20 Years on from Columbine


On April 20th 1999, in a large, non-descript school called Columbine High (Home of the Rebels) in Littleton, Colorado, one of the most notorious crimes in American history unfolded, that would define Bill Clinton’s presidency almost as much as Monica Lewinsky. Two teenage students, Eric Harris, 18 and Dylan Klebold 17, shortly after attending the prom, attacked the school with automatic weapons killing 13, wounding dozens, and then killing themselves.

Their ultimate plan was to blow up the school and pick off survivors fleeing from the explosions, but their bomb-making abilities, learnt from the notorious Anarchist’s Cookbook, was amateurish, and the bombs never went off.

For fifteen years, investigative journalist Jeff Kass, friend and confidant of Hunter S Thompson, researched and wrote what must now be seen as the definitive story of this horrific set of murders with the care of In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. There have been several books on the topic, including Dave Cullen’s sentimental Columbine, Dylan’s mother Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the aftermath of Columbine, and Eric and Dylan’s contemporary Brooks Brown’s No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine.

I have only read Cullen’s book and found it wanting, especially in the way it described Eric Harris as a psychopath and Klebold’s as a simple manic depressive manipulated into the act, which is clearly not the case. Both Harris and Klebold’s wrote diaries that Kass quotes from freely. It seems obvious that both killers were manic depressives, and suffering from body dysmorphia, unable to find anything about their physical appearance to their pleasing.

From Klebold’s journal “Existences”:

““As i see the people at school—some good, some bad—i see how different i am (aren’t we all you’ll say) yet i’m on such a greater scale of difference from everyone else (as far as I kno, or guess). I see jocks having fun, friends, women, LIVEZ. Or rather shallow existences compared to mine (maybe). Like ignorance is bliss. They don’t know beyond this world . . . yet we each are lacking something that other possesses. i lack the true human nature . . . & they lack the overdeveloped mind/imagination/knowledge tool. “wherever i go after this life—that i’ll finally not be at war w. myself, the world, the universe—my mind, body, everywhere, everything at PEACE”

Michael Moore’s Oscar winning film Bowling for Columbine (2002) had no understanding of the slow development of psychopathy and was simply his trademark emotional pornography using rock music over scenes of carnage. A monster is formed, not born, and Moore only won because of the impending second gulf war. Looking back on the film, neither Marilyn Manson or South Park creator Matt Stone come across well. It would take Kass another 13 years to finish his opus, and details such as the abysmal grammar and spelling in the original police reports made it only finally possible years later, with professional journalistic skill and care to know who shot who and when and where in the school victims died, which managed to give closure to the families, despite not seeming as important as it very much is. When it comes to murder, truth matters, if only for closure.

Previously unknown details, how Sue Klebold had a terrifying fear of death as a teenager and underwent extensive therapy feature throughout the book, whilst motive is simply impossible to quantify. But the book is careful and as thorough as the curious or the expert may require. In a conclusionary passage, Kass researched that:

“The eleven years from 1982 to 1992 had fourteen mass shootings resulting in 133 dead and 128 injured. As with school shootings, most mass shootings in those years occurred in the South and West of the United States—eleven of the fourteen. The decade from 1993 to 2002 shows nineteen mass shootings with 119 dead and 150 injured. Fifteen of nineteen shootings were in the South and West. A massive rise in disturbing numbers arrived from 2003 to 2012. By then, twenty-nine mass shootings spread across the U.S. map—more than double the first eleven years counted. The number of dead reached 261—again, almost double the span from 1982 to 1992. The number of injured jumped to 216—moving solidly towards doubling the number of the first eleven years. Sixteen of the twenty-nine incidents were in the South and West. A copycat effect, no doubt, echoes throughout the shootings, but the nature of it may have changed. The rise in shootings may indicate that the copycats do not directly build upon a single incident. Rather, mass shootings now copy the idea of a mass shooting. And that idea is more powerful than any one mass shooting because it carries the collective weight of all mass shootings. This idea seems to have become infused in our DNA. Anyone can now view a mass shooting as a solution to his or her problem.”

This is an important book in the true crime canon, and while it answers the unanswered questions of the massacre with care and journalistic integrity, it is by no means reassuring.

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