Politics & Policy

The Truth About Columbine

A decade after the tragedy, a book uncovers the full story.

Ten years ago today, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed their high school with bombs and guns. They killed 15 people, including themselves, and injured 23 others, some severely. The nation thought the shooters’ parents were mostly to blame. Adults cast a suspicious eye on high-school-age males who were bullied, played violent video games, listened to Marilyn Manson, took an interest in the macabre, enjoyed shooting guns, or dressed like “Goths.”

Americans had to respond somehow, but at the time they could not respond to the facts: There was little information available, and much of what was available was false. The county police department suppressed and even destroyed key documents, the confusion of the situation spawned many myths, and people’s biases spawned many more.

But now that the police documents have become public and some investigators have been willing to speak to the press, we have a basically complete account of the day’s events and the surrounding circumstances. Journalist Dave Cullen, who’s been on the story since the beginning, pulls that account together in Columbine.

The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen arranges the story almost like a novel, with various storylines advancing simultaneously. His prose is clear, simple, and direct. Through the facts he presents, his own analysis, and the analyses of others, Cullen provides good answers to the two central questions: What exactly happened that day? And what made Harris and Klebold do it?

On the first question, Cullen debunks just about everything the public thinks it knows, and adds tremendous detail to what the public has right. For starters, Harris and Klebold didn’t intend to be school shooters. They were first and foremost school bombers: Before the attack, they planted two wired propane tanks in the cafeteria, set to explode at the time Harris had calculated to be the busiest. These bombs would have killed hundreds if they’d worked, and Harris and Klebold were strategically perched outside, prepared to gun down fleeing survivors.

The bombs didn’t go off — there was a fundamental error in the wiring. Having no Plan B, Harris and Klebold killed two students outside the school and proceeded inside. They shot some students, spared others. They fatally wounded a teacher. They threw pipe bombs, most of which worked as planned. They taunted their victims, and laughed. They did the bulk of their killing in the library.

The killers, evidently, got bored. There were many other students in the school, and even in the library — sitting ducks. But Harris and Klebold roamed the halls. They shot into empty rooms. They returned to the cafeteria, shot at the unexploded propane tanks, and even tried to ignite the bombs with a Molotov cocktail. That set off the sprinkler system.

Soon thereafter, they returned to the library. They shot at the “perimeter” of police outside, in an apparent attempt at suicide-by-cop. Officers returned fire, but missed. The killers had wired their cars to explode at noon, but those bombs worked no better than the ones in the cafeteria had. They gave up and shot themselves.

The police had remained outside, and a SWAT team had slowly and systematically worked its way toward the shooters, in compliance with protocol. That protocol was later changed so that in “active shooter” situations, officers move quickly toward the sound of gunfire, with the main priority of stopping the shooter.

The bigger question here is why: Without understanding shootings like Columbine, it is hard to prevent them. And virtually all the popular explanations of Columbine fall short.

Take, for example, bullying. It is true that Harris and Klebold were teased, and it is further true that Harris composed “hit lists” and threatened, on the Internet and in videos, individuals he felt had wronged him. But in their writings, Harris and Klebold rarely complained about bullying per se, and they took joy in the practice themselves. The massacre’s execution doesn’t square with a bullying motive, either: The bombs would have killed indiscriminately, and of the individuals they named in a video made shortly before the attack, not a single one was shot.

What about access to guns? Michael Moore thought the tragedy a perfect argument for gun control; beyond recounting the facts of how the killers obtained their weapons, Cullen has little to say. But those facts speak volumes. Short of a complete ban, there is no gun-control policy that could have stopped the killers from getting two shotguns, a TEC-9 handgun, and a Hi-Point carbine rifle — though harsher penalties for giving guns to minors could have made the transactions less likely.

The shotguns are common hunting tools, and the handgun and rifle, while they look unusually scary, are no more powerful and fire no more rapidly than other, more common guns. The firearms were purchased legally, and then given to the boys illegally — an adult friend sold Harris his TEC-9, and another adult friend bought the other guns as a straw purchaser at a gun show. (Closing the so-called “gun-show loophole” does not address the latter problem.)

Violent pop culture? The boys chose entertainment that suited their personalities, but it’s hard to say whether their video games, music, or movies made them any worse. Both killers loved the 1993 PC game Doom, where the player runs through various levels shooting demons, which bleed profusely as they collapse. Harris even designed his own Doom creatures, and compared the upcoming shooting to the game. But the game was immensely popular at the time, and if it had some corrupting effect capable of inspiring two people to try to kill hundreds, you’d expect to see a lot more Doom-related killings. Millions of people downloaded the game in its first few years, and Doom — not to mention its two sequels and the entire game genre it launched — remains popular and fun today. More tellingly, an FBI report on school shooters found that only one-eighth of them took an interest in video games.

