Perhaps the most powerful lesson we could learn from the Columbine tragedy of 10 years ago, is how completely wrong the mass media can get a story. If you still think of Columbine as a cautionary tale on the dangers of violent video games or bullying and cliques, let it go. These are comforting fairy tales we tell ourselves to make sense of the senseless. It all seems so much more controllable, if we can identify the social mechanisms and change them. Don't get me wrong. I think anti-bullying programs in schools are a great idea, but nothing of the kind would have stopped Eric Harris, or his sidekick Dylan Klebold. Such is the conclusion of author Dave Cullen and of FBI investigators who scrutinized the evidence. Cullen's book, entitled simply Columbine, pubs this Wednesday.
Cullen concluded that the killers weren't part of the Trench Coat Mafia, that they weren't bullied by other students and that they didn't target popular jocks, African-Americans or any other group. A school shooting wasn't their initial intent, he said.
It turns out the reason for the Columbine massacre is as simple as it is troubling. Eric Harris was a psycopath. Dylan Klebold, the weaker personality, was a suicidally depressed kid who took on Eric Harris's ethos as his own. Together, they planned a spectacular event -- one that would have eclipsed the Oklahoma City bombing. Their bomb-making skills were inadequate and they failed to wipe out the entire school. But, their plan had little to do with personal grudges against individuals. They just wanted to kill as many people as they could.
The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting "the most deaths in U.S. history." Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just "fame" they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
In his original article for Slate, Cullen debunked the litany of Columbine myths propagated by the media:
1. Targeting jocks, blacks, and Christians: There were no targets. Harris and Klebold just wanted body count, and they didn't care who died. They expected their bombs to do most of the killing, murdering everyone in the cafeteria, irrespective of clique or social standing. When the bombs failed, they shot indiscriminately, firing into open crowds and under tables without bothering to see who their victims were. They taunted jocks briefly in the library, but they taunted virtually everyone else there, too.
Columbine is a cautionary tale. Just not for the reasons we were led to believe. It should serve as a reminder of how completely wrong the prevailing narrative can be, and how badly professional journalists can serve their audience, in their haste to tell us the story.
“Columbine” is an excellent work of media criticism, showing how legends become truths through continual citation; a sensitive guide to the patterns of public grief, foreshadowing many of the same reactions to Sept. 11 (lawsuits, arguments about the memorial, voyeuristic bus tours); and, at the end of the day, a fine example of old-fashioned journalism.