Author: Dave Cullen
First Published: April 2009
In a nutshell
On April 20, 1999, two boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma City-style, and to leave 'a lasting impression on the world.' Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence--irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting 'another Columbine.'
This book is the story of Columbine - the story that none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to the prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.
Rebecca wondered how I could read Columbine so soon after April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers. I didn't think I could do it either. But something in me wanted to understand why both incidents happened. How can someone walk into one's own school and kill students and teachers? Fellow students you might have played with or talked to. How can someone have so much anger in them? (Of course, terrorism is no longer limited to the school playgrounds now. But that's a discussion for another day.)
I still remember sitting in front of the TV on the morning of April 21st, 1999, as I did every morning before leaving for school. I was 15 and had just started my 10th grade in a school in Dubai. Columbine was on every news channel that day. It was scary. A crime, the kind of which I had not heard of. It made me realize that even schools weren't safe. I had not given it a thought before, but the news of that day acutely sharpened my antennae.
Columbine by Dave Cullen, was a remarkably informative book. I thought I knew enough about what happened that day and during the following weeks and months. I couldn't have been more wrong. As I was reading, I took two pages worth of notes. Half of them were indignant outbursts at some decisions taken. Michelle's review first introduced me to the fact that the Columbine tragedy was not a shooting but a failed bombing. Thirteen lives were lost that day. Eric and Dylan expected to take 2000 lives with them.
Dave Cullen gives an excellent insight into the minds of the killers, from almost two years prior to the "Judgment day". Eric Harris is revealed to be a classic textbook psychopath. His diligent methodical approach to anything astounded me. If he weren't a murderer, I would have been impressed with him. He was successful in fooling everyone - his parents, teachers, Diversion officers, friends, police officers. Apparently, there had been plenty of complaints previously registered against the two, that were not taken too seriously. The boys were making bombs, and quite a few people knew that.
For investigators, the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed.
Dylan Klebold, on the other hand, was depressed and suicidal. For two years, he pined for love obsessively. Murder was far from his mind. Columbine skillfully charts out Dylan's path from suicidal thoughts to homicidal. Dylan's family never saw it coming. He was his dad's "best friend", though I admit I couldn't see how his condition could not have been obvious. He was severely depressed with no motivation in life at all. I guess, no one expects their placid-appearing children to tote guns and kill others.
Eric's obsession with destroying the human race horrified me. He dreamed to stun the world. He wanted to be known as the perpetrator of the worst crime. By choosing Columbine High School, and planting plenty of bombs at strategic locations, he expected to reach his exorbitant target count.
Eric Harris was intelligent. I hate to say that, because I despised his character. But when you see the number of people he duped and got to make them believe exactly what he wanted them to, it was not hard for me to see his mental prowess.
Most terrorists target symbols of the system they abhor - generally, iconic government buildings. Eric followed the same logic. He understood that the cornerstone of his plan was the explosives. When all his bombs fizzled, everything about his attack was misread. He didn't just fail to top Timothy McVeigh's record - he wasn't even recognized for trying. He was never categorized with his peer group. We lumped him in with the pathetic loners who shot people.
Columbine also captures the community's response well. The parents' wait for their children teared me up. Especially those parents whose children would never come back. It exposed the various cover-ups that followed the tragedy. As with all tragedies, there were quite a few dirty name-calling and scapegoating that happened after this one too. I wish I could say that we as a community and as a government have learned a lot from this tragedy.
Overall, I strongly recommend this book. This book puts to rest most of the myths surrounding this tragedy, and believe me, there are too many. I wanted a look into the heads of Eric and Dylan. One a psychopath (which is apparently a trait that comes with birth) and the other a suicidally depressed kid (a curable and treatable condition). That doesn't excuse them, but they gave plenty of hints that no one paid attention to. The clues were everywhere, and some of them made me aghast, wondering why no one paid heed.