Sunday, December 1, 2013

True crime: Columbine

Let's just pretend that four month break never happened.

To celebrate the month of October, I checked out a bunch of true crime books from the Brooklyn Public Library. I wanted to be scared about things that could actually happen to me instead of zombies.

The first book I read was "Columbine," by Dave Cullen (2009). The 1999 massacre at Columbine High.School in Colorado was the first major media event of my life. That sounds a little sick, like it was my first Superbowl or Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, but it's true. It was the first news story I ever noticed, because it was about people in my age group (or slightly older, I was in middle school). So much of the follow-up commentary was about people like me, what we were doing, and how we were feeling

Reading this book, I remembered what we all "knew" about Columbine. The shooters were bullied loners; they were in a gang called the Trenchcoat Mafia; they were after jocks, minorities, homosexuals, and/or Christians; they could have been helped if only they'd been discovered earlier. The whole thing turned into this juicy morality tale about the importance of early intervention in the lives of troubled teens, and it was a satisfying enough narrative that it remains the accepted explanation of the Columbine Massacre even though it's almost entirely wrong.

The truth is more mundane than the accepted tale of fragile young men pushed to the breaking point by a cold, uncaring society. Society had actually poured a lot of effort into the two. Both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were in court-ordered therapy for committing a string of petty thefts and vandalism in the years leading up to the massacre. They had therapists, doctors, parole officers, medication, stable home lives, and a strong network of friends and co-workers. They weren't loners, they weren't unpopular, they didn't hate jocks, and they weren't bullied. "Trenchcoat Mafia," one of the most lurid and compelling parts of the story as it broke, was a nickname given to a group of kids at Columbine the year earlier. The term had fallen out of use by the spring of 1999, and anyway, neither of the shooters were part of it to begin with.

What actually happened is that Harris was a full-blown psychopath. The efforts of his parents and doctors to turn him into a caring, productive member of society either amused him or infuriated him, and he felt no remorse or empathy for the people he hurt or killed. He was a real-life Joker who just wanted to watch the world burn.

Klebold was depressed, suicidal, and obsessed with a girl who never seemed to have spoken to him outside his own mind. His motivation is a little harder to figure out--how much of his involvement was due to manipulation by a brilliant, charming psychopath, and how much of it was just his own desire to die and take as many people with him as he went down?

I can't recommend this book enough. It's an incredibly compelling story to begin with: an in-depth look at one of the most shocking events of 20th century America. But when you come into it thinking you already know everything there is to know about the Columbine Massacre, like I did, you come away with a new awareness of the power of the media. We 21st century folks are familiar with the 24-hour media spin cycle, but in a way, Columbine is where that all began. (It was, for example, the first time emergency response crews had to deal with victims still inside the building using cell phones, which seems like a no-brainer now but was so radical at the time that it literally changed the rule book for emergency crews.)

Final Grade: A.

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