The massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, followed the usual media trajectory: first a flurry of fact-starved news bulletins; then a procession of eye-witness interviews, crime-scene photos and somber analyses; and, finally, the crystallization of the tragedy into a few memorable mythic figures and events.

To the degree that people remember Columbine at all, they are likely to recall that the two students who did the killings in that Colorado community—Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—were “outsiders” given to wearing black trench coats and intent on avenging themselves against those who had bullied them, particularly the school jocks. And they both suffered from bad parenting.

None of this is true. Both boys were intelligent, industrious, socially involved, generally well liked and more apt to bully than be bullied. They came from prosperous but not opulent two-parent homes, and their parents were attentive and supportive without being overly indulgent. The boys wore dusters, not trench coats, on the last day of their lives—not for dramatic effect but to conceal their weapons.
Within a span of 49 minutes, the young assassins slaughtered 15 people, including themselves. It wasn’t an act committed in rage: they had planned the assault for months. Nor were there specific targets in mind. If Harris had had his way, he would have obliterated everyone in the school (and the world); Klebold simply wanted to die.

Dave Cullen—whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon and other publications—began his coverage of the massacre the day it occurred. He’s stayed with the story ever since, fleshing out the actions and motives of the central characters, observing the effects the carnage had on the community, chronicling the ongoing failures of law enforcement and pinpointing flaws of the media. His writing has the immediacy and starkness of a documentary.

Cullen was aided mightily in his research by the abundant detritus of hate Harris and Klebold left behind to make sure the world appreciated the depth of their discontent. They spoke from the grave through journals and videotapes that did not become available to the public until long after the furor had subsided. In addition, there are more than 30,000 pages of evidence compiled by the police.
The one mystery Cullen fails to solve in Columbine—and he acknowledges as much—is why Harris and Klebold acted as they did. What was the source of Harris’ rage and Klebold’s despair? Cullen is convinced that Harris was a classic psychopath. But that only labels, it doesn’t explain. Cullen does demonstrate, however, that there were ample signs of Harris’ escalating malevolence that the police never acted on. For reasons both emotional and legal, neither set of parents has been open with the press, and the testimony they were finally persuaded to give in 2003 in private has been sealed by a judge until 2027.

As full and as fascinating as it is, Columbine is a deeply unsettling book because it confirms our worst fear: that evil can arise without apparent cause and strike without provocation.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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