Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Columbine - Dave Cullen's Insightful, Thouroughly Researched Portrait of Horror

I recently finished reading Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen's thorough and moving account of the April 20, 1999, school shooting that left 12 students and one teacher dead along with many injured. The shooting generated worldwide media attention and the killers would be cited by future school shooters.

On that day 11 years ago, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris mounted a deadly assault on the high school they had just graduated from. Armed with sawed off shotguns, pipe bombs and amateurish propane bombs they planned to kill everyone they could. The attack was not targeted at jocks or any other high school subculture; Eric Harris just wanted to inflect the maximum possible amount of damage and terror.

You would think the motivations for the attack, something most people would be interested in, would be common knowledge 11 years after the fact. But they're not. Initial media reports distorted the story terribly. Pack journalism led reporters to draw conclusions about Goths, the Trench Coat Mafia, Marilyn Manson and violent video games as motivating factors. These myths persisted — the Marilyn Manson angle was used by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore when he was making Bowling for Columbine. Moore interviewed a very articulate and compassionate Manson who had been unfairly blamed for the attack by some media.

Cullen's book, in addition to being a remarkably well-researched account of the tragedy that debunks popular myths, is a compassionate account that meticulously documents the loss and suffering of Columbine's victims. The years of research he put into this show in the quality of the finished product.

This would be a painfully long entry if I were to document all of the touching human stories in Columbine, so I'll just pick one that stands out.

The story is Brian Rohrbough's, the father of Dan Rohrbough, killed in the attack. After Columbine, Brian pressed the county's police force to release all the evidence they had gathered, as well as a long promised (and delayed) final report. Through years of struggle Rohrbough was able to discover the police had a record on Eric Harris. Multiple copies of the record vanished in the summer following the Columbine shootings. Harris was posting his thoughts on a website, including a 'hate list' and his intent to murder certain individuals. He was also placed in a Diversion program for young offenders after robbing a van in the middle of a field with Klebold.

Rohrbough took his son's death hard. In addition to forcing disclosure from the police he became active as a 'right to life' advocate. Rohrbough's religious views and bitterness show in the inscription he chose for the Columbine memorial. You can see it here.

For anyone interested in moving, well-researched, well-written investigative journalism, Columbine is a book you must read.


And in Cinema Land I recommend Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World to anyone who loves clever, funny pop culture. The million and one lightning fast punch lines and pop culture references this movie packs in won me over. There's a particularly good Seinfeld reference in the movie that brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

1 comment:

  1. Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

    Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
    The Denver Post

    Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

    "Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
    Wall Street Journal