When I first read the reviews of Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book, Columbine, I was impressed, but something held me back from picking up a copy. Do I really want to read an account of the Columbine massacre? I mean, I already know how it turns out. And do I want to read something that depressing? But a friend, a voracious reader whose opinion I trust, stopped me at the gym recently and said You have to read this book. I went to The Regulator the next day and bought a copy, then devoured it within the next two days.
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Columbine is In Cold Blood for today’s generation. An extraordinary work of investigation (Cullen spent ten years doing research and interviews), Cullen gives us a fascinating account of the infamous school shootings, as well as an incisive portrayal of the two teen killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; their parents; the victims and their parents; school officials; the local police force; some FBI figures involved in the case; and the town of Littleton, Colorado. Cullen shows us a very human side to these two boys who were depicted as monsters; the agony of their parents, who were unfairly blamed; the despair of the victims’ families; and the plight of those who were critically injured during the shooting, all of whom followed their own paths of healing.
Everything you thought you knew about Columbine will be turned upside down. It’s shocking, not to mention discouraging, how the media distorted the story. Reporters were on the scene within mere hours of the shooting, and there were almost 2,000 students for them to interview. The media quickly painted a portrait of two bullied outcasts, part of the Trenchcoat Mafia, who were influenced by goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and violent video games and who were exacting revenge on the jocks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Klebold and Harris weren’t outcasts, they weren’t being bullied, and, in fact, they weren’t targeting specific individuals–their plan was to blow up the entire school. It was also shocking to discover that the local police force bungled things in a serious way. To cite one example, some time before the shootings, a police officer wrote an extensive report on Eric Harris and recommended his house be searched; nothing ever came of it. Had the search warrant been followed through, they would have found a huge cache of weapons. The same day the shootings happened, the police covered up this report; the truth wouldn’t come out until years later. It was also surprising to learn that the famous story about Cassie Bernall, one of the victims, was also untrue. (Supposedly one of the two killers, before shooting her, asked “Do you believe in God?” and Cassie replied “Yes.”) Even though the local churches knew this was a falsehood, they trumpeted her as a martyr to convert more followers–a marketing campaign that was very successful.
It’s amazing how Cullen manages to make the story so suspenseful, and how measured he is toward all of the people portrayed. Columbine ranks up there with Helter Skelter (about the infamous Charles Manson murders) as one of the best, and most chilling, true crime books. It should be essential reading for all Journalism, Psychology, and Criminal Justice students. The paperback edition, which I read, contains an Afterword with lots of fascinating new material, as well as discussion points.
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