Columbine, by Dave Cullen, Twelve, 417 pages, $29.99
An erroneous detail sneaking into the obituary of my great-aunt caused one relative to comment sardonically, "Makes me wonder how much other fact was created."
The danger is real to every journalist. Mistakes are made, sources are sometimes wrong, officials can lie and witnesses are notoriously unreliable. And once errors appear in print, they have entered the permanent record.
This is particularly dangerous on big, emotional and fast-developing stories. The 1999 massacre in Columbine High School in Colorado was all of those, and the myths sprang up, veteran journalist Dave Cullen notes, before the bodies of the killers even were found. They were fed by a credulous public accepting hearsay as fact, police deception and the urgent desire for a tidy explanation.
Cullen, who keeps himself almost entirely out of the story, admits in an author's note that he was among the guilty in "the great media blunders" of the early coverage. And there are hints throughout of the frustration he must have felt with the long-running cover-up. He describes the authorities acting "comically" in their attempts to hide information, in one case numbering trial transcript pages, removing thousands and then releasing the remainder with obvious gaps in the sequence.
This book, the product of 10 years on the story, is an attempt to tell the entire truth. It puts to rest many of the myths that linger in the public consciousness.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not consider themselves part of Goth culture and did not listen to Marilyn Manson. They did not target jocks and were not bullied, and both had plenty of friends.
The book also takes on some of the most treasured legends surrounding the massacre. It debunks thoroughly the story of an evangelical girl being shot after professing her faith and dismisses as "simplistic ... and absurd" the rush to blame violent movies and video games.
But Cullen goes farther, arguing that this was not really a school shooting at all. It was an attack on society itself, intended to instill fear across the nation and secure the boys eternal notoriety. It was largely planned by Harris, who had no political demands but clearly grasped the terrorists' need to create spectacular mayhem.
Successful execution of his plan - which included propane bombs in the school, sniper fire to kill those fleeing and car bombs to take out media, first responders and grievers - would have wiped out hundreds. The shoddily built bombs did not detonate, though, and the boys settled for a traditional school shooting.
The attack still sent out shock waves. It ended with 12 students and one teacher dead. Harris and Klebold killed themselves. At the time, it was the worst such massacre and it capped a seeming epidemic of school attacks in the late 1990s.
In the paranoid aftermath, Gus van Sant released Elephant , a brilliant movie about a school shooting. Though a work of fiction, the 2003 film reflects much of what was popularly believed about the Columbine killings. It exposes the inanity and petty cruelty of school culture and, during the attack, one of the scorned kids offers a terrible prophecy. "You know there's others like us out there too, and they will kill you if you fuck with them like you did me and Alex," he warns.
That was exactly what many parents feared.
Of course, there had always been violence in U.S. schools, but the deaths of poor urban students didn't make the news the same way. Societal outrage was reserved for killings in white suburban United States, a hypocrisy noted by Eminem. "Look where it's at; Middle America, now it's a tragedy; Now it's so sad to see, an upper class city; Havin' this happenin'," he rapped in his 2000 single The Way I Am .
Eminem correctly identified the double standard, but himself fell for the convenient explanation of "a dude's gettin' bullied and shoots up his school." Columbine, whose very name became shorthand for a school shooting, was anything but the lashing out of high-school victims.
It would almost be comforting if there were so simple an explanation. The reality was far darker.
"For Eric, Columbine was a performance," Cullen writes. "Homicidal art. He actually referred to his audience in his journal: 'the majority of the audience won't even understand my motives,' he complained."
This fast-reading book goes deep into the heads of the two boys. It offers a wealth of detail on Columbine but, because the massacre wasn't a school shooting, per se, it provides only limited insight into that phenomenon. Cullen does cite an FBI report which notes that there is no profile of a "typical" shooter. And parents might take comfort from the fact that the school killers the FBI profiled did not necessarily like violent video games or movies. If there is anything adults should look for, the report says, it is evidence of specific and direct threats, with work being done towards fulfilling those ends.
The killers at Columbine left ample evidence of that. Their journals are cited extensively in this book as key to understanding them, and one quibble is that full copies of these don't appear in the appendices. While the journals are readily available online, their absence here is surprising in an otherwise exhaustive and thoroughly documented account.
Based on his own words, Eric Harris is now thought to have been a psychopath. He had fantasies about the extinction of mankind and showed an awesome capacity for rage: His journal begins with "I hate the fucking world." But he was also smart, good looking, charming and able to fool many of those he met.
His sense of superiority could at times be comical; in Grade 9, he submitted an essay titled Similarities between Zeus and I. He was driven by desire for aggrandizement and sought to punish his inferiors, a category he defined very broadly.
In this, he resembles a smoother, more vicious version of the killer in Lionel Shriver's Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin , published in 2003. That boy's mother realizes he chose victims who were "ridiculous ... excited over trifles."
The fictional character Kevin survived his massacre, but perhaps it is best that Harris died young. Cullen cites a 1998 entry in Harris's journal, in which he dreams of luring girls to his room and then raping and killing them.
"I want to tear a throat out with my own teeth like a pop can," he quotes Harris writing. "I want to grab some weak little freshman and just tear them apart like a fucking wolf, strangle them, squish their head, rip off their jaw, break their arms in half, show them who is god."
Dylan Klebold is portrayed as an entirely different personality. Depressed, suicidal and lovelorn, he filled his journals with anguished writings about a female classmate who seemed barely aware of him. While Harris was making lists of things he hated, Klebold was drawing hearts. Klebold identified with the protagonist of The Downward Spiral , the Nine Inch Nails album that charts a man's progression to suicide, but he could not muster the nerve to kill himself.
Klebold went along with Harris's talk, but he planned to commit suicide long before the massacre occurred. His perspective seems to have changed during a video shoot for a school project. In their vignettes, they saved misfits from bullies and then killed those they were ostensibly protecting. Klebold appeared to relish these vicious roles and Harris was able to guide him gently from fantasy to reality.
"Dylan Klebold was not a man of action," Cullen writes. "He was conscripted by a boy who was."
Harris's parents have remained quiet about their son. In their only interview, Klebold's mother and father in 2004 acknowledged their son's killings, but preferred to talk about that day as a suicide. They blamed themselves for not seeing it coming. For not realizing the depths of their boy's anguish.
Oliver Moore is the Globe and Mail's Atlantic Canada bureau chief. He did not enjoy high school.