Columbine

By Dave Cullen. Published in 2009.

Dave Cullen taught me the difference between hate and contempt. Some five years ago, he wrote an article for Slate exploring the motives of the notorious Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with new analysis from the FBI’s lead investigator on the case, a clinical psychologist. The key idea was that the two boys were very different people: Harris was a full-blown psychopath (in the true psychiatric sense), and Klebold was a suicidal depressive who fell into the other boy’s orbit.

That conclusion and the well-informed rationale behind it are fascinating, but it was the distinction between hate and contempt that haunted me. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, most people assumed that the killers’ motive was hatred—for jocks, for minorities, for Christians, whatever—but judging from the considerable evidence left behind, Harris, the mastermind, wasn’t motivated by hatred of individuals or even of specific groups. In a way, that would have required acknowledging his victims as human beings, fellows worthy of hate. Harris considered himself a god among insects; his victims were interchangeable fodder for his apocalyptic vision. In short, he didn’t feel hate so much as general contempt. And that’s what makes him so frightening.

Cullen expands upon that old article—along with his numerous others and a decade’s worth of investigation into the attack—to produce Columbine, an exhaustive, compelling look at that horrific day in April 1999, the months that lead up to it, and the years that followed. At once a true crime tome, a psychopathy primer, and a media criticism treatise, the book is engrossing and deeply thought-provoking. That unforgettable lesson on hate and contempt is not an anomaly: Columbine is not a rubber-necking tabloid tale but a reflective, compassionate view of both the trees and the forest. As the New York Times acknowledged, Columbine isn’t In Cold Blood reborn (which cracked me up: Capote’s masterpiece is truly the unattainable grail of the true crime genre), but by virtually any other standard, it’s a triumph.

The chronology takes a while to get to used to. Rather than follow a straight linear line, Cullen alternates, from chapter to chapter, between Before and After. At first I disliked the approach, but once I settled into the rhythm, it began to make sense. The structure allows Cullen to draw connections that otherwise might have been obscured, and it largely prevents a single-minded focus on Harris and Klebold—which is good, I think.

That said, Cullen’s portrayal of the relationship between the boys is profoundly interesting. He makes great use of the enormous amount of material they left behind (journals, Harris’s web page, Internet chats, school papers, video diaries) and deftly highlights the timeline overlaps: how Harris, for example, was writing a school essay on the Brady Act even as he was busy exploiting its loopholes; how Harris’s court-mandated but surprisingly eloquent apology to the owner of a van he and Klebold robbed was matched by a viciously unrepentant private rant; how Klebold remained secretly uncommitted to “Judgment Day” for months into planning. Cullen leans on the FBI’s conclusions about the psychological dynamic at play between Harris and Klebold, but the analysis is persuasive, bolstered by the boys’ voices in the primary source material. Testimony from the boys’ parents is still sealed—and will be for another couple of decades—but even without that, Cullen manages to create two disturbing, distinct portraits and draw cautious conclusions about what can be learned from the massacre, how such a tragedy might be prevented in the future.

But what really gives the book its resonance and humanity are Cullen’s sensitive portraits of many of the survivors,  investigators, and others involved in the case: the traumatized principal of Columbine, a kid who underwent months of rehab after suffering brain damage during the assault on the library, the Episcopalian priest who horrified many in his congregation by ministering to Klebold’s parents, the girl whose statement of faith after being shot was disbelieved and disparaged in the shadow of the martyr who mythically “Said Yes” (but, in truth, never had the chance), to name just a few.

Cullen’s digressions, when they come, are invariably mesmerizing. He discusses the difficulty in identifying true psychopathy, changes in how the FBI handles “active shooter” situations, and the ramped-up process of myth-making in the age of cell phones, anonymous web sources, and 24-hour news—all with nuance and scrupulous attention to detail. That consideration of the bigger picture also helps keep the book from being overwhelmingly depressing.

I wouldn’t say Columbine is enjoyable, exactly, but Cullen is a talented writer (if, you know, not Capote) with a good eye and a real knack for synthesizing an extraordinary amount of material. His years of research and reporting on the massacre are evident and admirable on every page.