20 April 2009

Dave Cullen - Columbine

For those who are not aware, today is—besides International Weed Smoking Day and Hitler's Birthday—the 10th anniversary of the "incident" at Columbine High School. It's an odd trifecta of coinciding anniversaries and, added to the gloomy weather here, unhelpful in distilling any sort of positive vibes from the day. This particular Columbine anniversary also means that it's been ten years since I graduated high school, as I was also a senior when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attempted to "out-mayhem" Tim McVeigh's demolition of Oklahoma City's Murrah Federal Building.

What? Did you just ask me to define "out-mayhem"? Why didn't I just call it a "school shooting" like so many people have done for the past ten years? Well, I'll leave the nuts and bolts of this to journalist Dave Cullen, whose new, exhaustively researched book, Columbine explains nearly everything you could possibly want to know about this seminal closing event of 20th century America. I say "nearly everything" because there are some things nobody will ever know about this, but Mr. Cullen seems to know all the rest.

Having come of age during a period of media-induced fear and hype over school shootings I'm sure I'm not alone in being a bit morbidly fascinated with them. Combine that with my sociology background and picking up this book was a no-brainer. I had done some minor researching into Columbine a year or so ago and it was Cullen's original stories for Slate that initially caught my attention (though I didn't make the connection when I first picked up the book) and had me thinking differently about the whole ordeal. Columbine wasn't a school shooting perpetrated by some disaffected loners; this was a botched massacre whose plan was hatched by one popular, intelligent—though psychopathic—kid with an intense hatred of mankind and his suicidally unstable friend.

The evidence for this is now overwhelming, but it wasn't easy unearthing it. Though Cullen was there from the beginning, he outlines how the county sheriff mangled the investigation and did a similarly poor job trying to cover up that fact. Many myths
surrounding the shootings that are still taken as gospel are exposed to extreme scrutiny and none of them survive. The mass media—a few local papers excepted—did an incredibly poor job of separating facts from a good storyline and it was those early mistakes faulty judgment that spiraled chaotically into the school shooting narrative familiar today.

Cullen's book is valuable not only as a history of the actual event and a record of all the threads that became knotted this day ten years ago, but also as social reading of mass media and information dissemination. The narrative took on a life of its own that defied clearly contrary evidence and fed back into the ongoing tale of sterile, fearful suburbia. Utilizing the personal effects of the two killers, Cullen revealed the true nature of Eric and Dylan, the psychopath and the seeker who practically dared the folks around them to discover their heinous plot. The two who, because of the faulty profiling of the "school-shooter type", were able to plan their attack because, frankly, most people never suspected them as the loners ready to snap (one mother, whose warnings were ignored, excepted).

Columbine is one of the best non-fiction works I've read in a while and there's little doubt that Cullen poured all his energy into making it a work of art. His portraits of all the involved parties, from the parents to administrators to teachers to fellow students to law enforcement, are sympathetic and caustic in all the right proportion. And while there are clearly parties that are more at fault than others, Cullen never sinks to any immature blame games. The descriptions of psychopathy are engrossingly chilling and the pain of all the affected families and individuals bites the reader no matter how much you try and disengage. A commendable achievement in journalism and a noteworthy work of social history.


Bibliophile said...

my day was sullied by bronchitis, the rain, and forgotten keys.

Liam said...

This is the designer's blog where he shows the various incarnations of the jacket before it made it to press: