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:
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.