In terms of music, Harris and Klebold did not listen to Marilyn Manson, but Harris listened to — and quoted in his journals — German industrial-metal bands like KMFDM and Rammstein. Klebold listened to the similar American band Nine Inch Nails, particularly The Downward Spiral. That record, a multiplatinum-selling release, could be interpreted as a concept album whose protagonist experiences various forms of mental anguish, then contemplates and/or commits murder and suicide.

Perhaps the most direct link between popular culture and the Columbine tragedy begins with the movie Natural Born Killers, a tale about a couple that, to the thrill of the press, goes on a senseless murder spree. To an adult, the movie is over-the-top in its gore and rather blunt about its message: By sensationalizing violence, the American media encourage it, and that’s a bad thing. The killers certainly planned the event as a media spectacle, and even referred to the plan as “NBK.” Without the movie, the initials would have been different, but what else?

Cullen settles on what is indeed the most convincing explanation: The boys may have watched Natural Born Killers, but the bigger problem is that they were natural-born killers.

Harris was almost certainly a psychopath — he had a massive superiority complex, he hated authority, he lied pathologically, he simulated empathy perfectly without feeling it, and he was charming enough to talk his way out of just about any situation. He managed to plunge deep into a disturbing mindset without too many others catching on: Thanks to better medical care, humanity was no longer susceptible to natural selection, a situation that needed fixing; modern humans were “robots” going through the motions of existence; Hitler and the Nazis had the right idea; he could get things started by topping Timothy McVeigh’s body count.

Klebold had a different personality and a different problem, but he complemented Harris. Klebold was depressed, more suicidal than homicidal. He was typically reserved and shy, though he was prone to occasional outbursts of anger. He frequently wrote of killing himself, and until near the end he seemed to think of “NBK” as a fantasy. Harris, who dominated the relationship, seems to have brought the weaker, indifferent Klebold around.

When minors are this disturbed, it falls on two institutions to protect society from harm: parenthood and the government.

Cullen writes that the parents “remain a mystery” — they do few media interviews — but both killers came from intact two-parent households, and Cullen presents no indication of abuse or neglect. Harris’s father, a Marine, is depicted as a strict parent, but one willing to protect his son against consequences in the outside world — one of Eric’s friends’ moms saw the other side of the boy, but the elder Mr. Harris figured she was overreacting. Harris’s mother stayed at home until the boy was in middle school. The Klebolds come off as a rich couple who went to pains not to spoil their children (though in a different section, the author mentions that Dylan drove a BMW).

When Eric and Dylan were caught breaking into a van and stealing electrical equipment a year before the massacre — they enjoyed going on “missions” like these, sneaking out at night and damaging property — all four parents were furious, and both boys were grounded for a month. They were forbidden to see each other, and Harris lost his computer privileges. Harris’s father evaluated six candidates before choosing a therapist for Eric.

What’s more interesting is the government’s response: Eric and Dylan sought entry into the “Diversion” program, and both were accepted. Their three felonies could have cost them several years in prison and a fine, but instead, Harris and Klebold would meet with a counselor and perform community service. Harris passed with rave reviews. Klebold didn’t do nearly as well, letting his school grades and his attendance at the program’s meetings slip, but passed all the same.

Both boys were bright kids without criminal records, so this may not seem out of the ordinary. But Judy Brown — that concerned mother of one of Eric’s friends — had been in touch with the police repeatedly about Eric. She’d provided a print-out of Eric’s website, on which he made specific, violent threats, including against her son. The website also detailed the “missions” and described building explosives in a way that matched a pipe bomb that had been found near Eric’s house. A search warrant was drawn up around the time the boys started Diversion, but it was never executed, and those responsible for sorting out the van break-in never got wind of it.

There’s no telling what would have happened if Eric had gone to prison instead of going through Diversion and continuing at Columbine. There’s no known treatment for psychopathy, and he may well have come out with better bomb-making skills. But it’s clear that the police came into contact with a very real threat and did nothing about it. They covered up their knowledge after the fact.

If there’s one lesson to learn from Columbine, it’s perhaps that citizens and policymakers should not jump to conclusions based on anecdotes. This book shows how much work it can take simply to uncover the facts — not to mention figure out what steps could have prevented this particular crisis, and whether those same steps would do more good than harm in the country as a whole. Ten years later, public shootings have not ceased, and those questions are as important as ever.

NR associate editor Robert VerBruggen edits the Phi Beta Cons blog.


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