Cara Ellison's Reviews > Columbine

Columbine by Dave Cullen
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May 14, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in January, 2010

I wrote about this book on my blog. I will copypaste it here.

I’m reading Columbine by David Cullen and my life is pretty much on hold until I finish it. I did not know much about the shooting that killed thirteen people and wounded twenty-three, and I am learning that my impressions about what happened and why it happened were incredibly distorted.

Dwayne Fuselier was an FBI negotiator who also held a doctorate in psychology. He worked the Branch Dividian case and was the last person to speak to David Koresh before the tanks rolled. He also had a child at Columbine, and because of his proximity, the Columbine investigation benefited very early from his expertise. One thing I found so fascinating is that Fuselier diagnosed Eric Harris as a psychopath. Psychopathy is a very serious diagnosis; it is almost an accusation. A professional does not level it without substantial and certain proof. Eric Harris provided that proof in spades.

Eric Harris was a psychopath, a young man who simply could not empathize with anyone else. After the Columbine massacre, even on that very afternoon, rumors began to spread that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullied by jocks, and this orgy of murder was revenge for bullying. That simply wasn’t true. One of the most spine-chilling passages in Columbine was:

By this time, Fuselier had already read Eric’s journal and seen the Basement Tapes. He knew what the media did not. There had been no trigger.

God. The implications of that roil the mind and quake the soul. Eric began to plan the attack when he was sixteen years old. For two years he plotted, planned, made pipe bombs, experimented with other explosives, acquired guns, and daydreamed about the attack in rich detail. The plan had been to “outdo” Oklahoma City. Several bombs places in the cafeteria did not detonate, and so they wandered through the school, randomly shooting classmates and teachers. Eric enjoyed every minute of it. There had been no real reason for it other than he wanted to do it.

I have trouble wrapping my mind around it. I believe most everyone else does too – the media, especially, who need a hook and a narrative arc to peddle their stories. But there simply isn’t a narrative here, there’s no cause and effect (as in: “jocks bullied me, thus I will kill them.”) The killers did not target Christians, jocks, people of color, or anyone else. They wanted everyone dead. Everyone.

But it would be a mistake to think the killers had anything in common. Dylan Klebold’s journals talk repeatedly of love. He wanted love. He was in love with a young woman who did not know he existed; he wrote about her, and letters to her (which he did not send) obsessively. He was severely depressed and had been suicidal for many years, but as he wrote to his beloved, if she could love him back, he would find a way to live. He would live for her. Where Eric was in love with the blood and guts, the bodies stacked high to the horizon, Dylan just wanted people to understand that love was all that mattered. And nobody loved him; it ate him up inside.

Dylan was a bit of a follower. When he and Eric were arrested for stealing stuff out of a white van, Eric blamed it all on Dylan. Dylan accepted most of the blame, though it had almost certainly not been his idea and Eric had prodded him, psyching him up to do it.

Studying deadly dyads through-out history, such as Bonnie and Clyde and the Beltway Snipers – a certain pattern of domination and submission begins to emerge. Dylan and Eric defied that pattern because Dylan wasn’t blindly loyal to Eric. Dylan had told on him when he threatened another friend of theirs. His best friend was someone named Zack. He didn’t really believe it would happen, probably until they actually pulled out their guns and stalked into the cafeteria. He wanted to avoid it. He wanted love to come through at the last minute and save him. Give him a reason to live.

The parents of Dylan have been slightly more forthcoming than Wayne and Kathy Harris. Wayne and Kathy Harris released a very brief statement saying they were sorry for the role their child played in the tragedy. Susan Klebold repeatedly refused a request from Oprah to appear on her show, but she did write an essay for Oprah’s magazine, called “I Will Never Know Why.” I read the essay with gusto, eager to hear what Ms. Klebold might say about the killings. I was disappointed; she used most of the essay to discuss teen suicide prevention. She says that she had no idea at all that Dylan was depressed, or homicidal. I believe that both Tom and Susan Klebold are deeply remorseful for what happened. But I think they are also lying to themselves and to the public about the extent of their responsibility in the massacre. Tom Klebold worked from home. At any time, he could have walked into Dylan’s room and discovered pipe bombs and guns, journals full of suicidal ideation, drawings of murder. Yet, for reasons unknown, he never did. At one point, Susan Klebold even gets indignant and asks, “Who put that gun in my child’s hand?”

In the Basement Tapes, Eric and Dylan talk about how their parents don’t know anything; they’re downstairs in Eric’s basement riffing on holocaust and his parents don’t suspect a thing. I believe strongly that Wayne and Kathy Harris suspected a great deal. Wayne Harris, a former Marine, was a law and order man. He kept a journal in which he described Eric’s trespasses and then his solutions. Eric repeatedly threatened a classmate and the police were called numerous times. Each time, Wayne would jot down in his journal that the parents of the other boy were over-reacting. They punished Eric for his misdeeds. They got him into therapy as part of a Diversion program after he stole electronics from the white van. Eric, like all psychopaths, conned his parents and conned the therapists.

