By Dave Cullen
One more anniversary to go. Three dreaded milestone dates have passed. Now there is only April 20, 2009. The survivors of the shootings at Columbine High School (and by this point all residents of Jefferson County should classify as survivors) feel that the tenth anniversary will signal the last wave of attention, the last media invasion, the final onslaught of interviews and talking-head analysis. We all understand the way these things work. Tenth anniversaries are the last historical bookmark. In another two years, we’ll all get to experience the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Who knows what the media furies will unleash on us then?
If we’re fortunate, someone will offer us a written narrative of that horrendous chain of incidents as cogent and thoughtful as the volume Dave Cullen’s Columbine. Cullen is a graduate of the MA program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has written on Evangelical Christians, gays in the military, and pop culture. He is a mainstay at Salon.com. On this occasion he has molded an astonishing mountain of information into a book that is both a fitting memorial for the victims and an unblinking examination of the perpetrators.
For those too young, too disinterested, or simply too confused by the welter of similar incidents, on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two seniors at Columbine High School, entered the school and proceeded to kill 12 classmates and one teacher. There were four critically wounded students and another twenty one who suffered non life-threatening injuries.
But what do we remember about the massacre at Columbine? Well, there was the Trench Coat Mafia. There was the vendetta against jocks, bullies, women, nerds, minorities, depending on who was being interviewed. Those were the two prime themes, and all the hours, weeks and months of press coverage just kept spinning new ‘information’ onto whichever of those two hooks was more convenient.
Building the story by moving between the event and the aftermath (sometimes in less-than-intuitive fashion), Cullen causes both those ‘hooks’ to dissipate into myth. The Trench Coat Mafia began with one Goth student unable to find a cape to complete a Dracula costume; he decided to wear a black trench coat instead. When several friends copied the look to turn heads in the hallway, the Trench Coat Mafia was born, but the group had melted away by the time Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold decided on trench coats to complete their assault gear and cloak their arsenal. Neither killer had been part of that group.
The south side of Columbine High School
The vendetta idea takes more effort to dissolve. Both killers were friends with a few jocks; one had a brother on the football team. One month before their assault, Eric and Dylan created the infamous “Basement Tapes” – TV talk-show styled rants where they showed off their arsenal and named many people they were going to “get.” None of the threatened students or teachers wound up being actual victims. At no time during their rampage were they hunting down specific targets.
So, with our two convenient ‘hooks’ taken away, what are we left with? One major trail Cullen takes is the lurid path of warning signs Eric and Dylan left that their personal storms were about to explode into something lethal. As early as their sophomore year, the “I HATE” rants on Eric’s website were reported to police. Their junior year, both were arrested for breaking into a van and were assigned to a Diversion rehab program as part of their sentence. Eric was put on antidepressants, at least one of which was still in his system during the massacre (skewering another myth that he had stopped taking them to qualify for the Marines). Also during junior year, Eric feuded with student Brooks Brown, to the point where death threats were made and the police were involved. Both killers wrote detailed info about the attack in each other’s yearbooks. Early in their senior year, Eric submitted a class paper on Nazis that featured disturbing images; it brought him nothing but a good grade.
All this information was in the possession of Jefferson County authorities conducting the investigation, but they kept losing it/finding it/losing it. As late as 2003, printed pages from Eric’s website turned up in a loose leaf binder having nothing to do with the case. Sheriff John Stone winds up in Culen’s crosshairs, from his improvised press conference after the tragedy to his haphazard ‘assistance’ during the investigation. In general, Jefferson County authorities bear the brunt of Cullen’s criticism in trying to track the release of information to the public and the families of the victims.
Another major trail leads us through the lives of some of the survivors and their families. In particular the recovery of one Patrick Ireland is inspirational. Initially famous for his appearance in a window, broadcast live to the nation, Patrick survived a fall from that window, buckshot fragments that took away most of his speech, and a painfully slow recovery process that saw his brain literally re-wire itself to allow him finally to graduate as valedictorian of his shattered class. I would have appreciated a more complete accounting of those wounded during the attack. The focus seems to fall more on the students killed; but even there we don’t get a complete accounting of how and where each student died. This is a question asked repeatedly by the victims’ families anytime they were allowed access to video footage of the school: how did my son/daughter die? It’s a question we have too, especially when reading the detailed reconstruction of the attack, which we get once at the beginning of the book and again in a more minute-by-minute treatment at the end. Even a listing of the names would have been more satisfying than its incredible absence.
Of all the students’ stories, the parallel tales of Cassie Bernall and Valeen Schnurr are particularly tragic and compelling. Cassie’s story initially cast her as a martyr of Columbine. As it first came out, the killers were blasting their way through the library, the main scene of carnage, and Cassie was asked by one of the killers if she believed in God. After she answered in the affirmative, she was shot to death. That version of the incident was accepted as fact until other students came forward with details that established that Cassie Bernall actually experienced one of the most terrifying ends of any of the helpless victims. Hiding under a table with some classmates, Cassie was discovered by Eric Harris, who bent down, saw Cassie, said ‘peekaboo’ and executed her with a one-handed shotgun blast that caused the gun to kick up and break Eric’s nose.
