Andrew Gumbel explains what really happened on the day of the Columbine massacre - and why (2023)

miExactly 10 years ago, on Monday, the world woke up to learn that two more crazed American teenagers had freaked out after years of bullying at the hands of the "jocks", the sporting overlords of their universe, and had gone on a murder spree. semi-automatic weapons at their suburban school.

Or that's the version we were told, anyway.

The teenagers were named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and their school wasaquilegiaHigh, an idyllic location nestled between the greater Denver area and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. What is indisputable is that Columbine quickly became synonymous with the nightmarish phenomenon, now apparently a worldwide contagion, of school shootings. It was the bloodiest, bloodiest, most vivid school attack anyone can remember at the time, and it remains, to this day, the episode that the American popular imagination can't seem to shake.

Harris and Klebold didn't just shoot their victims in cold blood. They laughed and squealed as they did this, as if they were having the time of their lives.

Unlike previous US school shootings, which took place in hard-to-reach places like West Paducah, Kentucky, or Jonesboro, Arkansas, this one took place a half-hour drive from a major media center. Denver television crews got there as the horrors unfolded, and the cameras didn't stop rolling for a week. This, in hindsight, might not have been an entirely good thing.

From the start, the visuals seemed to suck viewers right into the center of the chaos. One of the dead was left trapped in a parking lot, which his terrified fellow students would eventually have to walk through when they ran outside at the end of their ordeal. Cameras recorded everything. Another victim, already badly injured in the head, arm and legs but gripped by a compulsion to leave the school at all costs, somehow pirouetted his broken body across a window sill and into the arms of two police officers who they expected. This was also broadcast live on international television.

However, what we were seeing was not exactly what we thought. By the time the TV crews arrived, Harris and Klebold ended their rampage and turned their guns on each other. The sporadic gunshots heard over the next three hours during the incessant wah-wah of the fire alarm actually came from SWAT teams firing bullets through closed classroom doors in an excruciatingly slow and clumsy effort to locate the killers. Only later did authorities realize that Harris and Klebold were already dead in the library, along with 10 of their 13 murder victims.

The illusion of an ordeal lasting hours - some TV channels even described it as a hostage showdown - was just the first of many misconceptions. Harris and Klebold, we're told, were members of a college group of Marilyn Manson-worshipping goth losers called the Trenchcoat Mafia, who had few friends and only attracted ridicule from the nice kids. Not only did they hate athletes, they were racists who chose April 20th for the attack because it was Hitler's birthday. Supposedly, they also had a grudge against evangelical Christians. A story soon spread that one of the victims of the library murder, Cassie Bernall, was asked at gunpoint if she believed in God. When she said yes, Harris laughed and pulled the trigger. The story inspired dozens of sermons, spawned a bestselling book co-authored with Bernall's mother, and elevated Bernall to martyr status far beyond Columbine.

Those of us who cover shootings repeat at least some of these stories. We had no reason not to. They were confirmed, if not expanded upon, by Jefferson County officials, who gave briefings several times a day. How could we know that John Stone, the county sheriff, was improvising, telling us, for example, that the kids had fully automatic weapons and at least one accomplice, when it was just their own wrong assumptions?

The stories were also repeated by traumatized students who addressed the television cameras located in a park across the street from the school. We could not guess that these students did not know Harris and Klebold - this was a school of 2,000 students - and were, for the most part, repeating things that they themselves picked up from television coverage. I had lengthy conversations with local teenagers, both in the park and at a local mall, about the oppression of sports culture and the enormous pressures of feeling out of place in a rigidly conformist, predominantly white, middle-class community. It seemed like a plausible explanation at the time.

However, much of what we reported was simply incorrect, as attested by tens of thousands of official documents and other evidence that finally saw the light of day after years of repression by local authorities. As Colorado journalist Dave Cullen reports in his gripping and authoritative new book Columbine, Harris and Klebold had lots of friends, did very well in school, weren't members of the Trenchcoat mob, didn't listen to Manson, weren't bullied, didn't hold specific grudges. against any particular group and did not "broke" due to some last minute traumatic event. All these stories were the product of hysteria, ignorance and conjecture in the early hours and days.

The truth was more sinister. Her ambition, nurtured for about a year and a half and meticulously documented on Harris' website and in the private diaries of the boys recovered after her death, was to blow up the entire school. Not to attack anyone in particular, but because they hated the world and intended to have fun killing everything they could.

In other words, it wasn't supposed to be a school shooting, but something much bigger. Harris, in particular, would have been insulted by the idea of ​​being remembered as a mere gunman. "I hate the world," he wrote in the first line of his diary, and when he said "the world" he meant a lot more than 15 people.

The two boys were very different indeed.

Harris silently despised the people she found so hard to charm and couldn't wait to see them die horribly. "I want to rip my throat out like a soda can with my own teeth," he wrote in his diary. "I want to grab a weak fledgling and rip him to pieces like a fucking wolf. Strangle him, crush his head, rip his jaw off, rip his arms in half, show him who God is." Klebold, by contrast, was a depressive, constantly tormented by the idea that he was a failure despite his loving family and privileged background.

