Sunday, October 18, 2009

Meaningless massacre

Dave Cullen's meticulous narrative in Columbine, left me uneasy, haunted. Eric Harris, the high school age psychopath who, along with his depressed buddy Dylan Klebold, murdered 13 fellow students in 1999 in the Denver suburb of Columbine, would have been happy that their story has remained so unsettling. That was the point according to this author.

Eric was counting on a slow recovery. He was less concerned about killing hundreds of people on April 20 than about tormenting millions for years. His audience was the target. He wanted everyone to agonize: the student body, residents of [Jefferson County], the American public, the human race.

Cullen has brought together the messy, fragmentary, almost over-documented record of the events that led up to the massacre and leaves this reader with the impression that the horror happened because this was one of those unhappy occasions on which everything that could have gone right went wrong. One of the shooters was seriously mentally warped; the other a combination of conventionally depressed and easily led. None of the various authorities or other young people who were positioned to have intervened did anything that interrupted the boys' trajectory toward the crime. Intervention could have come at many points, but apparently by happenstance rather than culpability, it just didn't. Mulling over Columbine's "meaning," I'm left with the sense that there are very few lessons to be drawn from this tragedy.

What Cullen does create is a very full picture of how journalism in the immediate aftermath set anxious parents and consumers of TV sensationalism rushing off in numerous directions after "explanations" that were false, but proved to have enormous sticking power. The killers were not gay, nor Goths, nor part of a "Trench Coat Mafia," nor aiming to kill Blacks, nor targeting confessing Christians. But all those ideas took flight as hordes of reporters swarmed to Columbine. Cullen paints a picture of how many of these notions originated almost immediately as the reporters sought explanations for such a violent event:

...most of the most notorious myths took root before the killers' bodies were found. ... Media defenders blame the chaos: two thousand witnesses, wildly conflicting reports -- who could get all those facts straight?

... Initially, most witnesses ... described the killing as random. All the papers and the wire services produced a total of just four witnesses advancing the target theory [in multiple variants] ... each one contradicting his or her own description. ..."Student" equaled "witness." Witness to everything that happened that day, and anything about the killers. It was a curious leap. Reporters would not make that mistake at a car wreck. ...But journalists felt like foreigners stepping into teen culture. They knew that kids can hide anything from adults -- but not from each other. That was the mentality: Something shocking happened here; we're baffled, but the kids know. So all two thousand were deputized as insiders ...

Do most of us really feel that alienated from the world of young people -- particularly the world of young people most of whom were themselves looking to adults to give horror meaning?

At the time, and subsequently, we want to reject the possibility that these human actions, done by teenagers who appeared not so very far from the norm, might have no neat explanation at all. This remains tough to contemplate.

If you aren't up for a 400 page excursion into meaninglessness -- despite some very endearing portraits of some admirable people who did and did not survive this madness -- this may not be the book for you. It was a good read for me because I was close to being the person I always doubt exists when I read about jury selection in high profile cases: because of distractions in my own life, I paid no attention to Columbine at the time and never picked up on the story later. It was all new and a little fascinating to me, especially since I worked in a nearby Denver suburb during the last election. But it's a nasty episode to be approached with mental caution.
Uncontrolled gun buying at under-regulated gun shows was only a tiny factor in the Columbine story but it remains the case that if these boys had not had access to some serious killing weaponry, they would not have killed and maimed so many victims. The YouTube [3:42] below from a recent New York City investigation of uncontrolled gun sales vividly shows that one of the elements that made Columbine possible is still alive and well.


sfmike said...

The only evocation/explanation of Columbine that has made any emotional sense to me is a weird, short Gus van Sant movie called "Elephant." It's one of the most chilling movies ever made, a very formal, tricky experiment in time and empathy that could have been awful but actually works.

The other thing to remember is that Littleton is the Colorado equivalent of our Ross or Blackhawk or Palo Alto. Its singular affluence was also part of the tale that isn't usually part of the official myth but was definitely part of the fascination.

gm said...

On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

"Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." --Janet Maslin, New York Times

"A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." -----Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

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