Within hours of the massacre last week at Fort Hood, reporters were asking Dave Cullen if the rampage was “like Columbine.” Cullen cautions that we can’t know yet—that we must wait for the facts. “If we guess now, the myths will be with us forever.”
Cullen knows how hard myths die. He was a reporter at Columbine on April 20, 1999, and has worked on the story ever since. He has seen the stubborn persistence of early, inaccurate beliefs: the crime was variously blamed on some combination of Marilyn Manson, a “Trench Coat Mafia,” Satanism, and bullying in those first chaotic days. Ten years later, Cullen puts the myths to rest in a masterwork of reporting that finds the ideal balance between sensitivity and service to the truth.
Columbine sets out to answer the question of questions: why? Should we be surprised to learn that there are at least two whys? Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were both seriously messed up, but in very different ways. Drawing on interviews and reams of documents, including journals by the killers that were made public in 2006, Cullen details their final year, during which they planned the attack and engaged in troubling behavior that was not exactly unknown to authorities.
The narrative shifts back and forth in time from the murder plot to the personal stories of the victims—those who survived and those who died—to the community’s response to the tragedy. There are accounts of heroism that I hadn’t known about: two Eagle Scouts who tried to save a beloved teacher who was bleeding to death… a Lutheran minister who held a secret funeral for Dylan Klebold and expressed sympathy for his parents, acts of compassion that cost him his job.
Of all the books that I have read in 2009, Columbine is the one that stays with me. It tells a dark and disturbing story, difficult to read but important to know. Mostly, it makes me grateful for reporters like Dave Cullen who work to bring the truth to light, no matter how unwelcome it might be.
Check the WRL catalog for Columbine