Return to Columbine

c amidon columbine hs 3h Return to ColumbineColumbine
By Dave Cullen.
Twelve, 417pp., $26.99.

The massacre at Columbine High School, whose 10th anniversary falls this month, remains the archetypal school shooting, even though its body count has since been surpassed by the horrific 2007 slaughter at Virginia Tech and two bloody incidents in Germany. Indeed, the slaying of 12 students and a teacher by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold is etched so deeply in the public imagination that the event is now referred to simply as “Columbine.”

This mythical status has its roots in the way the killings were covered by the media, whose feverish speculation in the hours following the attack quickly became accepted as the gospel truth. Just about anyone within earshot of a television on that April day could feel as if they understood what happened: Two habitually bullied, sexually confused members of an occult teen gang, fed on a diet of violent video games and Marilyn Manson, took revenge by targeting their jock tormentors. Harris and Klebold were the dark agents of a youth culture run amok. And they could re-emerge at any time or place.

One of the virtues of Columbine, Dave Cullen’s gripping study of the massacre, is the way it defuses many of these myths. Mr. Cullen, a veteran reporter on the event whose work has appeared in the The Denver Post and Salon.com, maintains that the killers were very different creatures from those presented by a superficial media. For instance, although early conjecture pegged Harris and Klebold as members of the Trench Coat Mafia, a gothlike gang of spooky outcasts, this was simply not the case; both boys were a lot more integrated into the high school’s byzantine social structure than many believe, as indicated by the fact that Klebold attended the prom just three days before the spree.

“‘Outcast’ was a matter of perception,” Mr. Cullen asserts. “Kids who slapped that label on Eric and Dylan meant the boys rejected the preppy model, but so did hundreds of other kids at the school. Eric and Dylan had very active social calendars, and far more friends than the average adolescent. They fit in with a whole thriving subculture. Their friends respected one another and ridiculed the conformity of the vanilla wafers looking down on them. They had no desire to emulate the jocks. Could there be a faster route to boredom?”

There is also, according to Mr. Cullen, no proof that the spree was a reaction to bullying. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the boys were bullies themselves, tormenting younger students; Harris waged a one-man crusade of intimidation against a former friend that was so intense it caused the boy’s parents to file numerous complaints with the local sheriff’s office. (These complaints, never properly dealt with, are an important part of Mr. Cullen’s charges of incompetence against local police.)

The common belief that Harris and Klebold sought revenge for bullying is further belied by the fact that their attack was never intended to feature a series of carefully targeted shootings. Instead, it was supposed to begin with the detonation of two large propane tanks in the middle of the packed cafeteria, which would have caused dozens, perhaps hundreds, of deaths. Guns were only brought along for a subsequent mopping-up operation. Their targets were not jocks or preppies or Christians or minorities, but everyone, from the football captains to Dylan’s prom date, from the principal to janitors.

“It had not really been intended as a shooting at all,” Mr. Cullen asserts. “Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed. … The media never shook it off. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They filtered every new development through that lens.”

Another myth Mr. Cullen dispels is that the rampage stemmed from failings in the killers’ respective families. Polls conducted after the attack would name the parents as the chief culprits. “They dwarfed all other causes, blamed by 85 percent of the population in a Gallup poll. They had the additional advantage of being alive, to be pursued.” The author draws a very different picture. It will be difficult for any reader, especially those who are parents of teens, not to sympathize with Wayne Harris’ diligent attempts to discipline his unmanageable son, or the Klebolds’ efforts to deal with their boy’s crushing depression. These were not latchkey kids left to rot in basement rec rooms. They were the products of loving nuclear families. And still they slaughtered.