Sunday, May 16, 2010

Columbine Myths

History fans, I apologize for my tardiness. I finished a book about two weeks ago, but my life has been so busy that I haven't had time to sit down and update History Books. Of course, I should have plenty of time to update this summer while I'm touring around the country. I bought a good amount of books for the trip and should have plenty to discuss.

But today, I want to talk about Columbine. If you remember, on April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School and went on a shooting rampage that lasted approximately 13 minutes. It took over four hours to discover what sort of damage the two boys had caused and nearly a decade to figure out exactly what happened in the school and what had led up to the tragedy. The information from this post I found in Dave Cullen's book Columbine.

I expected Dave to give an account of what happened and maybe some insights. He provided that and much more. It soon became clear that everything I thought about Columbine was not actually true. Here are some myths from Columbine on which for you to chew. Also, I listened to this book a few weeks ago, so I'm going on what I remember.

  • April 20 - Hitler's Birthday: The widely accepted belief is that the Columbine killers chose the date April 20 because it corresponded with Hitler's birthday. The date is actually accidental. Eric and Dylan had planned on that Monday, April 19, for over a year. The date meant nothing. But one of their ammunition suppliers couldn't get everything to the boys on time, so their plans were delayed. Near the end of his life, Eric had taken an interest in German history, specifically Hitler and the Nazi regime, but the meaning of the date is inconsequential.
  • The Bully Theory: Prior to the Columbine massacre, the majority of school shooters had been outcasts and misfits, out for some sort of monumental revenge. As soon as the new cameras reached the school, the reporters started secreting the same old tune of outcast's revenge. But the truth is that Dylan and Eric were not really picked on at all. In fact, Dylan bullied younger kids and got suspended the year before for carving the word, "faggot" into a freshman's locker. Eric had written in his notebook that he hoped to kill all the jocks, but it wasn't because they bullied them or picked on him. It was because they were a part of the human race. Eric hated everyone and wanted everyone, regardless of his or her subculture, to perish, jocks included. Bully awareness became a huge conversation following Columbine. I hope that some good came out of that conversation. But the fact of the matter is that bullying was not really a key issue that drove either boy to do what he did.
  • The Blame Game: When the public began scrutinizing and studying the killers, fingers started pointing in every imaginable direction. Marilyn Manson, violent video games, the parents. Michael Moore pointed out in his documentary that perhaps a violent culture was to blame since a few miles away sat Lockheed Martin, a company that manufactures warheads. Many of the Columbine kids' parents worked at the factories. But here's the truth: Eric Harris was a psychopath. He had no conscience and yearned for death and destruction. Dylan was a depressed mess of a boy. Eric, who had no feelings, fed off of Dylan's intense anger and frustration. Dylan who had no thoughts of his own leaned on Eric's criminal plans. Their musical taste varied. Dylan loved techno and Eric's favorite band was KMFDM. They never mentioned Marilyn Manson in their writings. The boys enjoyed video games and perhaps some ideas were derived from the games. Dylan had made some drawings of how they would be dressed on "Judgment Day" that looked like something out of Halo or some sort of war game. Eric was an exceptional liar, as most psychopaths are, and kept his parents in the dark about his real feelings towards life. Dylan was less successful at lying but had decent relationships with both parents. I think that of all the parents of students of Columbine, the Harris's and the Klebolds were the most surprised. Were there warning signs that they could have picked up on to prevent the killings from happening? I think Eric was hellbent on destruction and was very good at hiding his tracks. Dylan, on the other hand, revealed some signs of struggle that his parents could have picked up on. But both boys said in their journals and in the basement tapes that they chose to do this, that it was no one's fault but their own.
  • The Shootings: What most people don't know is that the attack was actually drawn up to use guns as a last resort. Eric and Dylan had intended on blowing up the school, along with their peers. But, as the police quickly discovered, the bombs they had made out of propane tanks were shoddily built. The boys had placed one bomb a couple miles from the school. The idea was that that bomb would go off and create a diversion so the police would be occupied. Then the bombs in their cars would go off, then the bombs in the school. Either the boys decided at the last minute to change plans or they thought that since the bombs didn't go off, they needed to rethink their plans.
  • She Said Yes: One of the most controversial myths to come out of Columbine was the story of Cassie Bernall. The story that came out of the library was that Eric had held a gun to Cassie's head and asked her if she believed in God. Cassie said yes and Eric pulled the trigger. Cassie's mother wrote a book about the ordeal and her story exploded through Evangelical youth groups and churches. The account came from one student who survived int he library. However, when word got out that the mother was writing a book, a student named Emily came forward to police and said that there was never an exchange between Cassie and Eric. She said that she had been hiding under the same table as Cassie when Eric walked in without a word, knelt down, and blew Cassie away. There were similar reports to other survivors. The students and their parents were allowed to revisit the library, and the boy who originated the Cassie was explaining to his parents what occurred on April 20 when a detective stopped him. He pointed out that the research and other eyewitness accounts contradicted what he was saying to his parents. The boy argued, then realizing he was mistaken, left the room feeling sick. Investigators agree that no exchange ever took place in the library, discounting one of the most tremendous youth martyr stories our generation ever knew.
  • Open Spaces: In 1997, Dylan and Eric were arrested for breaking into a van. Part of their punishment was to meet with a counselor who evaluated them. During that time, and the year and half leading up to the massacre, about a dozen reports were sent to the police in regards to Eric Harris. Most of them came from the parents of one of Eric's peers. They had stumbled onto Eric's website, on which were death threats, accounts of making bombs, etc. Not long after the investigation began, the Jefferson County officials realized that if anyone were to get their hands on these reports, that the blame would fall on them for not taking them seriously. There was a secret meeting called the Open Space meeting where they discussed the matter and decided what to do to the evidence. That's right. A cover up. For years, nobody knew that either boy had been in any sort of trouble. The reports on Eric had disappeared, then reappeared, then disappeared again. Finally, an affidavit was proven successful in finding one of the reports.
  • What Changed: In the aftermath of Columbine, one would think that a slew of changes would appear in the legislative branch. Unfortunately, not much was done in Colorado to prevent further attacks, as was evidence in the Deer Creek shooting that occurred a decade later. A few laws were passed that put safety locks on firearms and a few tidbits on selling guns to minors. But little progress was made with gun control. In fact, one of the biggest improvements occurs in Michael Moore's documentary when he and a survivor get K-Mart to stop selling ammunition. One crucial move was made by the police. During Columbine, the SWAT team sat outside the school for three or four hours before anything was actually done when Eric and Dylan had committed suicide after only 13 minutes of shooting. The reason for this is general policy. Secure the scene, then enter. Plus bombs were still going off long after the killers had died. The police changed their policy and from the on, they rushed into the buildings to take down the perpetrators. This change was mostly due to the fact that the only teacher to pass away, Dave Sanders, bled to death during those hours that the police stood outside the building. The students and faculty called 911 repeatedly for three hours and each time the response was the same: "Help is on the way." Sanders could have been saved.

