Hatchette Book Group, NY: 2010; 2016
by Dave Cullen
Book Review by Marty Rheaume
Available at the Croswell Library
Columbine haunts us with sobbing teenagers, grieving parents, and dead students who endure in our collective consciousness. April 20, 1999 wasn’t the first school shooting but it is the one that created a cult of theatrical violence preaching terror and narcissistic loathing. Astonishingly, acolytes embraced the sermon and spread it, wreaking havoc for the next couple of decades, while the rest of us wonder why the nihilistic message appeals to so many.
Cullen uses 400 plus pages to illuminate that day and the deranged minds that orchestrated it. After being one of the first reporters on the scene, he spent the following ten years on the book. With a well-paced narrative, he alternates between the years leading up to that day and the fallout that resulted from it. We meet the victims, their families, the killers, their parents, and the overmatched law enforcement officials trying to make sense of it. Poignant moments of strength and forgiveness abound but this is no feel-good book.
Columbine is most gripping when it explores clinical psychopathy through the twisted mind of Eric Harris along with Dylan Klebold’s sycophantic relationship with him. Harris’s calculating cruelty is so foreign to the empathetic reader, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by his alien thought process. Meanwhile, examining Klebold’s tortured soul gives the reader a different feeling. His relatability lends some humanity to the pair and makes him the more tragic figure.
The juxtaposition of the two perpetrators gives the book a dynamic energy that keeps the pages turning and the mind searching for answers. Harris wanted to watch the world burn. Moreover, he wanted to light the match. Klebold was a disillusioned young man whose frustration with a fallen world led to violent outbursts. We watch their relationship develop into a runaway train fueled by animosity, resentfulness, and spite. Cullen frustrates us by illustrating various opportunities local authorities had to derail that hate train. Most gut-wrenching was an affidavit to search Harris’s house that inexplicably slipped through the cracks, despite linking him to a homemade pipe bomb found in the neighborhood. The results were fifteen dead, a nation scarred, and a darker world.
Twenty years later, we must admit that Eric Harris won. He got everything he wanted: terror, infamy, a legacy of fans, and copycat killers. He let an evil genie out of the bottle and now he’s laughing in Hell as we blame each other for the destruction.