The Wednesday Review: Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE

Type the word Columbine into Google. The first entry is the Wikipedia entry on the Columbine High School shooting. The media turned a place into an event. Fifteen years later, Columbine to many still isn’t a place. It’s an event. A bloody, chaotic event, an event for the history books. Exactly like Eric Harris wanted.

Except it wasn’t.

I’ll be honest. Dave Cullen’s Columbine was an incredibly difficult book to read at times. He doesn’t flinch when recounting the attack itself. He takes you through the aftermath, both immediate and long-term. He shows you the survivors and the victims. And he paints a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of one of the killers.

Through interviews with family and friends, records and journal entries, Dylan comes to life as a kid that could have been saved if only people had known what to look for. Dylan wanted to die. Depressed, worried about the usual things a teenager worried about, all Dylan wanted was love. If he couldn’t find it alive, he’d take it in death, convinced solace was waiting for him on the other side.

The most shocking thing about the attack, though, is just how much the media got wrong. Columbine does an excellent job of showing us just how stupid the national media became, buying into one myth after another because it was “safe”. No one wanted to believe the truth – that Eric was a psychopath – though it took a while for that truth to come to light in the first place.

There’s more. There’s the gross incompetence of the leaders of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. There’s disgusting way the evangelical pastors swooped in to capitalize on the event, using it to recruit believers for their cause. And there’s how the community vilified the families of Harris and Klebold, rather than leave them alone. Someone had to be blamed, though. With the perpetrators dead, they were the next logical choice. It’s easy to forget that not all victims are the ones a crime was directed toward. The Harrises and Klebolds lost their sons, and for all intents and purposes, the parents were as much in the dark about the plans as everyone else.

It’s not surprising. Kids have been hiding parts of themselves from their parents since the dawn of time. You can’t blame video games, Goths, bullying, or trenchcoats for the actions of Eric and Dylan. Blame should be laid at the feet of Eric. He’s probably angry his plan didn’t go off as it was supposed to. If it had, Columbine High School would have had to be rebuilt, not remodeled.

I tried to remember what I was doing during the attack. My memory of that day is of planes and fellow choir kids and a TV monitor in the Minneapolis airport, displaying footage. I’d been on a choir trip to Boston when it happened, but after reading Columbine, I’m not sure my memory is that accurate. The TV monitor, absolutely. The location, definitely. The date? It was a Tuesday. Why would I be flying home from a school trip on a Tuesday?

Cullen points out that there are parts of the shooting that may never be clear, because witness accounts varied so much (the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall) and even changed with repeated tellings (Mr. D’s version of events). There will be detractors who insist that this still isn’t the full story, that it’s slanted one way or another. People will read it and realize that…not a lot has changed since then.

Columbine is a hard pill to swallow. It’s also a necessary one. There are still lessons we can learn from this tragedy that occurred over a decade ago. Maybe this book will be the first step in that direction.



7 thoughts on “The Wednesday Review: Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE

  1. I’ve had this book on my shelf for over a year. I got about 70 pages in and put it down and never picked it back up. Might have to now, though!

    1. Getting past the descriptions of the attack was the hardest part for me. But I have to say that once he starts delving into Eric’s personality and motivations, I was fascinated.

  2. I know exactly where I was when Columbine happened. I was in my living room with my 6-month old son and 2 year old daughter, crying my eyes out because it was so horrible. It was my birthday. Hitler’s birthday, too. People do crazy shit on that day.

      1. The shootout at the Branch-Davidian compound in Waco, TX happened on the 20th, too. People do crazy shit…

      2. Exactly. Livrancourt, the Waco siege was also the 19th–Tim McVeigh chose the date for OK City specifically because of it, because he was angry about it.

        It’s likely that Columbine was timed for that same day–not because of anger, more likely to use the added publicity potential. We’ll never know that for sure, though. Eric mentioned OK City by name, but never specifically said why they chose that date. (It seems a lot for a coincidence, though.)

  3. Very thoughtful review, Amanda. Thank you for that.

    Fiona, yes, it sounds like you were close to getting through the roughest part. It calms down a lot after that.

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