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Everybody’s Columbine

Dave Cullen examines how we process inexplicable tragedy.


Police officers search for the shooters as students flee Columbine High School.   

Ten years later, the Columbine High School massacre is still about nothing. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not go on a killing spree because they were picked on, or because they were pagans, or because Colorado had lax gun laws. Eric was a cunning, calculating psychopath who wanted to kill as many people as possible, and Dylan was a depressive who wanted to kill himself. That is it.

Such information vacuums are dangerous, which is why the incident, memorialized in Dave Cullen’s new book, Columbine, continues to fascinate, horrify, and confuse. Confronted with the lack of recognizable human logic, we have provided our own, to make us feel better, to profit, to justify the way we see the world. If we are Christian, the shooting showed the imperative of others sharing our faith. If we were unpopular in high school, it cast a light on the dangerous petri dish of public schooling. If we believe in gun control, it reflected the recklessness of the gun lobby and our country’s frightening obsession with firearms.

But none of these things had anything to do with Columbine. It was just about two boys, stupid and vain, one dangerously charismatic, the other painfully awkward and tragically impressionable. Together, they decided that murdering as many people as possible was the only logical action; the book argues convincingly that the shock of their attack does not come from the fact that they killed thirteen people but that they didn’t kill more. Had the propane bombs they’d planted in the cafeteria gone off as planned, sending surviving students streaming out into the school’s parking lot where Eric and Dylan were waiting, they could have killed more than 500. Had not everything gone awry, in spite of their meticulous planning, they would have.

They, like most high-school kids, were motivated by nothing more than their own warped desires and limited worldview. Their sins were unforgivable but consistent with their tunneled perspective. In the wake of their murders, though, we could cop no such plea of ignorance. We should have known better. Columbine brought out the worst in everyone. The famed story of Cassie Bernall, the “She said yes” martyr supposedly killed because she professed her faith in God, was quickly debunked, but that didn’t stop publishers—who knew about problems with the story long before publication—from rushing a book by Bernall’s mom into production. (It sold over a million copies.) Cultural commentators from Jerry Falwell to Eddie Vedder took advantage of America’s hysteria to shoehorn the incident into a promotion of their own agenda. At least twelve different films have been inspired by Columbine, each with its own interpretation—from Gus Van Sant’s “They were into violent video games … and secretly gay!” in Elephant to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which allowed Marilyn Manson to bemoan that he would have listened to Eric and Dylan, “and that’s what no one did.” Everybody had something to say, even though none of them had the slightest idea what they were talking about. I was one of them. I suspect you were, too.

I was 23 when Columbine happened, and the earliest media coverage smelled wrong. The media reports blaming “goth rock music” and wayward, nihilistic youth had the feel of Tipper Gore’s ranting about Twisted Sister. So I began researching alternative media. Back then, the website was as alternative as this Midwesterner knew, and Cullen’s regular dispatches—which started when he was watching live cable cut-ins while eating an early lunch fifteen miles away from the school; he filed his first story from the scene nine hours later—were raw and scary and far more intuitive than what the networks were offering. Cullen discovered immediately that Eric and Dylan hadn’t even been members of the supposed “Trench Coat Mafia,” a self-dubbed group of goth kids who barely knew the duo. Furthermore, they weren’t all that unpopular. (Dylan was an avid baseball fan and played in fantasy baseball leagues; Eric, as Cullen documents, was popular with the opposite sex, particularly with a woman six years his senior.) It was bizarre, contrasting Cullen’s dispatches with the panic-stricken, alarmist “Could Your Child’s School Be the Next Columbine?” stories I was seeing everywhere else. Were these journalists at the same high school?

In his book, Cullen goes into extensive detail about just how wrong the news reports were, not only in the immediate aftermath but for months and years afterward. Part of this was due to Jefferson County sheriff John Stone, who briefed reporters for weeks with sloppy misinformation. Yet most of the inaccuracies sprung from the nature of on-the-spot, live, eyewitness reporting. The massacre itself lasted barely an hour, but news helicopters circled overhead with no information all day. That’s a lot of time to fill. So here came the Trench Coat Mafia, “She said yes,” and jock culture, theories that were cemented in the public consciousness early on and never left. “Everybody sort of gets up from the table, ‘Oh, now we’re done with that topic, and we moved on,’ ” Cullen told me recently. “Once it was over, it was over for the national media. No one [in the media] ever said, ‘We got Columbine wrong. Everyone did.’ ” At one point, Cullen talks of several national reporters who received calls from their editors alerting them to an outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma, sending them away and never sending them back. “It was onto the next thing, with everything still wrong,” Cullen says. Of course, the biggest tornado killed 36 people; Dylan and Eric only killed 13.

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