- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COLUMBINE

By Dave Cullen

Twelve, $26.99, 432 pages

Dave Cullen’s new book about the worst school shooting in American history, simply titled “Columbine,” is a staggering work of journalism. In the course of debunking the myths that persist about the shooting, Mr. Cullen uncovers what really happened on that tragic Tuesday in April and offers a largely unseen glimpse into the minds of the killers.

That glimpse is a terrifying one, a look into pure psychopathy that cannot fully be understood without first realizing just how much we continue to underestimate the scope of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s aims on April 20, 1999.

Mr. Cullen writes that this wasn’t a school shooting, at least in the sense that we traditionally understand that term. Harris and Klebold weren’t picked on, misunderstood youths who wanted to get revenge on the bullies who tormented them, as they were portrayed in initial reports. There were no targets. Or rather, there were no specific targets: Harris and Klebold wanted everyone to suffer.

Harris, the charismatic leader of their murderous dyad, envisioned a death toll in the hundreds, one that would eclipse the Oklahoma City bombing and forever place the pair in the pages of history books. This wasn’t idle self-aggrandizement, either. They had a plan to get the job done.

As Mr. Cullen explains, most people still think of Columbine as a school shooting though it was more along the lines of a full-on terrorist attack. This is because the heart of Harris and Klebold’s plan failed: None of the massive bombs that Harris constructed and placed in the school’s cafeteria and parking lot detonated. As a result, our perception of both their actions and their psyches was forever altered.

After combing through the wealth of material Harris and Klebold left behind - school assignments, personal journals and video diaries - and conducting interviews with Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI profiler who worked on the case, Mr. Cullen gives the reader a look at the horror of it all:

“Dr. Fuselier had the advantage of reading Eric’s journal from start to finish. Without the holes, the thrust was obvious: humans meant nothing; Eric was superior and determined to prove it. Watching us suffer would be enjoyable. Every week he devised colorful new scenarios: crashing planes into buildings, igniting blocks of skyscrapers, ejecting people into outer space. But the objective never wavered: kill as many as possible, as dramatically as imaginable.

“In a perfect world, Eric would extinguish the species. Eric was a practical kid, though. The planet was beyond him; even a block of Denver high-rises was out of reach. But he could pull off a high school.”

Though a greater understanding of the perpetrators and their mind-set probably is the most important contribution of “Columbine,” there’s a wealth of information to absorb. Mr. Cullen gives readers a window into the lives of the victims before and after the attack and how the community has responded in its wake. He also deconstructs a number of the lingering myths that have hovered around the shootings for the past decade.

One of the more interesting facets of “Columbine” is Mr. Cullen’s re-creation of the confusion surrounding the attacks as they were unfolding. Live coverage beamed from the high school around the world, thanks to CNN’s pickup of the feed from the local network affiliates. Though the attack itself lasted a matter of minutes, the drama continued for hours. Police procedure handcuffed the SWAT teams’ ability to storm the building and extended the ordeal, while the television coverage did much to shape not just the public’s perception of the attacks but that of the victims as well: Students holed up in classrooms watched the attack progress with the rest of us, some taking to their cell phones to comment on what was happening while they experienced it.

It was in these initial minutes and hours when the myths were established: that the shooters were members of the “Trench Coat Mafia”; that they were part of the Goth subculture; that they targeted athletes in revenge for being picked on and because they hated God. Though both local and national print publications would do work to help dispute some of these ideas, the vast majority of Americans continue to base their perception of the attack on those initial reports.

With “Columbine,” Mr. Cullen has put together a solidly written, eminently readable correction of the record. He has a newsman’s love of clear, plain writing but doesn’t shy from using more ornate language to craft an interesting narrative. Though occasionally a little repetitive - “Columbine” opens with a brief description of the weekend leading up to the attack and the attack itself, then doubles back to provide more context in chapters that alternate between the perspective of the killers and the perspective of the investigators and victims of the attack - this exceptionally impressive book will be the last word on this horrific crime for some time to come.

Sonny Bunch is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.

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