I admit I was reluctant to pick up and read Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE. I thought, what’s there to learn 13 years after the tragedy? Turns out, everything.
I don’t remember where I was on April 20, 1999, when the shooting started at the now-infamous Littleton, Colorado high school. But I do recall much of the media coverage which most of the country then considered fact. I knew that two high school seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a killing spree before committing suicide in the library. For hours the media reported a standoff between the police and the shooters. There wasn’t one. Harris and Klebold fired a few shots out the window but by then they’d lost all interest in killing. They were trying to be killed. Suicide by cop. The cops were unable to oblige, so Eric and Dylan went to the library and took their own lives about 45 minutes into the attack. Three hours later police finally stormed the school and found their bodies.
During that 3-hour delay, at least one teacher bled to death, raising the toll to 13. Until I read Cullen’s book I’d had no idea how badly authorities on the scene screwed things up, or the lengths they had gone to in order to cover their own asses. Eric Harris had been exhibiting homicidal tendencies for years – he even had a blog cataloging his hatred and the people he wanted to kill – but these small town cops apparently had better things to do than to investigate hate rants and death threats brought to them by another student at Columbine. Columbine could have been prevented. Columbine should have been prevented.
But the most surprising things I learned weren’t about Colorado law enforcement; they were about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold themselves. The media had reported they were outcasts, that they’d been bullied to the breaking point, that they were Goth, maybe gay, that they were part of a gang called the Trench Coat Mafia. Reporters said that Eric and Dylan had been targeting jocks and minorities, that they were carefully selecting who would live and who would die. None of this was true.
Most importantly, aside from having a few things in common, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were nothing alike. After the Columbine shooting, everyone was asking one question: Why? Dave Cullen answers that question in his book, which is based on ten years of research, including “hundreds of interviews, examination of more than 25,000 pages of police evidence, [and] countless hours of video- and audiotape.” Both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left behind their own answers to that question in separate journals and a collaborative video known as “The Basement Tapes.”
Each shooter had his own reason. I can’t say in a few hundred words what Dave Cullen says in 400 pages, but here’s the bottom line and one of the most riveting revelations in this book – Eric Harris wanted to kill; Dylan Klebold wanted to die.
Reading COLUMBINE is like putting together a colossal psychological puzzle. For crime writers it’s an invaluable tool for creating deeply troubled characters and overcoming the challenges of crafting a believable criminal relationship. Eric Harris was a homicidal psychopath and an alpha dog. Dylan Klebold was a suicidal loner suffering terrible depression. Together, they became mass murderers.
One other horrifying aspect you’ll learn by reading COLUMBINE is that what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold actually planned for April 20, 1999 never took place. Things went terribly wrong for them when bombs they’d planted didn’t go off and as a result, most of the students escaped. What you’ll realize as you read this book is that as awful as the Columbine tragedy was, it could have been a whole hell of a lot worse.
If you enjoy reading true crime, COLUMBINE is as important a book as Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. The fact that it was published 10 years after the tragedy occurred is actually its main selling point. After a decade of incredible research and expert analysis, Dave Cullen gets it right when so many – for so long – had it dead wrong.