Columbine by Dave Cullen: A Review

Unintentionally, or perhaps subconsciously, the first two non-fiction books of 2017 that I read have centered around gun-related tragedies.


I was thirteen when news of the Columbine school shooting interrupted afternoon soap operas to bring live coverage of the ongoing tragedy. At that stage, the media reported many inaccuracies, some of which persist despite solid debunking (such as the mythic story of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine “martyr” whose last words affirming her belief in God turned out to be uttered by someone else).

Dave Cullen does an excellent job in this well-researched book of debunking myths and providing perhaps the most accurate picture of the tragedy to exist, all the while admitting that there are mysteries that remain.

Cullen accomplishes a portrait of killers, victims, bystanders, and families while retaining an impassive eye. He almost never inserts an opinion or conjecture throughout the entire book, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Just the facts, please. There’s no right or wrong, no pleas for forgiveness or condemnation. Only the portrait of a town and people devastated by an intensely, wholly unanticipated tragedy.

If Cullen does offer a criticism, it’s towards the conduct of a police department that failed to respond to numerous warning signs and attempting a cover-up in the aftermath. He doesn’t need to say it out loud; the conduct of certain officials are damning enough in itself.

Many of the details are shocking. I didn’t know the extent to which the killers’ plan failed; the bombs they planted didn’t detonate. If they had, the death toll would have been in the hundreds.

I ask myself what made Columbine such a standout that its place in history is cemented. It wasn’t the first mass shooting on a school campus (see the 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting.) Perhaps it was the media, the ongoing you-are-here feeling of capturing a tragedy in progress. Even though the killers were dead three hours before discovery, the tension of seeing the school building from the outside and only imagining what could be taking place inside lent a personal aspect to the event. Much the way a video game allows the player to slip into other worlds and perspectives, immediate access to crises via the media enforces a visceral experience upon the viewer in a way that reading a story in the paper cannot.

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