Columbine – Dave Cullen (2009)

This was an accidentally timely choice of book title to read as I had ordered it through ILL, and it arrived the day before the Aurora and Wisconsin shootings the other week. After having immersed myself in this investigative journalistic work, I hope that the Aurora authorities and Wisconsin authorities handle their mass shooting incidents more successfully than they did at Columbine.

So much tragedy, so much heart break, so many mistakes (and I must say lies) from different groups and people.

Cullen is a well respected journalist having written for NYT, WaPo, The Times (UK) and other huge print outlets so he knows of what he writes and he has the credibility and experience to do a good job. Additionally, he has covered the Columbine incident from the very day that it happened so is well regarded and is considered to be one of the leading experts on school shootings. (Shame that there has be an expert in that subject, but I suppose that is life.)

The two high school shooters (whose names I won’t say as I don’t want to promote them in any way) left so many red flags as to their plans that in looking back, it looks negligent that so few picked up on them. From what I can tell from reading this, it seems that the two boys were involved in the juvenile justice system for the year or two before, but there was no communication (or little) between the different agencies so no one had the whole picture. The end conclusion of Cullen’s work is that the school shooting in Columbine was preventable which seems to be heart-rending and frustrating.

But again, hindsight can be perfect vision and so it seems like it was a “perfect storm” of egotism and poor investigative work that hampered the handling of this. Cullen seems to be a neutral party (in that he is media and is not paid by any governmental agency) and so I can only assume that what he has written is fair and balanced. And if it is, then the Sheriff’s department of Jefferson County (and its leadership) should be groveling in shame at how they (mis-)handled all the reports. According to Cullen, there were years of cover-up and lying from the department to prevent affected families and media from knowing all the facts, and the department certainly doesn’t look good throughout this book.

Thirteen people (both students and faculty) were killed and numerous others were wounded both physically and mentally. In the wake of such an incident, the media (nationwide – not one outlet more than another generally) created myths and legends about the shooting, and this book is Cullen’s effort to try and correct those myths that have been repeated so often that they seem to be true.

This is a tough book to read. There were times that I was reading (and Cullen was describing the blow-by-blow shooting) that I had to put the book down and take a breather. Although Cullen is arriving at this via investigative journalism, there is a narrative angle when he imagines what the killers were saying and doing at the time of the shooting. Yes, Cullen had access to the journals, diaries, websites and reports related to all this, but still, I think there is a leap to go from what they say to reporting that “this was how they felt and what they said” when (a) he wasn’t there and (b) no one can refute him whether they survived the shooting or not as trauma affects memory so badly.

So – keeping this in mind, most of the book is a look at how the two boys behaved in their childhood and how they planned for this shooting. (Cullen argues that it was originally intended to be a bombing more than a shooting, but the bombs were miscalculated and did not explode as planned. If they had, there would have been hundreds more victims.) There is a well researched ongoing discussion about psychopaths and whether the two shooters fit that diagnosis. There is discussion about the role of religion in how the actual community reacted to this event, and there is a focus on the role of the school system and its administrators.

However, again, it’s all hindsight and hard to prove definitively. This is not a criticism of Cullen in any way. It’s just a reminder that the book presents the info as set in stone and absolute when in fact, it’s only conjecture. However, who is to say that what he says is not true? Not I, and if I were Cullen, I expect I would have drawn the exact same conclusions with the information that he had. The exact truth is unknown and always will be, but I do think that Cullen has done a good job here. He has written a gripping book without resorting to extremism on either end of the spectrum. He has an opinion, obviously, but it’s supported and explained from his investigation. It’s something that we will never know what exactly happened and why.

Despite this limitation, the work that went into this book was extensive. Cullen must have combed through thousands of pages of paperwork and talked hours in one-on-one interviews with victims and other affected people. One point that was made crystal clear was that it’s quite amazing how much power an agency (such as the Sheriff’s department) can hold in terms of what information they release and what they don’t. Yes, there is the Open Records Act, but there are exceptions to this, and the Sheriff’s department took full advantage of that, covering up some of their own people’s mistakes in the process. It would have looked less bad if they had actually admitted their errors. As it was, they end up looking up foolish and incompetent. The Sheriff at the time has now retired and so there are different personnel there now, which is good. The guy who was there before, if the facts are true, seems to be a complete and utter ass.

A very interesting book (especially when linked with the recent Aurora shooting news and the Wisconsin shooting news) which questions a lot of assumptions that are made about the characteristics of a school shooter. These guys did not match a “profile” of any kind. They didn’t “snap” because they were bullied. They didn’t try and get revenge on the athletes. They were two pretty ordinary boys, one a narcissistic leader/psychopath, and the other a guy who really wanted to be like him. I don’t think their parents were to blame (and in fact, I feel for them in many ways as I feel for the families of the victims.) As mentioned, there were several red flags in their behavioral choices, but are they only obvious because we have the whole picture now?

A provocative book about a provocative subject, and one that is sure to cause discussion regardless of where you stand on the political (or religious) spectrum.

Fascinating mull by Cullen on-line at The Daily Beast (07/20/2012) about recent research on how a mass shooter may think…

And a NYT story on the Aurora shooting (again from Cullen).

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3 thoughts on “Columbine – Dave Cullen (2009)

  1. You might also be interested also in looking at any books to do with Leopold and Loeb, the two youths who murdered a young boy back in the 1930s and whose defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, argued that determinism underlay the crime. Seems to fit into the discussion too?

  2. In light of the Aurora killing I wonder if this book becomes all the more pertinent. I have not heard of this book but I am extremely interested in his conclusions and I’ll be picking this title up very soon.

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