Monday, April 20, 2009


ColumbineBy Dave Cullen
Twelve Hachette Book Group, $26.99 cloth
ISBN 978-0-446-54693-5

“Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.”
William Blake
"Auguries of Innocence"

“The Secret Service studied every targeted attack at schools from December 1974 to May 2000,” Dave Cullen writes in his exhaustively researched book on the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, April 20, 1999. “There had been forty-one attackers in thirty-seven incidents.”

To most Americans, school shootings around the globe have become a disturbing trend. Cullen presents evidence to the contrary. The Centers for Disease Control “data pegged a child’s chances of dying at school at one in a million,” he writes. “And holding. The ‘trend’ was actually steady to downward, depending on how far back you looked.”

School shootings generate fear, terror, and press coverage, a dangerous mixture for deranged or mentally ill gunmen seeking worldwide attention. I use the term “gunmen,” because almost all of the cases have been males, although Cullen notes there have been a few female perpetrators.

Cullen’s book is riveting and disturbing, especially if you are a teacher. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fit the typical profile of a high school student on the surface. There were warning signs, but they were most visible after the incident. Further, Harris was a psychopath, someone who thrives on the “ruthless disregard for others,” a person who will “defraud, maim, or kill for the most trivial personal gain.” Harris studied the emotional states of others and could mimic them at will, fooling most people who spoke and interacted with him, including trained psychological professionals. “Psychopaths feel nothing deep, complex, or sustained,” Cullen writes, and Harris fits the bill.

So how does one identify and treat a person who reacts “to pain or tragedy by assessing how they can use the situation to manipulate others?” Identification is difficult if a teacher does not have all the pieces to the puzzle. The warning signs were present—school assignments revealing the planned violence, Harris’ need to control, Klebold’s suicidal obsessions, thousands of pages of diagrams, checklists and journals. There was video evidence as well, made by the killers themselves, and displaying the weaponry and firepower they would eventually employ.

But the ability to pull all of this evidence together and realize the extreme threat only became possible after the massacre. Harris also did not target a specific group, as news reports and scores of journalists initially reported. He wanted to kill everyone. The bombs the boys planted around the school should have brought the building down, killing 500 or more of the 2000 students. Harris failed to build them properly and nothing detonated as it was designed to do. The boys resorted to firing on students from a vantage point on campus and then hunting through the building for more victims, killing the largest number of students hiding in the school library. The boys’ cars, parked in the school parking lot, were rigged to explode as well.

Cullen takes us into the minds of the victims and their families as well. Dave Sanders’ story is heartbreaking, as all of them are. He is the career teacher who bled to death in the science classroom while waiting for rescue. The scene Cullen describes, with Eagle Scout students trying to staunch the flow of blood from Sanders’ critical injuries, is devastating.

One needs a strong disposition to make it through this book, and I can imagine the strain on Cullen to live with this story for ten years. He was there when it happened and reported for several news outlets, and continued to write and study the reports, events and investigations long after most journalists had called it a day. This must have been an hellacious journey, but he should be credited with sticking to the story. He debunks myths and falsehoods reported about the tragedy. He pursues the psychology and motivation of the two boys, and renders in plain prose the science of the violence and the mystery of the diseased minds of the perpetrators. He tells the story—killers, victims and law enforcement personnel—with a blunt, hard-hitting intensity.

In the end, the most disturbing thing about the massacre at Columbine is that those of us who work in the high school classroom see minor snippets of such behavior every day. True, statistically, an act of such intense violence as that of a school shooting rarely happens. But schools are supposed to be safe havens, like hospitals and libraries. We now know, here in the twenty-first century, that nowhere is safe, and even our children must live with fear. We are all at the mercy of the human animal. And that is not a comfortable thought at all.

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