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Journalist Looks At The 'Why' Behind Columbine

The massacre at Columbine High School 10 years ago was the largest mass murder on school grounds at the time.
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The massacre at Columbine High School 10 years ago was the largest mass murder on school grounds at the time.

Ten years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their Colorado high school armed with a TEC-9, sawed-off shotguns and an arsenal of explosives and killed 13 people. It was the largest mass murder on school grounds at the time.

Since then, what happened at the high school has become iconic. Yet in his new book, Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen turns much of what we believe about the crime on its head.

Drawing upon years of research, Cullen reveals, for starters, that Klebold and Harris were not social outcasts who "just snapped," nor were they members of the school's disaffected "Trench Coat Mafia." The boys could even be bullies themselves — telling themselves that they were "superior beings."

"How dare you think that you and I are part of the same species when we are sooo different?" Harris wrote in his journal. "You aren't human. You are a robot."

To this end, their attack on Columbine wasn't an emotional outburst or revenge fantasy, either. It was carefully orchestrated. The boys plotted for more than a year. Their goal? To kill indiscriminately: first blow up the school, then bomb the emergency services when they arrived. Ideally, the destruction should surpass Oklahoma City — to wipe out, Harris wrote, "as much humanity as possible."

The boys placed two large bombs in the cafeteria and two car bombs in the parking lot. When these failed to detonate, they resorted to random shootings and Molotov cocktails. The Columbine massacre that America witnessed? That was improvised, Cullen argues, a default, Plan B.

Cullen's book has been compared to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Here, I disagree. His work has none of the investigative tension or lyrical empathy of Capote. Columbine is a good, strong book, but not a great one — its journalism braids together many different stories without quite singing.

At its best, however, it parallels Malcolm Gladwell's work because Columbine does something important: It delivers a clear-eyed portrait of human pathology. Cullen explains the ways the brain works — and challenges our assumptions about how and why people behave as they do.

Without sensationalizing, he shows that one of the Columbine killers — Harris — was a textbook-definition "psychopath." And by explaining what this means — and how the world might be perceived emotionally by a psychopath — Cullen answers better than anyone, perhaps, the question most people ask about Columbine: "What were those boys thinking?"

In doing so, the implications of Columbine extend far beyond the walls of a high school.

The book asserts that Harris and Klebold were not disgruntled geeks but terrorists. Cullen uses this word dispassionately, yet repeatedly. Columbine, he says, was an act of terrorism.

He never connects the dots between Klebold and Harris' mindset and that of, say, al-Qaida — and I, at least, wished he had because he makes crucial observations about what might actually compel someone to strap on an explosive belt or drive a car full of fertilizer into a day care center. Ultimately, his book implies that terrorism isn't rooted in politics, religion or teenage angst, but lodged in the human brain itself — in depression and psychosis, in pathologies that are all too easily harnessed by extremism, or, in this case, by one disturbed teenage boy handing another a gun.

Susan Jane Gilman is the author of "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven."

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Susan Jane Gilman
Susan Jane Gilman, whose reviews and commentaries can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, is a journalist, fiction writer and bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess and, most recently, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a memoir about a naive and disastrous trek Gilman made through Communist China in 1986.