Columbine by Dave Cullen; Finding the Truth in the Midst of Violence

Make no mistake, planet earth has always been a rough place to live. With no lag time in our receiving bad news, however, the roughness seems particularly acute.

We watch bleeding, terrified people flee from their smoldering homes, theaters, or campuses. We get the newly released, formerly repressed footage of police shooting unarmed teenagers uncut and unsolicited. We get inundated by the latest horrifying thing a politician said repeatedly until we wonder…what is the real news that this noise is keeping me from noticing?

In 1999, most of us could only access a mainstream narrative, which did not have many more scruples than Gawker.

It was in that limited world that my sweet 6th grade band teacher quieted our rowdy class to explain that two boys in Colorado had taken guns to their high school, killing thirteen of their classmates.

The story woven from there shaped how we proceeded in middle and high school, especially how we treated the outcasts and the bullied…like they could snap at any moment. Any retaliation or act of self-protection provoked fear and rumors. Weirdos couldn’t stand up for themselves without fear of even harsher punishments. Some got submissive. Some got kicked out. Some got probation or worse.

And I challenge you to find a high schooler who hasn’t sat through a lockdown or experienced threat of a shooting attack or bomb threat.

Before many of us became nearly numb to mass shootings, this one event shaped the narrative. And every act of terror or mass shooting that followed is compared to this.

THE BOOK: Columbine by David Cullen (2009)

columbine by dave cullen
The absurdly sensationalist blurb on the front is not representative of the rest of the book.

Journalist Dave Cullen was a resident of Jefferson County (aka Jeffco) on April 20, 1999. He was one of the first reporters on the scene when word broke that a massacre was happening at Columbine High. His book, researched over ten years, was something of penance for his being complicit in creating harmful myths.

“To avoid injecting myself into the story, I generally refer to the press in the third person. But in the great media blunders during the initial coverage of this story, where nearly everyone got the central factors wrong, I was among the guilty parties. I hope this book contributes to setting the story straight.” — Cullen

Cullen debunks a number of these myths in his book. I’ll present two below.

Myth: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullied goth kids who targeted jocks during their rampage.

As terrified students poured from the school, passing through the frozen police perimeter, members of the media intercepted them, putting microphones — and words — into their mouths. Were the shooters bullied? Yeah I heard something like that. Were they members of this “trenchcoat mafia” we keep hearing about? Yeah, I think so. They were wearing dusters after all.

There was a “trenchcoat mafia” at Columbine high school, but Dylan and Eric were not members (though they were casual friends with a few of the guys in that social circle). They weren’t goths. They both had jobs at a pizza place where Eric was promoted to management, as well as a number of friends. They went to school events and actually liked sports. Until a few months before the massacre, they got decent grades. Dylan went to prom, with a date, the Saturday before the attack. Girls loved Eric, and even on the morning of the massacre, a car full of girls had driven by him on the street, honking and waving.

As far as targeting goes, Eric Harris never intended to just be a school shooter. A number of ineffectual bombs were found inside the school and inside the boys’ cars. Eric and Dylan’s journals later demonstrated that the plan was to kill as many people as possible. Eric Harris wanted to top Timothy McVeigh, and the boys’ chose April 20th (it was first April 19th) partially as an anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Cullen quotes one of my old UCSB Professors and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmeyer, by calling the intent of Columbine “performance violence.”

“Terrorists design events ‘to be spectacular in their viciousness and awesome in their destructive power. Such instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.'” — Cullen, quoting Juergensmeyer

The big bombs didn’t go off. The smaller bombs only worked to add to the oppressive noise inside the school. In spite of 13 deaths, things didn’t go Eric’s way in the end. He isn’t remembered as a terrorist. He’s remembered as a school shooter.

Cold comfort.

Myth: The girl who said “yes.”

There was a girl in the library, shot by Dylan Klebold, who said “yes” when he asked her if she believed in God. It was not, as most people thought for years, a girl named Cassie Bernall. Unfortunately, Cassie never had a chance to speak that day before Eric Harris killed her.

Craig, another boy who had been in the library had mistakenly told authorities that Cassie was the one who bravely confessed her faith before being shot to death. It was a story he, a Christian, took as a silver lining to the worst day of his life.

When detectives brought Craig back to the library to try to determine what had actually happened, he pointed to the opposite side of the library to where Cassie had been hiding. Valeen Schnurr had been the one who told Dylan that she believed in God, after he had already shot her once. Less intent on murder than suicide, Dylan lost interest in Val and walked away without attempting another shot. Val survived the attack.

The national media’s attention had largely drifted away from Columbine before investigators confirmed Val’s story. Val and her parents didn’t want to hurt the Bernalls, who clung to the story of their daughter’s martyrdom as a way to pull through the trauma and loss.

The story helped the Bernalls, as well as Christians around the country, deal with the tragedy. The story ultimately hurt the actual girl who said “yes.” When Val would try to talk about what had happened at her own church, she was received coldly, and questioned repeatedly. People viewed her as a copycat, and it only got worse when She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall came out as a book.

“Whether they meant it or not, by printing that book, they called me a liar. And that’s humiliating…Surprisingly, it took longer to forgive them than Eric and Dylan.” — Val Schnurr

After reading about this confusion, I checked out the Amazon page for She Said Yes, and it’s full of 1 and 2 star reviews by some very angry readers (who I assume cavalierly took to the Internet after reading Cullen’s book). I strongly disagree with that tactic. Val has forgiven Misty and Brad, and in the end, these parents lost their devout daughter who may very well have stood up for what she believed in if she hadn’t been blown away first.

My takeaway is that this high-profile mess-up was a case of greed run amok on the part of Pocket Books Publishing. The publishers didn’t want to wait until the misunderstanding had been completely worked out, nor did they alter the title or other defining elements to reflect the truth. It’s an important thing to remember that even if something seems like a “white lie,” there can still be harmful repercussions.

So what?

Seventeen years later, the Columbine attack can seem like small potatoes compared to Virginia Tech, San Bernadino, Sandyhook, and others. While “performance violence” is easily applied to the behavior of Isis and Al Qaeda, attention-seekers everywhere, including here in the US, now see mass murder as a very viable option. Mass murder is occurring from one end of the country to another, and we need carefully researched facts if we’re going to reduce occurrences.

The blame game that followed Columbine spun out of control far before the facts were analyzed. It’s not just about how easy it was for Eric to get a gun, though all he had to do was ask his older friend to get them for him at a gun show…no ID necessary. It’s not just about police negligence, though Jeffco covered up of the fact that there was an unsigned affidavit to search the Harris’ house months before the massacre. It wasn’t just glorifying violence in the media, in spite of the rampant inspiration and comparisons the killers drew from pop culture. It wasn’t just Dylan’s depression, though his misery barely registered with the adults in his life before he made an extremely harmful decision. It wasn’t just Eric’s psychopathy or God complex, though I happen to think that was the most powerful factor of all.

Ultimately Dylan and Eric are to blame for what happened at Columbine, but nothing in our atmosphere happens in a vacuum.

Debunking rumors and thinking in a nuanced manner is difficult and takes more time than most people are willing to spend. Detaching from a popular narrative you’ve believed for years is even more difficult. And the Columbine massacre, like all these other acts of mass murder happening under our noses day after day, wasn’t a result of any single elements listed above. It was a toxic cocktail of all of them.

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