Dispelling the Myths of Columbine

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

In the previous post, I referred to Dave Cullen’s book, Columbine, as a prime example of the danger caused by media misinformation. The book’s glowing reviews and awards from many sources indicate that I am not alone in finding this book to be worthy of a specific review on this site.

Cullen spent 10 years sifting through hundreds of interviews, thousands of police records, and the killers’ journals and tapes. He spoke personally to survivors of the massacre, police officers, investigators, and journalists. In the book, Cullen dispels many of the popular myths surrounding Columbine that persist to this day. By immersing himself in life after Columbine, Cullen also offers a stunning perspective on the resilience and courage of the victims’ families.

One of the most entrenched Columbine myths was the perception of the shooters as “outcasts”. In Slate in 2004, Cullen wrote a summary of the killers’ personalities. (His piece was further summarized by David Brooks of the New York Times). His publisher added these comments:

“What is shocking about the Columbine shooting is just how ordinary these two boys seemed. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold loved their parents, did their homework, worked at the local pizzeria, and—contrary to widely reported accounts—were well-liked by their peers.”

The killers’ true motivations are also shocking. Columbine is often characterized as a response, a targeting of the bullies that had allegedly harassed the shooters, Eric and Dylan. However, after reading the killers’ journals, detectives (and Cullen) concluded differently:

“Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed… Detectives let go of the targeting theory immediately. It had been sketchy to begin with, and now it was completely disproved. The media never shook it off. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They filtered every new development through that lens. (p.124)”

Another alarming revelation comes from witnesses to the “martyrdom” of Cassie Bernall. As the story goes, the shooters asked Cassie if she believed in God, then shot her when “She Said Yes” (the title of a book later published by her mother). The story truly is an uplifting tale of faith, but it is not factual. Eyewitnesses, a 911 tape, and the original “earwitness” of the story completely disproved the account.

What can we learn from all this? We can learn how little we know. Thousands of miles away, we try to analyze what drove this recent shooting in Connecticut. From media sound bites, we become psychologists and FBI detectives, testing theories and debating what the true cause was. In a few years, some of us will realize how wrong we were.

A major lesson from this book is that the truth will never be universally realized and accepted. No amount of evidence can dispel the general public’s insistence on being right. However, Dave Cullen has done a stellar job demonstrating the type of investigation that can lead to the truth – even if it takes 10 years..

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6 responses to “Dispelling the Myths of Columbine

  1. There’s another lesson here and that is the importance of gathering facts before jumping to conclusions. One of the advantages of media technologies is that they can get us information quickly, but a glaring problem is that bad information can get out first, and once out has “staying power” that sometimes cannot be undone in the mind of the majority even when the corrections come later (if corrections come).

    Another good, thought-provoking entry. Keep up the good work.

    • Exactly! We all love to know what is happening right away, but many don’t “tune in” later. So when updates are made, people miss them (or dismiss them because of their already-held perceptions). Like you said, IF corrections come. That’s a big if.

      One of the most alarming things was that they told Cassie Bernall’s mother that the story of her daughter’s “martyrdom” wasn’t true. But she went ahead with the book deal anyway.

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