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One more fable that Mr. Cullen deconstructs is that of Cassie Bernall, the born-again Christian girl who was murdered after she supposedly answered “yes” when a mocking Harris asked if she believed in God. It turns out that Bernall said nothing at all before her death, and that the exchange, which spawned a best-selling book and countless youth rallies, was an erroneous version of something said by another victim. It speaks volumes about the cynical nature of a fanatical section of the evangelical movement, some of whose members saw the massacre as a ripe recruiting opportunity, that it would continue to hype Bernall’s myth in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence, as if getting shot in the back of the head by a boy wearing a T-shirt that says “Natural Selection” was not martyrdom enough.

 

TO HIS CREDIT, Mr. Cullen does not simply tear down Columbine’s legends. He also convincingly explains what really sparked that murderous rage. He labels Harris, the duo’s alpha male, as a classic psychopath, a functioning human being completely lacking in conscience, empathy or emotional nuance. It is a condition that is not caused by trauma or environment, but rather is hard-wired into the psyche. Think of Shakespeare’s Iago, operating with what Coleridge termed “motiveless malignity.” Harris “loved explosions, actively hated inferiors, and passively hoped for human extinction.” He was “a dreamer, but he liked them ugly: bleak and morose, yet boring as hell. He saw beauty in the void. Eric dreamed of a world where nothing ever happened. A world where the rest of us had been removed.” As for Klebold, his problems were less flamboyant but equally grave. He was a suicidal depressive who probably would have limited his death toll to one—himself—had he not known Harris. “Dylan Klebold was not a man of action. He was conscripted by a boy who was.” Combined, these two personalities proved as combustible as the nitric and sulfuric acids that form nitroglycerine.

Perhaps the most disquieting moment in this beautifully written but deeply haunting book comes in Mr. Cullen’s description of the eerily quiet period that fell between the horrific slaughter in the school’s library and the killers’ joint suicides. For nearly half an hour, Harris and Klebold wandered the halls, their shoulders slumped dejectedly as they ignored possible victims and took pot shots at the big bombs they understood would never blow. They seemed to be looking for something more than the blood they had just spilled, something that would quench the dark impulses that had brought them to this hell. They were, perhaps, searching for meaning, even solace, in their catastrophic nihilism. When they realized there was none to be had, there was nothing left to do but turn their weapons on themselves.

 

Stephen Amidon is the author of, most recently, Security: A Novel. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

 

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