See that tattered, well-worn copy? I'm not the reason it got that way. I borrowed Dave Cullen's Columbine from a co-worker, who has been hanging on to it for a few years now. This book is required reading for a class on TV and Social Justice at Gonzaga University. Once you read it, you'll believe every journalist should read it. And, the rest of us, too
Unlike many of the journalists now required to read this book in high school and college classes, I am old enough to remember the events of Columbine quite vividly. I was a junior in college. I had come home from class and switched on the TV and saw high school kids, running from their school with their hands on top of their heads. I watched families, reuniting in anguish. I watched a young man dangling from a classroom window before dropping to scrambling rescuers below. It was not the first school shooting in America, not by a long shot; but, it was the first shooting that unfolded on live television. At that point, it was the most deadly, too.
Dave Cullen is a journalist and was among the first to arrive at the school that day. He's the first to admit that most journalists that day got it wrong. This book is an attempt to correct those wrongs, to rewrite the story of what really happened that day and who those teenage gunmen really were. In some ways, it's an indictment of the media for jumping to conclusions and sticking to pre-determined narratives. It's an indictment, too, of a sheriff who clung so desperately to those same narratives that he failed to provide truthful information that could have corrected that misinformation.
I've known for years that the myths many of us believed about Columbine were not true. I know them, I realize now, because of this book. Without dogged journalists like Cullen, the world would not know that these weren't gay goth loners, looking to exact revenge over the jocks and popular kids that bullied them. What you learn from reading Columbine - and, what Cullen learned from the killers' own writing and videos - was that the intent that April day was to kill everyone. They set up bombs because they wanted mass casualties. They didn't seek out individuals to strike down.
So, why did people so readily believe that? First, because of the information broadcast on TV in the chaotic hours after. One kid tells one reporter what they believe happen, the reporters repeat the information back to the next witness and that misinformation becomes the narrative. Then, journalists went seeking out the facts that supported what they already believed. But, I don't blame the journalists entirely - and, not just because I am one. In those chaotic times, reporters rely on the official information. After Columbine, the sheriff kept spouting the same incorrect information, even though his deputies and investigators knew it was wrong. Yes, it's incumbent on reporters to follow the facts But, it's tough to do that when the person in charge of the investigation is either giving wrong information or sealing reports altogether.
So much of this book chases down the question we all want to know: why? Cullen's exhaustive examination of the Columbine shooters concludes that Eric Harris is a classic psychopath, intent on destroying everything and incapable of sympathy. His conclusion is also that Dylan Klebold was a depressed, suicidal kid, more intent on his own death than the deaths of others. This ins't conjecture; he comes to this conclusion based on the detailed explanations each teen left behind.
I read this book now - and, look at this tragedy - as a mom. I wonder, how in the world could their parents miss this? How could they miss the stockpiling of weapons, the pipe bombs hidden in closets, the complete homicidal and suicidal behavior and nature of their own kids? I wonder how they could miss it, but I place no blame on them. Through the accounts here, you see them as involved, attentive parents from intact families. If anything, their sin was giving their sons a little freedom.
What's striking is how normal both of their lives seemed. They went to high school football games, played fantasy baseball, chased girls. Dylan went to prom three days before the attack. They apologized to their moms on camera. The normalcy of what happened before makes the horror of the act that much more terrifying.
There's so much to unpack about this, especially now that we know so much about what really happened. I won't give you the blow-by-blow, but tell you that it's hard to read. Not to say it's not well-written; it's extremely well done. Cullen sets up two timelines, one after the shooting and one before. The two storylines are on a collision course with each other. He walks Harris and Klebold all the way up through the final moments and, because you as the reader knows what's coming, your heart clenches just thinking about that final day. The shooters knew they would die - they wanted police to kill them. But, 13 people had no idea their lives would end that Tuesday morning. Thousands more had no idea they would never be the same.
Nine days after the shootings at Columbine, the next big tragedy occurred. The world moved on. The myths and misinformation, cemented. The press left town and nobody came back to correct the record. It's a damn shame, too. Because what you learn from reading this book is that, while there is no typical school shooting, there are lessons to be learned from each one. If only the sheriff's office would have been more vigorous investigating complaints about Harris and Klebold in the year before the attack. If only their parents would have found and read their journals. If only first responders would have rushed into the school instead of working so hard to solidify the perimeter.
Now, the best service that can be done for the victims is to read their stories. Celebrate those who survived. Make good on that promise we make to ourselves that this won't happen in our communities. And, teach the lessons of what went wrong here.
That's what I'll try to do. If all goes according to plan, I'll be teaching that TV and Social Justice class at Gonzaga next year. I'll teach this book and hopefully inspire future journalists to question more. To dig deep. To follow the facts instead of their hunches. And, to approach tragedy first as human beings, then as reporters.
I'll teach it as a parent, too, who will remember tearing up at the words on page 273. When the students finally returned to Columbine for the first time after the shooting, 500 parents formed a human shield near the front doors to support their kids and keep the media from being able to focus on their faces. They cheered as every student arrived.
We send our kids to school, expecting they'll be safe. Columbine showed us we have no right to expect that at all.
Note: since Tweeting about this book, the author reached out and told me of other resources available on his website. It includes a teaching guide, mental health information and other resources. You can check it out here.