The last few books that I have read have taken an emotional toll on me. Yet, I find myself unable to stop. The need to consume real, raw material is a call that I cannot ignore. Despite having completed my degree, I am still called to learn more, to educate myself beyond the scope of my own life. It is an exhilarating and exhausting feeling, yet I regret nothing. This is exactly how I want to spend my time now that I have completed school.
This week’s pick was the result of a chance sighting in my public library. I was there to pick up 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act and The New Jim Crow. As I was heading to the check out, the simple cover drew my eye to the title: Columbine. There was only one possibility, so I took a chance.
Which is why this week I am reviewing Dave Cullen’s Columbine.
I contemplated posting this in April when the shooting took place, but ultimately decided against it. It felt like it crossed a line, even if I was remembering the victims and survivors.
I want to take a moment to remind you of those lost in this shooting: Cassie Bernall, 17; Steven Curnow, 14; Corey DePooter, 17; Kelly Fleming, 16; Matthew Kechter, 16; Daniel Mauser, 15; Daniel Rohrbough, 15; William “Dave” Sanders, 47; Rachel Scott, 17; Isaiah Shoels, 18; John Tomlin, 16; Lauren Townsend, 18, and Kyle Velasquez, 16.
Now here we go.
Outwardly, Eric and Dylan looked like normal young boys about to graduate. They were testing authority, testing their sexual prowess – a little frustrated with the dumbasses they had to deal with, a little full of themselves. Nothing unusual for high school.Cullen 10
Cullen does an incredible job painting the scene of this small town for the reader. He doesn’t delve into the shooting, focus on the gory details, and then end the book. Rather, he introduces the reader to a community, to people who have beautiful lives and have no inkling of what is soon to come. He also does not paint Eric and Dylan as these evil geniuses or hapless victims of constant bullying.
Cullen gives each person within this real event a full and rich background. He introduces us to people, not stock figures of heroes versus villains. He does not paint the town with broad strokes, but takes the time to input intricate details that would be missed in mainstream coverage of the stories. He treats each story with care, recognizing that these are real people, people who went through something terrible. Some survived, while others did not. Yet, each of them is worthy of a full story and Cullen gives that to them in spades.
Everyone assumed the Columbine massacre was a conspiracy, including the cops. It was just too big, too bold, and too complex for a couple of kids to have imagine, much less pulled off.Cullen 107
One of the most interesting aspects for me was to realize how much information that I thought I knew about Columbine was wrong. For example, I had no idea that everyone thought it was a conspiracy at the beginning, that they believed a gang had organized some terrible plot to take out the teens of the school. I have always known it as the work of two teen boys, though I was also under the impression that they had been bullied for years, likely picking up information from other stories and adding it to my own knowledge of Columbine.
Another thing that I did not realize was that if the Columbine massacre had gone according to Dylan and Eric’s plan, there would have been a lot more dead bodies. They planted some pipe bomb contraptions about 3 miles away from the school to distract emergency services for when the shooting started. Before the massacre, they spent a lot of time determining exactly when their cafeteria would have the most students in it. On the day of the shooting, they planted bombs to go off in there at the most populated time. Then, they waited outside the two closest escapes, so they could shoot any students trying to flee after the bombs.
Thankfully, all the bombs failed in their purpose. The pipe bombs only started a small fire and the large propane bombs in the cafeteria did not go off at all, so the boys had to enter the school instead. If it was not for this, the body count would have likely been in the hundreds. This event was traumatizing enough with a death toll of 15 (including Dylan and Eric), plus 24 injured folks. This was already the worst school shooting in United States history (so far), so I cannot even imagine how devastating it would have been if their plan had worked.
The final thing that I did not realize was that the suicides of Dylan and Eric came less than an hour after the first shots were fired. I had always been under the impression that they wandered around the school for hours taking out those left, partially because I was not aware of the specific death toll. However, there is an incredibly good reason for this misunderstanding of events, since the police also thought that they were still wandering around the school for some time.
The first shots were fired at 11:19 AM and the first SWAT team did not enter Columbine until 1:09 PM. This is an hour after the suicides’ of the perpetrators and almost 2 hours after the first shots. The school was not declared safe until 4:30 PM, over 5 hours after it started.
Cullen does an incredible job weaving this story together for the readers. It doesn’t start and end with the horrific date of the shooting: April 20, 1999. Rather, it looks into the history of those who perpetrated the act, those who survived it, and those who were lost to it. It builds a world for you to examine as a reader, that pulls you in, that creates an empathy you did not even realize you were capable of.
Fear was Eric’s ultimate weapon. He wanted to maximize the terror. He didn’t want kids to fear isolated events like a sporting event or a dance; he wanted them to fear their daily lives. It worked.Cullen 277
Fear. That was the motive. Fear and chaos, a need to cause damage and pain to those who lived alongside them. It also scared people all over the United States. It still strikes fear into the hearts of people, alongside other horrific shootings, like Sandy Hook (27 dead), Parkland (17 dead), Pulse Nightclub (49 dead), and the Las Vegas shooting (58 dead).
In 1999, Columbine was the worst school shooting in the history of the United States. What is most terrifying is that Columbine is no longer the worst school shooting. On the list of most deadly shootings in the US by fatality, it shares the number 14 spot with 4 other shootings. On the list that specifically looks at school shootings by fatality, Columbine comes in at number 5.
Columbine should have stayed at number one on the school shooting list. It likely would have if it had happened in New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, or Finland, countries that all took swift action after a mass shooting to curb gun violence. Yet, the United States still resists reasonable gun control.
How many children need to die before the country that believes itself to be the best realizes that they are failing the most innocent among them?
If you would like to buy Columbine by Dave Cullen, please consider making your purchase from a Black or Indigenous Owned Bookstore. A list of those can be found here.