I’ve been listening to the audiobook edition of journalist Dave Cullen’s Columbine. Cullen covered the 1999 high-school shootings and spent a decade researching and writing the book, an in-depth look at the two killers, the shootings, and the aftermath. “Columbine” has entered the lexicon as shorthand for both the shootings themselves and for the attacks as a symbol of violence perpetrated by alienated youthful outsiders. The image of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as members of a band of high-school outcasts called the “trenchcoat mafia,” bullied and scorned by jocks, preppies, and other members of the high school until they snapped is firmly fixed in the popular consciousness.
It’s also wrong, totally wrong, as is much of what we think we know about the events captured by the concept Columbine. Cullen relates the documented facts, punctures the myths, and tells a story that is more chilling in many ways than what we thought we knew. Among the revelations:
- Harris and Klebold were not loners, they were not bullied, and the attacks were not the consequence of a sudden I-can’t-take-it-any-more snap. Both attended the prom or after-prom party the Saturday night before the killings. They planned the killing for over a year and spent months preparing their arsenal.
- There was no motive for the killings. Harris was an intelligent, charming, manipulative psychopath with a wildly grandiose sense of self-importance. In his extensive journals and videos he saw himself with as god-like when compared to the rest of the “morons” who made up the human race. Klebold was shy, depressive, and suicidal, with wavering commitment to their plan of mass murder.
- The killings fell far short of what they intended. They planted gasoline/propane bombs in the school’s cafeteria, timed to explode precisely at the moment when it was most crowded. They expected their bombs to kill hundreds, and they would stay outside and kill more as students and faculty fled the burning school. They changed their plan after the bombs’ fuses malfunctioned.
- They did not target jocks, or people with white hats, or any other group. They killed indiscriminately. Carnage was their only goal.
- Harris and Klebold spent the year before the killings in a court diversion program after being arrested for breaking into a van and stealing property within. They met weekly with counselors, who monitored their progress in meeting the program’s requirements. Harris charmed those responsible and left the diversion program with enthusiastic assurances for his future success. Klebold’s depression and shyness made him a poor liar and he struggled with the program’s requirements.
- Harris’s dark side was not a secret. He maintained a website filled with vicious rants targeting violence against specific classmates. One former friend feared that Harris would kill him, and the boy’s family reported Harris’s threats, experiments with explosives, and vandalism to police more than a dozen times. In response, more than a year before the murders, a police investigator put together an application for a warrant to search Harris’s home for evidence of bomb-making materials and other evidence of his violent plans. The application was put aside and never filed and the information was never shared with the diversion program. Within hours of the start of the shootings police identified Harris as one of the killers and found the old warrant application, along with pages of supporting material printed from his website. Police covered up the warrant’s existence since it showed they had Harris on their radar long before the killings, and continued to cover it up for years after the attacks.
- Evangelicals ran with the story that one of the killers asked student Cassie Bernall if she believed in God. Bernall supposedly answered “yes” and was then killed. Bernall became a martyr for those who saw the shootings literally as the work of Satan. A student did affirm her faith in God in response to a killer’s question, but it was not Cassie Bernall and the speaker was not killed for her answer.
How did the myths arise? Some were born out of the inevitable confusion of eyewitness testimony. Harris and Klebold wore long, black dusters at the start of the killings. Some witnesses equated the coats with a goth group called the trenchcoat mafia that had existed in the school a year before. The killers were not associated with that group and did sport goth fashions. A student in the library, where most of the killings occurred, heard a female student affirm her faith, but misremembered the direction from which the words had come. The media hordes picked up these stories and ran them without verification. Students heard the stories from the media and repeated them to reporters. The media created other myths out of whole cloth, believing that high-school shooters were, by definition, sullen loners picked on by the popular kids until they broke. I come away from this book with a renewed appreciation for the media’s lack of ability to get an unfolding story right.