Thursday, April 23, 2009

Columbine, 10 years on

Dave Cullen, a reporter at Salon.com, spent 10 years working on his newly-published account of the Columbine massacre. Difficult as the event was to comprehend at the time, his book raises troubling new questions. One has to do with the way the media depicted both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We were meant to believe they were troubled loners who one day just "snapped." Instead, they were both socially active, involved with a group of ten or fifteen friends. They weren't Goths, they weren't part of a "Trench Coat Gang," and they didn't just snap. They spent more than a year planning a major school massacre, including acquiring pipe bombs, a major gun arsenal, and building other incendiary devices. They had hoped to kill as many as 2000 people. On the day of the massacre--April 20, 1999, they installed a propane-fueled bomb in the school cafeteria and various pipe bombs. When none of their bombs detonated, they began shooting people, and then killed themselves.
Cullen's study of the boys' diaries, websites, and conversations with their friends leads him to believe they wanted to make a sort of horrific live action movie, something along the lines of Quentin Tarantino.
Harris came to the attention of local authorities about a year before the massacre. A parent, alarmed by his website, contacted the police. A search warrant for the Harris home was issued, but never executed. Why, we'll never know.
And the father of one of the two boys, I believe Klebold, actually found one of the pipe bombs some months ahead of the massacre. He apparently took no action.
I'm grateful I never had to deal with the issues the Klebold and Harris households did, and even more grateful I never suffered the kind of loss that the parents of the victims went through, but reading about the father's discovery of one of the weapons reminded me of a very unpleasant time in my own household.
Some thirty years ago, I discovered that one of my stepsons was growing dope in the attic, selling it in the neighborhood for pocket money that he used in turn to buy more significant drugs. We had a very hard time dealing with this. He was angry and he was very big and when I finally, after many months of living with the situation, confronted him, it was one of the most difficult days of my life. We didn't have a happy ending, or at least, we did, but it lay many years down the road. I wondered what I would have done if any of my husband's sons, who all lived with us, had been making weapons. What would you have done?

9 comments:

jnantz said...

Man, I don't even know. Thing is, I have always believed if you are disciplined from the get-go, it shouldn't reach that point. Most of that belief comes from seeing kids out of control everyday, and when I contact the parents they say things like, "We know. We just can't do anything with him/her. Do you have any suggestions?"

That has always floored me. So if the kid has grown up in an environment where good is rewarded and bad is disciplined, and they still do shit like that, I have no idea off the top of my head what will get through to them.

But I do know I was taught VERY young how to use a firearm and when and why to use it and not use it. That level of comfort never made me want to go searching for it, or use it, or anything of the sort. My wife was the same, and she and I plan on doing the same with our kids.

Steerpike said...

I think there is wisdom in introducing guns and proper gun safety to young people at an early age, because it may help remove the mystique. So long as something is forbidden it is tantalizing, but when it's explained and demonstrated, it's mundane.

That so many warning signs given off by Harris and Klebold were ignored is alarming in and of itself. And then once a tragedy occurs, the scramble to blame an easy target - movies, video games, whatever - eclipses what really needs to be done: a thorough investigation that reveals all the facts this book apparently reveals. I suppose parents and law enforcement were hesitant to revisit some of their past errors, given that had they taken any action at all the massacre might well have been stopped.

Dana King said...

What concerns me more than anything ten years later is we'll take what has been learned about these two kids (and, while they might not have been loners, I think we can safely say they were troubled), and come up with new sets of "no tolerance" policies to prevent another occurrence, when everything needed to stop this was already available.

The police went to all the trouble required to get a search warrant--which is a considerable amount-- and never executed it. They had probable cause to know something was wrong, did the paperwork, then did nothing about it. I hope this weighs on their consciences, as I hope it weighs on the conscience of the parent who found the pipe bomb and did nothing. Let's assume he had no idea what they had planned; it was still a pipe bomb. No good could come of it. For all he know, it could have killed his entire family. Yet he did nothing either.

This is just like 9/11 to me. All the torture, the Iraq War, the creation of DHS, all this and more could have been avoided if only people in a position to do something had done their jobs.

Anonymous said...

By VINCENT CARROLL

"Columbine: A True Crime Story"
By Jeff Kass
Ghost Road, 322 pages, $17.95

"Columbine"
By Dave Cullen
Twelve, 417 pages, $26.99

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not the first young men to walk into an American high school on a mission of terror and murder, but their rampage 10 years ago was such that the school's name alone still evokes harrowing memories. At the time, the Columbine massacre was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history; 12 students and a teacher were killed, and Harris and Klebold committed suicide. It remains the bloodiest attack at any high school -- and almost certainly is beset with more misconceptions than any other shooting, too.

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Outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13, wounded 23.
AFP/Getty Images

Outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13, wounded 23.
Outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13, wounded 23.
Outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13, wounded 23.

