Friday, May 22, 2009


I just finished reading Dave Cullen's Columbine, which was sobering to say the least. According to Cullen, and he researched the subject thoroughly, the two killers had no clear motivation for what they did. One was a textbook psychopath and the other severely depressed. Cullen doesn't use the term "psychopath" lightly: He presents the history of the term and interviewed a number of experts, one of whom actually had a son among the survivors of the massacre.

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:


Sylvia K said...

Great post! Heartbreaking to look back now after all these years. I keep asking myself, how does this happen? Having four kids of my own and having seen them go through the normal pain and frustrations of growing up, makes me thankful all over again, that they were never -- in spite of the usual teenage pains and hurts, inclined to do anything even remotely like what happend with those two.
I needed some music after that, too! Thanks for including it! Have a great weekend, K!

K. said...

People blamed the boys' parents. Not me. Who could possibly see this coming from their own kids? Psychopaths are expert deceivers who excel at lying and presenting a false version of themselves. Eric Harris fooled law enforcement officials and therapists. It turns out that conventional therapy is counterproductive with psychopaths because it gives them a chance to hone their skills at deception.

Renegade Eye said...

I thought that post was informative. I admit that I believed some of the myths perpetuated by the media.

It's easier and more movie like, to make the Colombine story, revenge of outcasts.

Rainbow was written by E.Y. Harburg.

K. said...

The stamp of Yip H. is great!

Harris and Klebold were definitely not outcasts or loners. Harris had a girl friend and female classmate with a crush on Klebold bought three of their guns. Harris attempted without success to recruit a couple of their friends to join the two of them.

Ima Wizer said...

I'm glad you read it so now I don't have to......your review was exemplary as usual!

starviego said...

You are still being lied to. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say:

Madam Miaow said...

Chilling. And not in a good way. Sounds like a very grim read, K.

At least Marilyn Manson is innocent.

K. said...

starviego: Thanks for stopping by. Cullan addresses all of the contradictions raised in For example, many witnesses did assert that there were either three or four gunmen dressed in black trench coats and white t-shirts. But, Harris and Klebold wore white t-shirts underneath their coats, and removed their coats at different points during the shootings. This led to some witnesses to counting them twice. Columbine is quite thorough in its recreation of the events of that awful day, and doesn't have a an ax to grind.

MM: Columbine is indeed grim, and is in part an indictment of the gun culture that curses the States. (One set of parents became active in the gun control movement. And, yes, the other MM is innocent. Harris and Klebold favored techno as well, although there's no basis for thinking that it played a part in their actions.

Dave Cullen said...

K, thanks for this post. I appreciate the thoughtful read and analysis.

It's nice to see really intelligent comments, too (as well as my favorite conspiracy theorist).

I appreciate you getting the word out.

MM, I'm biased of course, but most of the comments I've gotten have not found it grim overall. There are definitely some tough passages, but there is a lot of redemption in there, too. There are lots of wonderful survivor stories. I could not have taken ten years focusing only on the grim. And I certainly didn't find that to be the full picture.

Patrick Ireland, in particular, inspired me.

Madam Miaow said...

Nothing wrong with being grim, Dave, when the occasion calls. But I'm glad there are other aspects of humanity rising out of the tragedy that give us hope. It seems to be a lack of hope that set these two off on their spree in the first place.

K. said...

Dave: Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. When I think of your book, words like "harrowing," "gripping," and "chilling" come to mind.

MM: Despair was definitely apart of Dylan Klebold's makeup. From my reading of the book, I'm convinced that Eric Harris was a psychopath and that he was born that way.

To me, the grimmest aspect of the story is that it was probably preventable. Hindsight is 20-20 and the potential for evil this profound is likely beyond the comprehension of the average rural law enforcement officer. Nonetheless there was a breakdown in communication that combined with the rural gun culture and ease of obtaining weapons set the stage for Harris and Klebold.

You'll never catch me blaming the parents. Neither household was on the extreme of the Bell Curve of parenting styles. No parent of any worth could possibly believe their children capable of something like this. The Klebolds apparently blamed themselves for not realizing how suicidal Dylan had become, but not for failing to see that he had become homicidal. And had he not fallen in with Eric Harris, he wouldn't have been homicidal.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, K. I think your analysis is spot on.

It has been really heartening to hear most readers of the book NOT blaming the parents. (It's been interesting during the Q&A at book events: The killers' parents are the #1 issue, and most people who have read the book see them compassionately, most who have not read it do not.)

I think the difficulty for most people is just putting themselves in the shoes of the parents, seeing what they saw and going, "Huh. Maybe it wouldn't have been so obvious."