Inspired in part by my personal fascination with Cullen’s reporting, I made my own trip to Columbine, in August 2000. I was doing a piece with a co-writer for a website, and a Littleton City Council member gave us a guided tour of the area. (He wouldn’t take us to the school, so we dropped by on our own later and were on the receiving end of countless, and justified, scowls from students.) He took great pains to explain that Columbine was not, in fact, within Littleton city limits; the school just used the city in its mailing address, and journalists used it in their datelines. “Shame, people will always associate it with us,” he said. “Just a misunderstanding, really.” He was distancing himself, and his town, from the chaos. At the time, we found him pathetic, shifting his town’s responsibility for evil through semantics and zoning. Now I understand: Journalists had gotten every detail wrong, and he wanted to make sure we got that one little fact right, before we left.
What would have happened if someone had caught Eric and Dylan before April 20, 1999? Columbine argues that Eric was doomed, and that the shooting may, perversely, have stopped him from perhaps even worse atrocities down the line. (Cullen spoke with several psychologists who argue that a more mature and detail-oriented Eric could have killed thousands of people.) Dylan might have received counseling, gone off to college, and shed the ugly-duckling, suicidal tendencies of high school. Maybe, says Cullen, he would have wondered, “What was I thinking? I almost did something really crazy!” He makes the case that Dylan’s decision process, in the end, came down to two choices: “suicide, or Eric’s plan?” (Dylan kept trying to leak hints of the plan to other friends, perhaps subtly hoping to sabotage it.) It seems he chose Eric’s plan. But those are all just guesses. What happened, happened. Everything afterward is of our own invention and interpretation.
Columbine was a rare circumstance, beyond classification or easy explanation. Which is why we struggle so much trying to explain it. This is a uniquely American concept: We require answers and motivations, quickly, even if they’re ultimately wrong. We do not handle mystery and uncertainty well.
In truth, the book doesn’t have all the answers, either, and is as susceptible to revisionism and incompleteness as any historical interpretation. Randy Brown, the father of Brooks Brown, who knew both the boys (and actually was threatened repeatedly by Eric on his personal website), has trashed the book on its Amazon page for “not honor[ing] the facts or the victims.” Other reviewers have criticized Cullen for relying on secondhand information and taking leaps of conjecture. (Cullen relies heavily on psychological portraits put together by investigators.) But what the book captures better than any other reporting is the confusion and fear that come from an inability to make sense of something that has no reason, no cause, no source—confusion and fear that can lead to damaging misinformation and lasting fictions. Despite all of the coverage, we still don’t know what motivated Eric and Dylan. The best we can do—what the book is arguing for—is to stop trying to guess.