Valeen Schnurr crawled out from under another blasted table with 34 separate buckshot wounds and cried out ‘please God don’t let me die.’ Dylan Klebold asked her why she still believed in God and she replied that it was how her parents had raised her. Dylan reloaded his shotgun, then became distracted by something else in the wailing chaos. At the counseling sessions, and among other groups of students, Valeen was seen as a copycat vying for media attention. It wasn’t until other witnesses came forward that her experience was gauged as accurate. It didn’t keep Cassie’s mother from writing a best-selling tribute to her deceased daughter. Nor does the information make that book any less meaningful as a tribute and memorial from mother to daughter I wonder if there is some subconscious thread in our thinking that makes a name like Valeen Schnurr seem unlikely for a true heroine. Cullen allows both stories to resonate.
The bulk of Columbine attempts to answer the unanswerable question: why? The author offers a broad range of information on psychopaths, ranging from medical findings to information provided by FBI hostage negotiator Dwayne Fusilier, who wound up being assigned to the Columbine case – whose son, by sheer coincidence, was a student there at the time. Cullen describes psychopathy as the subject’s ability to project a normal personality while reveling in his ability to mask his true hatred of his environment. He portrays Eric Harris as a textbook example of such a personality, while Dylan Klebold is seen as a reluctant partner who had planned suicide before the assault but was held to the plan by Eric. Indeed, it is Dylan’s prom date who provides the liaison to procure the guns and ammunition used in the assault. Cullen explains that dyadic (paired) killers become the most lethal combination. Their linked focus keeps their grim task on track.
Certainly the focus of Eric and Dylan had been in place for more than a year. The journals kept by both chronicle their thinking. How the parents stayed unaware of this thinking is a puzzle yet to be solved, for the Klebolds, and especially the Harrises have managed to avoid all media scrutiny. The only statements recorded by either family lie in a deposition brokered by a judge . In return for the deposition, a complicated civil lawsuit filed by a group of aggrieved parents was dismissed. The judge determined what these suffering families wanted more than anything else was information. Thirty one families had already divided up $1.6 million dollars from the Harris’ and Klebold’s home owners’ policies. The sellers of the guns, Mark Manes and Philip Duran, plus Dylan’s contact (and prom date) Robyn Anderson were tapped for an additional $1.3 million. Manes and Duran were the only people to receive criminal convictions as a result of the shootings.
An excerpt from Eric Harris’ journal
All we have is the twisted view of the event as it was planned by the two killers. Again, it was meant to mark an anniversary: April 19, the day of the Oklahoma City bombings, which in turn was an anniversary, as Timothy McVeigh planned his destruction to bookmark the Branch Davidians day of reckoning in Waco, Texas. Dave Cullen pieces journal entries together to paint the following portrait of a nightmare:
The main event was scripted in three acts, just like a movie. It would kick off with a massive explosion in the commons. More than six hundred students swarmed in at the start of ‘A’ lunch, and two minutes after the first bell rang, most of them would be dead. Act I featured two propane bombs using propane tanks, like the decoy. [They had rigged a car bomb to go off in a park some distance from the school. Like their other bombs, it didn’t go off] Each was strung with nails, BBs, for shrapnel, lashed to a full gasoline can and a smaller propane tank and wired to similar bell clocks. Each bomb fit snugly into a duffel bag, which Eric and Dylan would lug in at the height of passing-period chaos…
…The bombs would detonate at 11:17 and the densely packed wing would crumble. As the flames leaped up, Eric and Dylan would train their semiautomatics on the exits and await survivors. Act II: firing time. This was going to be fun. Dylan would sport an Intratec TEC-DC9 (a 9mm semiautomatic handgun) and a shotgun. Eric had a Hi-Point 9mm carbine rifle and a shotgun. They’d sawed the barrels off the shotguns for concealment. Between them, they’d carry eighty portable pipe bombs and carbon dioxide bombs that Eric called “crickets” – plus a supply of Molotov cocktails and an assortment of freakish knives, in case it came down to hand-to-hand combat….
…Act III. This was the phase Eric and Dylan were savoring. It was also when they expected to die. They had little hope of witnessing Act III. Forty five minutes after the initial blast, when the cops declared it was over, paramedics started loading amputees into ambulances, and reporters broadcast the horror to a riveted nation, Eric’s Honda and Dylan’s BMW would rip through the camera crews and the first responders. Each car was to be loaded with two more propane devices and twenty gallons of gasoline in an assortment of orange plastic jugs. Their positions had been chosen to maximize the firepower in Act II and the carnage in Act III. The cars would be close to the building, near the main exits – ideal locations for police command, emergency medical staging, and news vans. They would be just far enough from the building, and each other, to wipe out most of the junior and senior parking lots. Maximum body count: nearly 2000 students, plus 150 faculty and staff, plus who knows how many police, paramedics, and journalists.
We have never heard why the bombs didn’t work. Something about the fuses. But they were certainly in place. And both young men had apparently grown tired of stalking and shooting, and throwing explosives, so the planned driving exit never took place. But this Eric Harris, who had just been promoted to shift manager at his pizza restaurant job, and this Dylan Klebold, who wrote chapter after chapter about a girl in his classes he could never find the nerve to speak to, they left an imprint deeper than any high body count would achieve. They insured that schools would never again be places of total safety; that websites and threats would never be taken lightly, even in mellow suburbia. And they opened in the public mind the Planned Rampage, a horrific practice that traveled to a tortured soul at Virginia Tech, and more recently to Alabama and Germany. Despite Cullen’s attempts, I’m not sure we will ever know what chemistry caused two apparently normal teenagers to successfully tell the world what they wanted to do and then go and do it. We didn’t listen then. I wonder what anniversary will trigger our ability to pay attention?
Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.