10th anniversary of the Columbine Tragedy

Over the weekend, I read Dave Cullen's new book: Columbine. I had reserved it at my local library months ago, before it was published. The county ordered 31 copies of the book. A copy for me to read fortuitously came in during this tenth anniversary of the Columbine Tragedy. I picked up the book at the Columbine Library which is within walking distance of the Columbine High School where it all happened a decade ago. I live less than two miles from the high school.

The book is very well researched and written. Cullen's analysis of the contrasting motives of the two shooters and the synergy between them was exactly what I was hoping to find in the book. The excursion through the many individual experiences deepened my empathy for many people's pain. Reading the book was emotionally immersive and exhausting. The ups and downs I went through as a reader is a smaller scale version of the journey taken by those directly impacted.

Of course I was considering the role of emotional baggage as I read the book. Obviously everyone who lost someone in their lives acquired some baggage that began as symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and survivor guilt. Many parents around the world acquired some baggage that views sending their children to school as dangerous. The school teachers, law enforcement professionals and court administrators who all failed to address three years of early warning signs in the two shooters -- may also be burdened by a heavy load of baggage. The subsequent conflicts , litigation, expressions of hatred and inability to move on are all indications of robust baggage on board.

The story of Patrick Ireland in the book, provides us with an view of how to acquire a minimum of baggage following a massive tragedy. He's the student who escaped the shooting by falling out of a second story window in the school. He immediately let go of what happened and encouraged his parents to forgive the shooters once he could speak again. He focused on the challenge it created for him to engage the plasticity of his brain to create new connections to his muscles and short term memory. He was walking without crutches when the school reopened the following fall and lead the students into the building. When we worked at getting back to water skiing, there was a time where the struggle, frustration and losses got to him. He cried his eyes out to get it out of his system. He is an icon of "feeling the feelings, letting past history go and moving on".

The story of Eric Harris provides us with a view of how some "acting out" runs deeper than emotional baggage. The top FBI negotiator for hostage standoff situations had a son enrolled in Columbine High School. He brought his expertise to the case in order to develop a psychological profile of the shooters. He determined that Eric fit the diagnosis of a psychopath almost verbatim. The only missing trait was cruelty to animals. Brain scans of the psychopaths show the emotional processing function of their brains (amygdala) does not respond to stimulation from danger or other's emotions. They are incapable of empathy, compassion, or consideration of other's experiences. They are superb con artists who fool all but the most experienced with psychopaths. This appears to be a condition people are born with, like a birth defect. There are no correlations with how they are raised, living situations, or peer pressures. The only correlation is gender: 80% are male. In other words, this form of cruelty is not acquired from life experiences. It's the result of nature, not nurture. It's not a symptom of emotional baggage. It's a birth defect that goes undetected in most people with this condition.

These added perspectives have given me much to ponder as I continue to create the workbook for resolving emotional baggage.



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

    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.

    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."

    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.

  2. Thanks for all the added dimensions to this story from Kass's book that I have yet to read. Cullen's emphasis on Eric and Dylan's identification with NBK (natural born killers) took my attention on those more familiar motives like social isolation and resentment of the authoritarian diversion program. The psychological profiling of Eric as likely to have been born with his psychopathic condition also downplays the influences from his older brother, parents, schooling, friends, etc.

    I finished Cullen's book thinking the tragedy could not have been prevented given the inept nature of large bureaucratic organizations like the Jeffco sheriff, court, and DA divisions.

    I look forward to comparing the two authors as you have and looking on Cullen's writing with more perspective. Thanks again for all this.

  3. I'm not sure if you have looked at Emile, written by Rousseau over 200 years ago. It is interesting that his study of adolescence so many years ago could fit the description of an adolescent today (although with different environmental pressures).

  4. I've not read Emile. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm not surprised so much of the tragedy fits patterns of unchanging human nature, rather than contemporary effects of media, technology or social fads. What we need is to better understand the nature of adolescence so we can become more nurturing, empathetic and supportive.