Even though he was brilliant at being a psychopath, I believe that parental intervention would have had an even greater effect on Eric than it would have on Dylan. Wayne “respected Eric’s privacy” and thus never went into Eric’s room unless invited. If he had, he would have discovered pipe bombs, weapons, violent drawings, the basement tapes, and who knows what else. If he had opened the year book, he would have seen Dylan’s gleeful entry about murdering thousands of people. A pipe bomb had already been discovered in the neighborhood and Eric was punished for it. Yet it seems to never have occurred to Wayne and Kathy Harris that they might want to keep an eye out for another pipe bomb.

It also seems like it never occurred to either set of parents to separate the two boys.

The warning signs were there. Eric was blatantly getting away with his death fantasies at school by writing moralistic essays asking when it is okay to kill someone. He wrote essays on Nazis and got A’s on them. One teacher wrote “Wow. Incredible” in the margins of one particularly gruesome scene.

But the boys were not Nazis. Dylan was Jewish. Eric liked the thought of death and the Nazis enabled him to access that through a veneer of scholarship. They were also not part of the Trench Coat Mafia. The Trench Coat Mafia boys had graduated the previous year and Dylan only knew one person who was marginally involved in it. They were not goths, either. And they were jocks; Eric played soccer and Dylan wrestled.

You take away all the myths and you’re left with something terrifying: Dylan was going to kill because he was explosively angry, mostly from not finding love. And Eric was a psychopath whose bloodlust seems to have been inborn; he was always going to kill, with or without Dylan.

Out of thousands of rounds spent, Dylan only pulled the trigger five times. Eric killed most of the people, and wounded most of them. He taunted them. When he found a group of kids huddled in the bathroom, hiding from him, he said out loud, “Who ever is in here is going to die.” Yet he didn’t go in. He even made eye contact with several students who were crying, terrified, and he didn’t go in. He enjoyed having the power of life and death over people.

In the library, he bent down to one girl who was hiding under the desk and asked, “Do you want to die?” She begged for her life. He granted it, and killed the girl next to her. That girl who lived was also part of a strange myth that rose about Cassie Bernall. Somehow, the rumor began that Cassie Bernall was asked, “Do you believe in God?” When she answered yes, Eric shot her. Cassie was widely considered a real Christian martyr. Her mother wrote a book about Cassie called She Said Yes.

But the incident didn’t happen.

Another girl, Valeen Schnurr, was asked if she believed in God. She wavered, saying No at first, trying to gauge Eric’s reaction. Then she said yes. Then she was left alone.

The boys wandered the halls, randomly shooting people and walls, throwing pipe bombs. Laughing and talking. Police outside did not have what I would consider a great reaction. A teacher died after waiting three hours for the police to come in and get him after he had been shot in the neck and leg. Because the police were outside so long, a rumor was begun that there was a hostage stand-off. Not true. The boys killed themselves in the library forty minutes after they began the shooting spree. The police did not know it, but they could have gone in at any time to help retrieve the wounded. They also could have retrieved the wounded outside. Two young people – Rachel Scott and Daniel Rohrbough- were shamefully left on the sidewalk over night. It had begun to snow, and still, nobody picked them up.

Eric and Dylan moved through the commons, the cafeteria, and the library. They ruled the school. Surveillance pictures show some incredible footage of them just chilling, shooting stuff. One of the bombs had not detonated and so Eric shot it.

Oh tyrant swagger! Oh the artifice of the guns strapped to the body, the Rambo iconology, the bad-assery of the sawn off shotguns, snub nosed evil.

One can imagine the thrill dying for Dylan almost as soon as it began. It would not have died for Eric. Eric was having a blast. This was the best thing he’d ever done. The world would know his name. But Dylan, who could barely pull the trigger, was probably feeling pretty sick. They did not want to be captured. They knew they would die in the school. For Dylan, that would have been the Big Moment. For Eric, it was just a nice little way to sock it to society, a way of saying I did this and you can’t even punish me for it. Joke’s on you, suckers. They walked into the library and sat down, side by side on the floor. Nobody knows who went first or if they did it at the same time, but Eric put the gun in his mouth, and Dylan put the tip of his gun to his temple. There in the library, where so many of their classmates lie dying and dead, they pulled the triggers.

Eric was right. We still talk about him and Dylan. We still grapple with the why.

When I was in Colorado last summer, I ended up, quite by accident, driving through Littleton, and found myself shocked when I passed the high school. Was that…? No, couldn’t be. But it was. It looks like any high school in America. I was pleased to see the normalcy of the place. The dull routine of trig, English, social studies was still firmly locked in place. Eric and Dylan took the world from some families, but they did not change America. Like the Oklahoma City bombers, even 9/11, the Columbine Massacre has passed into a netherworld of not-quite-realness except for those who live with the absence of their loved ones. It is a specialized pain. It is what we respect, what we honor when we discuss Columbine.
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