Book Review: “Columbine”, by Dave Cullen. No Easy Answers.

Columbine.  For many Americans, this word conjures powerful words and imagery. I tend to associate the following whenever I hear the word:

  • School shooting
  • Bullying
  • Jocks
  • Trench coat mafia
  • Outcasts

Over the years, I had heard mumblings that perhaps this was the wrong narrative.  That someone, somewhere got the story wrong.  I hardly paid attention.  School shootings are a very heavy topic. Then there are some tragedies are just too difficult to process.  They require time to think about objectively.  Maybe this was part of the reason I avoided the subject.  Maybe I preferred to remain ignorant.  Who knows?

I’m a parent of a young child now and trying to understand these types of events is more important to me than remaining ignorant.  Not that these unfathomable events can ever be truly understood.  But I wanted to at least try.  I had heard good things about Dave Cullen’s “Columbine” so I finally decided it was time to learn more.

I’ll say first that the book went a long way to dispel a lot of myths surrounding Columbine.  Except for knowing that Columbine was a school shooting all my preconceived notions were wrong or at least woefully inadequate.  In terms of pure myth busting, the book excelled.  It went into detail around the events leading up to and the shooting itself, the victims, the impact on certain victims’ families, the law enforcement response, and the role of the media.

The book failed to illuminate my main question, the question that really drove me to read the book.  The question of “Why?”.  Maybe it was too much to ask of the book.  Can anyone definitively answer “the why” of such a horrific event in a satisfactory way?  How can any of us understand how two seemingly normal kids from good homes decide to shoot up a school before killing themselves?  How can we understand the pathology that would drive a person to believe that such a course of action is not only reasonable, but the “only way”?

To Dave Cullen’s credit, he knows this is a blind spot in the book.  He does try to address this by discussing the killers’ journal entries, home videos, interviews with surviving friends, and reports from the FBI to describe the psychological profile of the young men.  The hypothesis appears simple: One of the perpetrators, Eric Harris, is a text book psychopath who planned the attack.  The other, Dylan Klebold, is a suicidal teen who got swept away by Eric’s grand vision and persuasive personality.

The apparent sympathy of the author for Dylan is curious to me.  It may be true that Dylan was clinically depressed and in pain.  It may be true that he had a shy and sensitive side.  It may be true that for a long time he had no intention of going through with any of it and was just enjoying Eric’s attentions.  But in the end, he did go through with it and was an active participant in the cold-blooded murder of 13 innocent people.

Eric Harris being written off as a textbook psychopath is also curious to me.  Maybe this is correct.  He certainly left behind plenty of evidence to support this hypothesis.  The key question for me is how did he get this way?  Was he simply born bad?  Was it a long, slow decline into violent apathy? Here the book provides no answers.

Potential answers, or at least more information, obviously lies with Eric and Dylan’s parents.  What did they know and when?  How did they intervene?  Did they intervene?  For years, they said next to nothing.  In their defense, they were vilified in the court of public opinion with greater than 80% people polled believing they were culpable for their sons’ actions.  What could they possibly say to mollify a grieving public?

Dylan Klebold’s mother Sue has become more public in recent years.  I have not read her book but I did watch her TED talk and read an searing article she wrote for Oprah Magazine, “I Will Never Know Why”.  She is poised, eloquent, and sad.  The toll her son’s actions took on her life is unmistakable.  I applaud her bravery in finally speaking out about her experience. She is not looking for absolution, she is trying to educate.  The message is clear.  If she can find herself in such a situation then surely anyone can.

Is this true I wonder?  There were warning signs.  The boys were acting out, getting in trouble in and out of school and were arrested for theft.  Though very intelligent, Dylan’s grades suffered miserably.  One family was aware of the danger posed by Eric Harris.  Another teacher was highly disturbed by Dylan Klebold’s writing.  Both cases were reported to appropriate authorities and to the boys’ parents.  Eric had a website that oozed with violent thoughts and hate.  The police were aware though failed to act.

It’s also worth noting that both Eric and Dylan were put into a juvenile-court rehabilitation program after their arrest.  Both finished early due to good behavior.  Eric breezed through the program and left a very favorable impression on the director.

While several people seemed to be aware that the boys were troubled, none suspected mass murder.  That, I think, is something we all can understand.  It is hard for most of us to imagine the unimaginable, particularly when the unimaginable includes suspecting that a loved is capable of murder(s).  In retrospect the pieces may fit but in the moment?  Perhaps not so obvious.

After reading “Columbine” I’m not really any closer to understanding why the boys attacked their school.  I have a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the survivors and the victim’s families. Dylan and Eric’s parents deserve if not sympathy then at least the benefit of doubt.  Maybe they did everything they could.  Maybe they tried to make an impact but failed.  If Dylan and Eric so easily fooled law enforcement, can we really hold their parents fully accountable?  In this sad story there is a lot of blame to go around, if any one thing beyond the perpetrators can even be blamed at all.

If I’ve learned anything from this book it is that there are no easy answers to a tragedy of this magnitude.  Laying blame after the fact is useless and unproductive.  The best we can hope for is to better understand the roots of violence and learn to identify warnings signs to prevent further tragedies.  Unsatisfying I know but at least it’s the truth.  That must be something, right?


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