I grew up in the Denver area, so the 1999 Columbine literally hit close to home for me.  Two shooters, thirteen dead, many more wounded, and a community with a whole lot of unanswered questions.  

Dave Cullen's book Columbine didn't come out until ten years later, largely because Jefferson County released information in dribs and drabs over a period of years.  What's finally clear is how much of what we "knew" about Columbine was simply not true.

The myth.  The Columbine myth goes something like this:  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were outsiders who had no friends except for some Goths known as the "Trench Coat Mafia."  They were bullied until they finally snapped, and went on a shooting rampage where they targeted jocks and minorities.  They also targeted Christians, including Cassie Burnell who was heroically martyred after professing her faith with a gun to her head.

None of that was accurate.

Some 20/20 Hindsight.  The erroneous information came partly because the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department was initially concerned about the possibility of co-conspirators.  It seemed unlikely that two teenage boys could have amassed that kind of firepower without help.  (In fact, a friend did help them buy the guns at a gun show, but there is no evidence that she had any idea of their real plans.)  The boys left behind detailed journals and videotapes about their plans and motives, so additional shooters were ruled out quickly once the evidence was examined.  Yet Sheriff John Stone (who comes off as something of a doofus in the book) continued making public statements suggesting that there may have been additional conspirators.

The JeffCo Sheriff's Department also withheld a lot of information for CYA purposes.  Eric Harris had a web site where he made made numerous threats of violence.  He committed multiple acts of harassment, vandalism and threats, sometimes helped by Dylan Klebold or other friends.  Some of this was directed against former friend Brooks Brown, and the Brown family made at least 15 complaints to the police.  Months before the massacre they met with an investigator, who found enough evidence to put together an affidavit for a warrant - but for some reason the warrant was never taken before a judge or executed.  After the massacre, the Sheriff's Department repeatedly denied the existence of any of this information, and made the Brown family out to be liars.  At one point Sheriff Stone publicly suggested that Brooks Brown could have been a co-conspirator in the killings.

Because of the dearth of information, and the predictable confusion with two thousand witnesses (most of whom, strictly speaking, didn't witness anything), the media spread a lot of stories that turned out to be false, and for the most part they were never corrected.  Among the myths:

The Trench Coat Mafia.  There was a clique called the Trench Coat Mafia at Columbine, but Harris and Klebold were not part of it.  They did wear black coats the day of the shootings, so it is understandable how this myth arose.  (As with many things, Cullen notes, "The data was accurate - the conclusions were not.")  The story about the boys wearing makeup and painting their nails appears to trace back to one student who was interviewed - who did not actually know the shooters.  He also claimed the TCM were "all gay," the inevitable high school insult.  Most of the media ignored that claim, but a few right-wingers picked it up and ran with it, notably Jerry Falwell.  

The Killers' Motives.  When trying to make sense of horror, it's easy to fall for a compelling narrative.  The story that emerged - bullying victims who snapped - comes off as understandable, and even gives hope for preventing the next tragedy.  But it isn't true.

Harris and Klebold were not bullied - they were bullies.  They bragged about picking on the new kids and "fags."  And they certainly didn't "snap" - the massacre was a year in the planning.

Right after the attack, contradictory stories emerged about the killers targeting jocks, minorities, Christians, and "anyone in hats."  In fact, their target was the whole school.  They had brought enough bombs to kill everyone there; the guns were just so they could pick off stragglers in the chaos.  

Eric Harris's journals and videotapes make a convincing case that he was a textbook psychopath.  He had almost no capacity for empathy.  He considered himself superior to other people, and viewed them as idiots and zombies who deserved to all be exterminated.  He could be a charming and convincing liar, conning his parents, therapists, and people in the diversion program where he and Klebold were sent after they broke into a van and stole electronic equipment.  The treating therapists' notes document him making excellent progress; Eric's journals laugh about the sessions and how well he snowed everyone.  Eric wanted to wipe out the whole human race, but decided he would settle for his high school.  Fortunately, the boy who imagined himself so much smarter than everyone else was a failure when it came to making bombs.

Dylan Klebold's mental health problems were more complicated.  He was depressed and wrote frequently about suicide.  He was prone to rages, but would also write sentimental rhasphodies about love.  He was obsessed with a girl who he saw in class but apparently never met.  He was a follower, and Eric Harris gave him a direction.  He wavered several times over the course of the year, but finally committed to the massacre.

The Martyrdom of Cassie Burnell.  One story that emerged quickly was how one of the killers asked Cassie Burnell if she believed in God.  She said yes, and then he shot her.  

There was a conversation similar to that in the library, where the two killers did most of their killing.  But (1) it happened after the girl was shot and wounded, (2) she was the one who brought up God (3) she didn't die, and (4) she wasn't Cassie Burnell.  Dylan Klebold heard Val Shnurr praying that she wouldn't die. He asked if she believed in God, and she said yes.  Something distracted Klebold, and he left her there bleeding.  That's the story from all the witnesses - except one, who apparently mixed up Cassie and Val in the chaos.

The myth of Cassie Burnell dying for her faith was an appealing story, and it brought some solace to her parents and others in the Evangelical community.  But it also resulted in Val Shnurr being viewed as a liar who was trying to capitalize on Cassie's fame.  The truth - Val speaking up for her faith and surviving - is surely no less inspiring than the myth.  Val later observed that it was harder to forgive the people who'd treated her as a liar than to forgive the shooters, who were mentally ill and had targeted her at random.

The Takeaway.  The Columbine media narrative is pretty firmly entrenched, and it's tempting to try to pull lessons out of it.  We all want to prevent the next Columbine.  Anti-bullying measures are always a good idea, but they wouldn't have made a difference in this instance, as Harris and Klebold were not bullying victims.  Others have latched onto Columbine for campaigns against violent video games and for prayer in school.  (The always-classy Newt Gingrich blamed Columbine on the "liberal elite.")  Certainly Columbine is a good argument for keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill teenagers with criminal records (and if anyone suggests that having more guns at school would have solved the problem, you'll hear me scream straight through your monitor).

The clearer lessons seem to be in the aftermath:  Harris and Klebold left some red flags ahead of time, and suppressing that information afterward helped no one (not even the JeffCo sheriff's Department, who wound up making themselves look a whole lot worse).  And the media's obsession with getting out the story quickly did a lot of damage to their ability to get it out accurately.

Columbine could have happened anywhere.  But it happened in my neighborhood, so I take it a bit personally.  Sooner or later it will be someone else's neighborhood, and the least we can do for them is try to be accurate about what didn't happen here, and what did.

Originally posted to Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Fri Mar 04, 2011 at 04:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers and Community Spotlight.

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