Saturday, January 09, 2010

Last night I finished reading Columbine, Dave Cullen's comprehensive account of the Columbine massacre. It's kind of hard for me to admit to buying this book. Even at the checkout at Barnes and Noble I wondered if the clerk thought I was some sick monster for wanting to read so much about this horrific event.

It's really not that I'm fascinated with the crime and wanted to take in all the gruesome details, I just wanted to finally know the truth of what happened after all these years. I was a junior in high school when the massacre happened in 1999, and I remember how much it shook me up. I was only a year younger than the attackers, and from what I read about Columbine High School, it seemed the school was scarily similar to the high school I went to. I always felt the truth was not all there in the news reports about the attack. Mostly I thought the "why" of the attack was always absent, which is what I really wanted to know. From the news media I came away with the idea that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were motivated to kill by bullying, Nazism, and violent video games. But, as I suspected, the media were off the mark, according to Cullen. It wasn't the violent video games, more like one psychopathic kid enlists a suicidal depressed kid to help carry out a sadistic plot. Not so much a product of the high school environment in the late 20th century but the kind of anomalous evil occurrence that has happened since the beginning of human existence.

My other interest in the book was to find out how the media got it so wrong. It's so disturbing to me how easily one story gets put out and never gets corrected and people just accept it as the truth (i.e. the Cassie Bernall story). It goes to show that sometimes you do need a book to tell a story of this magnitude, not CNN headline news or a 20-inch newspaper story. Cullen provides some insight into how the media perpetuated the myths surrounding Columbine. He writes about the feedback loop that all the live TV coverage created, with some students' "eyewitness" reports being influenced almost immediately by the TV coverage. He also discusses how the sheriff's department investigating the Columbine massacre took an entire year to release official reports about the attack, leaving plenty of time for misinformation to spread.

The book is a lot of tragedy to stomach, which is why it took me about six months to finish. I would read a few chapters then put it away for weeks. I suppose a book like this isn't meant to be a quick and easy read. Overall, Cullen does a good job of balancing narrative and exposition in the book's organization. He focuses on the victims and their struggles as much as the killers, which I think is the right approach. At some points I wished the book had more of the artistry of a novel, rather than the sort of "Reader's Digest" quality the storytelling has to it. On the other hand, I appreciated that Cullen wasn't unnecessarily gruesome and didn't glorify the attackers in any way in his account of the events.

I really respect an author like Dave Cullen who goes after the truth and takes the time to get the facts right and set the record straight. The book is groundbreaking simply for how well it does that after all these years of myths and misinformation.

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