Even though I don't much care for Cullen's writing style, he brought up some extremely interesting insights into the Columbine tragedy. I think what affected me the most was hearing what the parents of Eric and Dylan had to say. The Harris family for the most part kept silent after the killings, with the occasional apology. The Klebold family had a couple of interviews but also kept their distance from reporters. I'm not belittling losing a child. I think that every parent of the victims deserved to be upset and angry. But I can't imagine being the parent of the one who was responsible for such an enormous tragedy that affected the nation. And in the blame game, the parents got the brunt end of it. While I think it's true that parenting has quite an impact on the lives of their children, we have to keep in mind that these boys were 18. They were adults. And they told us that they knew exactly what they were doing.

Two very disturbing things were unveiled in this book. The first was the fate of Mark Manes. He was the one who sold Eric and Dylan their guns. Someone needed to take the fall for what happened and they pinned it on Mark. Did Mark break any law? He may have sold a gun to a minor, but at that time that wasn't that big of an offense. The parents of the victims berated him in court and Mark became the Columbine scapegoat.

The second and more disturbing point Cullen made was that Eric and Dylan were performers. Everything they wrote down and said on camera was meant for an audience. They left instructions, blueprints, and explanations in their journals and in the basement tapes. They knew precisely what they wanted to do, and they wanted everyone to see how they came to the conclusion. It's extremely unnerving and downright bewildering to see people filled with hate enough to act it out with such aggression.

That's what I learned at Columbine.
Until next time.


Tyler G said...


This is a great post. Really nice to get some insight on Columbine while also hearing your personal experience with the book.

For a Young Adult Literature class last year, I read this book called Give A Boy A Gun. It is geared toward adolescence, but is an interesting piece of fiction. Also, a quick read.

Best of luck with your reading and look forward to seeing you at the Marion Release Show.


starviego said...

The big secret about Columbine is that there were more involved than just Harris and Klebold. Don’t believe me? Just ask the eyewitnesses:

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, even though you didn't like my writing style.

An expanded paperback edition is just out, including scans from the killers' journals and a 12-page afterword: “Forgiveness.” It includes startling new revelations on the killers' parents. The purpose, though, was to look at three victims in very different places 11 years later, and how forgiving played a pivotal role in their grief. I discovered the secret meetings with the killers' parents in the process.

Because of the interest from students and teachers/profs, I’ve also created lesson plans and I’m doing phone-ins or skype to book clubs.

There's lots more info at my Columbine site.