by Dave Cullen
Reviewed by By Art Winslow
When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, wearing black dusters and T-shirts emblazoned "NATURAL SELECTION" and "WRATH," went on the shooting and pipe-bomb rampage in 1999 that killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., it hardly should have been a surprise.
Officials of Jefferson County, where the mass murder occurred, had records dating back more than a year of Harris' death threats and rants, 10 pages from his Web site brought to their attention by the parents of a student whom Harris said he would kill. Thirteen months before the slaughter, sheriff's investigators had evidence that Harris was making pipe bombs but never executed a search warrant in response. In the days after the killings, officials denied knowledge of Harris' Web site. They suppressed evidence of their previous knowledge of the pipe bombs for five years; files of the original affidavit related to that were destroyed, perhaps intentionally. The memory of the "Thirteen," as the victims became in shorthand, was thus desecrated as they were publicly consecrated.
This you will learn in Dave Cullen's Columbine, an astonishingly comprehensive look at the incident and the decade of struggle in its aftermath, which has included recovery and travail by survivors and the community, lawsuits and protracted attempts to get at the truth. Who were these two young killers and why did they do it? Why did a teacher bleed to death, left for three hours without rescue? In what ways was coverage by the media distorted to meet stereotypes that were prevalent, but grossly inaccurate?
Be forewarned that Cullen includes some blunt descriptions of the shootings, but those are far from a focal point of his book, which avoids sensationalism and carefully constructs a timeline of the events. It would be a rare and dubious distinction to complete Columbine without shedding a tear, but in the violence and grieving and heart-wrenching side stories, this is an American story deeply embedded in the national psyche. Cullen points out that since the incident, more than 80 school shootings have occurred, and yet they remain misperceived in popular conception.
For example, Cullen quotes from threat-assessment guides put out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service in the years after the Columbine killings that show that identifying "outcasts" as threats is neither healthy nor productive. Overwhelmingly, school shooters are male. Beyond that, "There is no accurate or useful 'profile' of attackers," the Secret Service report says. They are not people who "snapped," for 93 percent of them plan their attacks. Most telegraph their intent beforehand, with 81 percent confiding to at least one other person. Only a minority appear interested in violent movies or games. The bulk come from "solid, two-parent homes" and have no history of violence. The FBI report characterizes the path toward it as "an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way."
One of the significant achievements of Cullen's book is to let the truth contradict many popularly embedded ideas. "Eric and Dylan had very active social calendars, and far more friends than the average adolescent," he informs us, and a smattering of those friends knew about the guns or the pipe bombs. Nate Dykeman, a friend of Klebold's who had shared a limo with him and their dates for the senior prom only three days before the killings, later stated that there were "No hints whatsoever that anything could possibly be wrong."
Yet, as Cullen demonstrates, quoting from journals kept by Harris and Klebold, from Harris' Web site vitriol and from videotapes the pair left of themselves (known as the Basement Tapes), the two had been developing their plans for mayhem incrementally for a year and a half.
It was to be a giant bombing, using propane, which could have killed 500 students in the first few seconds had the homemade devices not failed. They picked the time and place — April, in the commons area of the 2,000-student school — a year ahead of time.
Harris was building pipe bombs steadily, and in spring 1998, his father even caught him with one. (In the past decade, Eric's parents, Wayne and Kathy Harris, have never spoken to the media, according to Cullen.)
Analysis of Harris' Web site—on which he proclaimed, "DEAD PEOPLE DON'T ARGUE"—found 9 of 10 hallmarks of a psychopath on display.
Klebold, hesitant in the attack and in the lead-up to it, appears from much of the evidence to have been most strongly interested in his own suicide. Although the two shot themselves to death 48 minutes after beginning their attack, it would be more than three hours before a SWAT team found their bodies, during which time Dave Sanders, the lone teacher killed, was slowly bleeding to death.
Cullen, who portrays the many ways in which this story has been distorted (and occasionally told right), derives significant insight from clinical psychologist and supervisory FBI agent Dwayne Fuselier, who long worked on the case.
In one of the many uneasy moments readers will find in Columbine, Cullen reports that in reading all the reportage, Fuselier "knew what the media did not. There had been no trigger."