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Book Review

'Columbine,' by Dave Cullen

April 05, 2009|David L. Ulin | Ulin is book editor of The Times.


Dave Cullen

Twelve: 420 pp., $26.99


Forget everything you thought you knew. The girl who professed her faith in God before being gunned down in the library. The Trenchcoat Mafia and the feud between the goths and jocks. The idea that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- the two Columbine High School seniors who, on April 20, 1999, killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher in what was, at the time, the worst school shooting in the history of the United States -- were disaffected, unpopular, motivated by resentment or revenge. Even the fact that the killings took place on Adolf Hitler's birthday was a coincidence: The boys had planned to do it a day earlier but hadn't been able to get the ammunition in time.

All of this, Dave Cullen notes in "Columbine," his comprehensive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, is the story we've been given, the mythic version, the one that (if anything can) aspires to make a kind of sense. It's a rendering in which the pieces fit together and the terror of the day is mitigated by small moments of redemption, whispers of epiphany and grace.

The problem, however, is that none of it happened -- or more accurately, none of it happened exactly like that. Instead, Cullen points out, the Columbine story was obscured from the outset: first, by the misperceptions of the witnesses, and then, almost immediately, by the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled nothing so much as an enormous game of telephone. "The Columbine situation played out slowly," Cullen writes, "with the cameras rolling. Or at least it appeared that way: the cameras offered the illusion we were witnessing the event. But the cameras arrived too late. . . . We saw fragments. What the cameras showed us was misleading. . . . The data was correct; the conclusions were wrong."

"Columbine" is an attempt to re-create, methodically, what happened, to re-sort the data and come to conclusions that are correct. It's a book that hits you like a crime scene photo, a reminder of what journalism at its best is all about. Cullen knows his material from the inside; he covered Columbine, for Salon and Slate primarily, "beginning around noon on the day of the attack." But if this gives him a certain purchase on the story, his perspective is what resonates.

Cullen's experience on the ground, after all, is a complicating factor. In "the great media blunders during the initial coverage of this story, where nearly everyone got the central factors wrong," he acknowledges in an "Author's Note on Sources," "I was among the guilty parties." To remedy that, he spent nine years reporting this book, interviewing hundreds of people, including many principals, poring over police reports and evidence, most chillingly the killers' diaries and a series of videos, nicknamed "The Basement Tapes" by investigators, that they left as a testament. "Hey, Mom," Klebold says in the final tape, shot the morning of the massacre. "I gotta go. It's about a half an hour till Judgment Day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate. Just know I'm going to a better place. I didn't like life too much, and I know I'll be happy wherever . . . I go. So I'm gone. Good-bye."

There's something freakishly glib about that statement, with its offhand apology, as if this were just a bit of misbehavior, and its sense of life as somehow inconsequential, to be shrugged off without regret. But it's also gut-wrenchingly sad, the last words of a lost boy, a 17-year-old with no real recognition of what it means. Here we have perhaps the most profound achievement of "Columbine," to evoke in us an unexpected empathy -- not for what the killers did but for who they were. Their lives, Cullen wants us to remember, are tragic also, and if we are ever to get at the heart of this story, we must make room for them in the calamity.

That's tricky ground for a writer to navigate, to ask, if not for understanding, for compassion for two boys regarded as monsters. But Cullen makes it work because he insists on framing the killers in human terms. Klebold, he tells us, was suicidal, depressed and easily influenced, a kid who did not fully believe until five days before the attack that he and Harris would go through with it. For him, Harris was the exact wrong person to have befriended: manipulative, cunning, superior, without conscience or remorse.

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