The two boys planned the killing spree for almost two years. One Littleton family -- whose son was often the target of shooter Eric Harris' anger -- attempted frantically to warn law enforcement officials about Harris. But despite several interviews with Harris and his family, law enforcement never obtained the search warrant that would have uncovered everything from Harris' journals to the bombs he was building.
It was not the case that the two boys singled out jocks and fundamentalist Christians for murder. To the contrary, the shooting spree was a minor part of their plan, which revolved around a series of massive bomb explosions. Mercifully, the bombs were not well-constructed and failed to detonate.
As a parent, reading Cullen's gripping account was often painful. Both boys came from good homes. Harris' father exerted a strict military discipline but was hardly abusive and clearly loved his son. Dylan Klebold's parents communicated with their son but completely missed his extreme and suicidal depression. Both boys had a circle of friends; neither was the outcast depicted by the media in aftermath of the tragedy. Neither had particularly negative feelings toward the high school.
No parent wants -- or perhaps even can -- believe their child capable of inflicting the destruction wrought by the pair on their school. Eric Harris viewed all other people as zombies and automatons unworthy of life. In fact, he came to see the world as unworthy of life and wanted to destroy it. And his world amounted to his school.
In Dylan Klebold's case, the action amounted to an extended form of suicide, and he also shared Harris' view of other people. He remained uncertain about following through on Harris' plan until a few days before the event, when he seems to have crossed a point of no return. On the morning of the shootings, the two even made farewell videos to their parents in which they apologized for the pain they were about to bring on them, but that they had no choice. In Harris' case, it's unlikely that his apology was sincere.
Cullen quotes copiously from journals, paperwork developed by the investigators, and interviews. He follows the lives of some of families who lost children at Columbine, and tells the story of one survivor's who rehabilitated his wounds and became valedictorian of his Columbine class. His recreation of the events of that terrible day is both chilling and convincing.
Cullen debunks the myths that sprang up around Columbine, reporting that almost all of the received wisdom about it is incorrect. Especially poignant is the story of one girl who became regarded as a martyr by fundamentalists because she refused to save herself by denouncing God. Cullen shows that this almost certainly did not happen and recounts the efforts of witnesses and law enforcement to gently inform the parents. The mother wrote a book about her daughter anyway: Although she wrote truthfully about the uncertainty surrounding her daughter's death, the fundamentalist community chose to believe what it wanted to believe, and the girl became a martyr to them.
Of more clinical interest is Cullen's analysis of how the myths that the killers were Goth members of a so-called "Trench Coat Mafia." Both boys wore trench coats on that day, primarily to conceal the bombs and weapons they brought with them. As the day unfolded, the students trapped in the school watch media coverage on the TV's installed in every room. Using cell phones, they communicated with the media and often repeated what they had seen on television, starting with the myth of the Trench Coat Mafia.
Cullen also exposes a prolonged cover-up by Jefferson County, Colorado, law enforcement official. They delayed publication of a report and refused to release materials until compelled to by lawsuit. When finally released, the materials revealed both their knowledge of the dangers presented by Eric Harris and the failure to follow through on that knowledge. Moreover, the information held back contained questions about the effectiveness of the tactics used to secure the school and implied that at least one death may have been prevented.
Overall, though, Cullen writes with great empathy, the very quality that Eric Harris lacked. Columbine excels as a cautionary tale, and its conclusions about the motivations of the killers are chilling. For, in the end, Harris and Klebold had no recognizable motives. One was a psychopath and the other severely depressed. That's it. The easy availability of guns and material for explosives played enabling parts, as did the subterranean psychic world of adolescent anger and angst. But none of this changes the fact that one of the boys was simply a killer and the other a willing accomplice...
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Friday's Choice: After finishing Columbine, I needed a reminder that the world isn't all dangerous. Here are three versions of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" that prove the point, starting with Sarah Vaughan:
Jerry Lee Lewis adds his take:
And, of course, the incomparable Judy Garland, shown here entertaining the troops in in 1943 at age 20 or 21: