done everything wrong.) The sheriff's department, which had primary jurisdiction, treated the incident as a hostage situation; however, the shooters had no intention of taking hostages, as was fairly evident from their conduct at the time. This mischaracterization led police to handle the situation in the wrong way. Even though a police liason officer was present near the start of the killings, he chose to take cover and call for back-up, then stayed behind his car. The shooters were allowed to have the run of the school for almost 30 minutes before SWAT teams were allowed to move in.

The sheriff's department began its cover-up even as SWAT teams were still searching the school. The sheriff shifted blame onto the killers' parents, onto the school administration, onto secular American culture. What the sheriff didn't say was that his department already knew of Harris's potential for violence. He had been involved in increasingly serious crimes and several public complaints had been filed against him. Police were aware that he had been making his own bombs and that he had made death threats.

The full extent of the killers' twisted inner lives would be revealed in the aftermath of the massacre, when authorities would have access to the extensive journals, videos, and online postings Harris and Klebold had produced, setting forth their world views. In their respective journals, Klebold was obsessed with his own personal extinction, Harris with the extinction of all humanity. A lot of this was known to the sheriff's department, which chose to ignore it. Ultimately, it would take repeated judicial orders to make this information public.

News media also shares a lot of blame for the long-held misunderstanding of what went on. The 24-hour news cycle's drve for immediate and constant information led reporters to settle for rumors and snap judgements, rather than digging for hard facts. (Not for the first or last time.) TV journalism's propensity to seek easy explanations led to the characterization of the killers as goths, victims of bullies, video game obsessives, neo-Nazis, etc. A lot of misinformation grew out of early coverage and took hold as "reliable" information. Some of it was at least partly true, but much of it was false.

Cullen has procuced a remarkable work of reportage. The story is absolutely gripping. Often, books about crime go for shock, dwelling on the lurid aspects, playing up blood and gore and death of innocents for emotional impact. Cullen does not stoop to this. He is very matter-of-fact about the events he describes, allowing the story to tell itself.

He does an excellent job of recounting events in the school during the massacre, as well as describing the minds of the perpetrators, but he goes well beyond this. Cullen writes about the anguish of the Klebolds as they came to terms with what their son had done. (The Harrises have refused to give interviews.) He also explores the different ways survivors and loved ones dealt with the aftermath, how some people came to forgiveness and others cultivated and channeled their anger.

After Columbine, schools got serious about being proactive and averting this potential nightmare. Almost every school in the country has an emergency plan based on what people think are the "lessons of Columbine." As Cullen points out, however, many of these are false lessons. (Anyone who has paid attention to accounts of schools expelling students for nail-clipper possession or overreacting to a violent fictional story turned in by a creative writing student will realize the results of these false lessons.) Hopefully, my fellow educators will read this book and think about it.
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Comments (showing 1-3)

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Andy I've been looking forward to reading this one, and your review only stokes my interest more. This is a book that truly needed to be written.

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim I think it might be interesting to pair a reading of Columbine with the book The Sociopath Next Door, which argues that sociopathy is not uncommon.

It's very interesting so far. The thing I'm jarred by is how average Harris and Klebold were. Mass killings aside, I've taught a lot of teenage boys who haven't been that different.

Andy Sociopath Next Door is a great book, and I agree fully.

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