The confusion took hold because of the remarkable way that Columbine unfolded, the unprecedented media interest and the attempts of authorities to cover up their familiarity with the killers. A full accounting would take years. Local reporters Jeff Kass ("Columbine: A True Crime Story") and Dave Cullen ("Columbine") both arrived at the school on April 20, 1999, at the height of the chaos, and they have both followed nearly every development since. Their books dispel many myths, re-create the horror endured by those inside the school that day and seek to unravel the mystery of Harris and Klebold's comprehensive malice. Because their approaches differ so dramatically, the books are complementary, too. Unfortunately, they contradict each other in a few key respects, sowing additional confusion among unprepared readers.

Both accounts dispel any lingering impression that the 18-year-old Harris and 17-year-old Klebold were part of what had been called the Trench Coat Mafia at the school or of a "goth" subculture. Neither was a devotee of the ghoulish rock performer Marilyn Manson (German industrial rock was more Harris's speed). The Columbine student Cassie Bernall was not shot for answering "yes" when asked if she believed in God; she was never asked, and the girl who was asked and who did say "yes," Valeen Schnurr, survived. Nor did the killers specifically seek out jocks, students wearing baseball caps or any other group during the mayhem. Despite widespread reports to the contrary, the murder victims seem to have been selected entirely at random.

Mr. Kass, who was a reporter at the now shuttered Rocky Mountain News (where I was editorial-page editor), takes slight exception to the last conclusion. "The shooting is mostly random," acknowledges Mr. Kass, writing in the present tense. He contends, though, that "Harris and Klebold single out Isaiah Shoels, who is black, but only after they happen upon him by chance." It is not clear what this means, since the killers happened by chance on everyone they shot. Klebold did call Shoels "nigger" before Harris killed him, but the pair's goal, as Harris explained in the "basement tapes" -- videos that he and Klebold recorded during the five weeks before their rampage -- was to murder, as he put it, "niggers, spics, Jews, gays, f---ing whites": In short, it was an all-inclusive enemies list.

“The diversion program itself, meant to soothe and rectify Eric and Dylan, probably prodded them towards Columbine as they chafed against the strict guidelines and boiled inside for being caught.” Read an excerpt from "Columbine: A True Crime Story"

Mr. Cullen emphasizes that the only reason we remember Columbine as a shooting at all is that Harris was an incompetent bomb maker. Shortly before the shooting began, the killers placed two duffle bags inside the teeming cafeteria, each with a 20-pound propane bomb timed to go off a few minutes after they'd regrouped outside and armed themselves. "Everyone was supposed to die," Mr. Cullen writes -- a fact that makes Columbine "fundamentally different from the other school shootings."

More than any other incident, Columbine provoked overreaction at schools across the country: "zero tolerance" policies toward any semblance of a threat or weapon -- even water pistols -- brought to school, as well as anti-bullying crusades. But were Harris and Klebold bullied, as was often claimed in the event's aftermath? "There's no evidence that bullying led to murder, but considerable evidence it was a problem at Columbine," Mr. Cullen maintains. Mr. Kass seems to reach a similar conclusion but offers a wider spectrum of opinion on the matter, including that of a classmate who had been a friend of the two teens and later claimed that "Columbine is responsible for creating Eric and Dylan."

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Columbine Books
Columbine Books
Columbine Books

Perhaps the more relevant question is whether Harris and Klebold felt socially isolated, and here the books diverge dramatically. Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death." Harris complained about his social fecklessness in his journal, lamenting that "I have practically no self-esteem, especially concerning girls and looks and such." (It says something about our culture that even a murderous teenager discusses himself in terms of "self-esteem.") Each killer did have friends, but each -- especially Klebold -- saw himself as isolated and different.

The dispute over their social skills throws into relief a flaw in Mr. Cullen's style. Although his book includes a wide range of fascinating detail about those affected by the shootings, he often resorts to breathless overstatement and speculation. Harris and Klebold were surely intelligent, for example, but it is hard to square their unremarkable academic records and surviving writings with Mr. Cullen's judgment that they were "math whizzes" and that Klebold was "born brilliant" while Harris was "one of the smartest kids" in school. And if Klebold really did "lose his nerve" twice during the attack, as Mr. Cullen suggests, it seems that only he and his dead partner ever knew it.

Could the massacre have been prevented? The answer emerges from documents that Jefferson County officials tried but ultimately failed to cover up. More than a year before the attack, a sheriff's deputy prepared an affidavit requesting a search warrant for the Harris residence because a pipe bomb found not far from the house matched one that Harris described on his Web pages. For unknown reasons, the affidavit was set aside. If a search had been executed, police might have discovered enough incriminating evidence to short-circuit the pair's plans. One of the most overlooked lessons of Columbine, in short, may be the enduring importance of determined police who run down every lead.

Mr. Carroll, long-time editorial-page editor of the Rocky Mountain News, is now a columnist at the Denver Post.

Sara Paretsky said...

Vincent Carroll, thanks for putting in your complete review of these books--very thought-provoking. Jnantz, Steerpike, I think we unconsciously, even unwillingly, pass on our own ways of reacting to the world around us--defensively or openly. Rules are important, but so are actively listening and responding to children, so that they grow up feeling their opinions matter in the world. Even so, each child brings his/her personality to the mix, and life stresses can bring out the worst in any of us. Dana, I'm with you and Steerpike--why didn't the cops execute that warrant?

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