Why would anyone want to read a 400-page book on the Columbine High School massacre?
Several friends have asked me, “Why are you reading that?” and I don’t know. I cannot answer this question for myself, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this difficult subject. As for most, the events of April 20, 1999 are still vivid in my memory. I was student teaching then, and I came home after work to watch the newsreels. I was beginning a career in a place where something like that could happen. Over the years, I can’t say that I paid much attention to the facts and theories surrounding the tragedy beyond an article or two around the anniversary dates. After reading Columbine, I see how much I didn’t know about it, or, the facts that I did think I knew were wrong.
The journalist Dave Cullen sifts through 10 years of police records, evidence, testimonies, court cases, and interviews to offer readers a complete picture of what occurred on that Tuesday morning at 11:17 a.m. It was more terrifying than I originally thought.
This book alternates between chapters showing the planning of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before the massacre and chapters showing the effects after it. This provides a unique perspective and narrative flow of this story. The pages are filled with intimate portraits of the victims, teachers, and other members of the community. He spends more time on some over others—Dave Sanders (the teacher) and Patrick Ireland (the boy in the window, as he came to be known) get far more ink than others, and rightfully so. Both stories are powerful ones.
The supposed “martyrdom” of Cassie Bernall was the topic of this book that I heard about last year when it was first published. Cassie was the girl that some Christians made a posthumous superstar during a supposed exchange with Eric Harris. “Do you believe in God?” Eric asked. “Yes,” Cassie replied. “Why?” he said before shooting her. This resulted in a whirlwind of media proclaiming Cassie a martyr. The problem is, as Dave Cullen shows, is that it wasn’t her who said it. Rather, it was another girl under the table who was shot but lived.
As one would expect, most of the book is focused on Eric and Dylan. He includes a full picture of what occurs in the final year leading up to the day they dubbed Judgment Day or NBK (an allusion to Oliver Stone’s uber-violent Natural Born Killers). Leaving behind journals, other writings, and videos help others see their twisted minds as they seek god-like power to wipe out mankind. We read about the real plan intended for April 20, one that would have resulted in far more deaths than 13. This was supposed to be a school bombing, not just a school shooting.
I remember in the days following April 20, many were defending violent video games and movies as they were targeted as the cause. This book does something similar. I know that the “cause” of the attacks is that Eric was psychopathic. The other elements must have fueled that need for violence. They both had a love for the violent video game “Doom,” and Eric wrote that he wishes that he could be in a real-world Doom game. They loved violent movies. They wrote violent stories. Eric listened to music with violent lyrics. Again, I know that the cause is a suffering mind, but you are a fool if you ignore the influence of these other factors.
Much in the book is about reactions to the parents of Eric and Dylan. They are not to blame, as it was Eric and Dylan who did the murders. I agree wholeheartedly. However, I find it troubling that the boys had a small arsenal of guns, ammunition, and bombs in the basement of their house and no one knew.
This book was a depressing read, knowing that there are boys like this in the world today, perhaps even in my school. Following the life of Eric and Dylan with the dramatic irony of how it ends made this a heavy and difficult story to read. It’s the story of unimaginable violence, but it’s also the story of healing. I’m not sure why I chose to read this, but I’m glad I did. I’d recommend this book to you, but I’m not sure why you should read it either.