Today I finished reading Columbine by Dave Cullen (amazon | indigo), one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Cullen breaks down everything you think you know about the shooting at Columbine high school ten years ago and starts the story over again. Telling in equal parts the buildup to the shooting and the aftermath of it, he manages to turn a decade-old news story into something you can’t put down.

As I’ve said before, it’s important to understand why people do things like what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did, without resorting to the easy (and dangerous) label of “monster”. They weren’t crazed loners, they weren’t bullied, they weren’t part of a black-clad gang, and they didn’t “snap” and suddenly start shooting. It was a long, complicated plan executed by a full-fledged psycopath and his depressive sidekick.

While Cullen maintains professional distance throughout the book, he can’t hide his disgust with the media, for manufacturing so much incorrect information. He singles out the Washington Post and Rocky Mountain News for doing good work, but his criticism for how the incident was reported among most of the media is clear. There’s also a marked difference in the portrayal of some of the churches. Some of the area religious leaders come across as opportunistic, trying to profit and recruit from the tragedy, while others were criticized for preaching forgiveness.

Columbine should be required reading for those who think they know what happened at Columbine ten years ago, or for anyone who wants to understand better the dangers of media furor.

"Kids had never been attacked in this kind of way"

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of Columbine, the familiar title given the killings at the Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado. CNN yesterday ran a piece about the release of a new bookColumbine, by Dave Cullen — which I’ve been meaning to pick up. The big draw of the book for me is that is tells the real story of what happened and debunks many of the myths which sprung up in the immediate aftermath. Among them:

  • There was a group of kids at Columbine called the Trench Coat Mafia, but Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t part of it.
  • The killers did not target jocks (those wearing baseball hats, as it’s sometimes reported) or black kids. There was no discernible pattern to their killing.
  • Harris and Klebold, though clearly unstable and dangerous, were not outcasts or loners, nor was their rampage apparently caused by bullying.
  • Cassie Bernall, reported to have been killed when she replied to the killers that she believed in god and subsequently made a martyr by evangelical christians, in fact said no such thing. Another student was asked whether she believed in god; she answered yes, was shot and lived.

The first three myths are explained by psychologists in the CNN article as being persistent because they were (irresponsibly) reported immediately after the killing, and are convenient for people to believe because they point to Harris and Klebold being misanthropes, different from everyone else, conveniently monstrous. People don’t like to think that normal people can do terrible things, so they cast them as evil. While not logical, this is understandable as a coping mechanism.

The last myth, though…that’s the one that gets me. By the fall of 1999 it was well established that the rumour about Bernall was false, but her parents still earned royalties from a book about her death called She Said Yes released in Aug 1999 (and reprinted several times) and earned $3,500 per speaking appearance in the years since. Misinformation is one thing; exploitation another.

Thought police anyone?

From the Globe and Mail: Hiding in plain website.

Killers from Columbine to Dawson College have broadcast their intentions online long before going on their murderous rampages. One criminologist thinks mass school shootings can be averted with cyberspace sleuthing

Teenagers who discover a fondness for The Cure (or whoever today’s version of The Cure is), prepare to be patted down.

[tags]columbine, dawson college, kacper gradon[/tags]