They made a great couple, each feeding the other's cesspool of raw emotions. Meanwhile, his planning was nothing but meticulous. First, they wanted to detonate two propane bombs in the cafeteria, killing not only the 600 or so students having an early lunch, but also the students in the library above who were waiting for it to collapse. Then, as the rest of the school swarmed through the exits, they opened fire with semiautomatic weapons from two positions in the parking lot.

Assuming they survived this phase (they didn't expect it), they would ram their cars, loaded with more propane explosive, into rescue teams, TV news crews, and police for a gruesome final conflagration. They expected a death toll of at least 2,000, equaling the school's student population.

As it was, their bombs failed to explode and they were forced to improvise. In fact, they wore long black coats, not because of any university affiliation, but simply to hide their arsenal of shotguns, semiautomatic pistols, pipe bombs, knives, and small carbon dioxide bombs that Harris called "crickets." They shot two students on the way inside, then spent a terrifying 49 minutes patrolling the hallways, cafeteria and stairs before carrying out their worst carnage in the library.

It turns out that Bernall was shot and killed on the spot. She was a recent convert to evangelical Christianity, after a deeply troubled adolescence, and perhaps that is why her story was confused with that of another student. It was Valeen Schnurr, whom Klebold asked if she believed in God and replied that she did. So he was saved. If the assassins hated Christians, they were clearly unequal in the way they applied that hatred. Likewise, if they hated athletes, they made no special effort to attack them. At one point they joked about killing anyone in a white hat; a boy huddled under a table quickly removed a white cap from his head and survived.

The question of Nazi sympathies is a bit more complicated. Harris was certainly drawn to the genocidal mania of the Nazis: at one point in his diary, he quotes Himmler approvingly, commenting, "Here was someone who got it!" But the fact that the attack took place on Hitler's birthday was coincidental. The boys had decided on April 19, the anniversary of the failed government siege of Waco, Texas, in which 76 people died in a fire in 1993, and also the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. for 24 hours because the local dealer who had promised to supply the boys with ammunition did not arrive in time.

It was the first of many disappointments for a pair of assassins seeking even greater infamy than they finally achieved. Everything about the Columbine disaster is fraught with failure. The county sheriff's department knew that Harris and Klebold were making homemade bombs and threatening their schoolmates. At one point, they applied for a warrant to search Harris' home, but the warrant was never executed. Meanwhile, the school failed to recognize the danger, even though Harris spilled much of his venom on his public access website, and even though Klebold wrote an essay two months before the attack about a man shooting innocents and having a good time. Klebold's teacher was deeply concerned, but the authorities eventually accepted his explanation that it was "just a story".

On the day of the attacks, Swat teams were so hesitant to attack amid the carnage that they ended up compounding the disaster, allowing a gym teacher to bleed to death when early intervention would almost certainly have saved his life. The sheriff's department was completely dysfunctional, preferring to cover up what it knew about the killers and do nothing to contradict the story of nerds attacking jocks. Most of the withheld investigative documents were finally released in 2006, the result of years of trials, but not all: a statement by the parents of the two killers, taken over several days in 2003, remains sealed until 2027.

In some ways, Columbine is different from other school shootings because of its scale. In other ways, however, he is a reference and even an inspiration for successive murderers, in Germany, Finland and Great Britain, as well as in the United States Seung Hui Cho, the deranged gunman who killed more than 30 students at Virginia Tech. in 2007, he called Harris and Klebold "martyrs".

Perhaps we can be grateful that the Columbine killers see themselves in media age terms as artists reporting their thoughts and actions in great detail. As a result, we now know a lot more about how to recognize potential school shooters and how to limit damage once the shooting starts. Virginia Tech SWAT teams didn't hesitate and almost certainly saved the lives of a dozen or more people. Meanwhile, in dozens of high schools across the United States, teachers and mental health professionals have taken death threats or the discovery of weapons with the utmost seriousness.

The piece of the puzzle that remains the most concerning is the role of the media. Harris and Klebold were playing with the cameras, and there is evidence that many of their successors were motivated, at least in part, by the promise of instant media notoriety.

The media's influence on real-life acts of violence is hotly debated and far from proven, but here's a statistic. Almost every recorded case of mass murder that receives saturation coverage on US television is followed by another mass murder, somewhere in the country, within two weeks. Most of these smaller-scale copycat murders don't make the headlines, but are picked up by Park Dietz, a criminal profiler who has offered violence prevention advice to American television networks for years.

"It's not that the news coverage made people paranoid, armed or suicidal," says Dietz. "But you have to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, guns in their laps and a hit list on their minds. They feel ready to die. When they see coverage of a school shooting, it only takes one or two more for them to say, "That guy is like me, this is the solution to my problem, this is what I'm going to do tomorrow. We may just be starting to reap the maelstrom that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold unleashed."

An excerpt from Columbine by Dave Cullen will be published in Weekend Magazine on Saturday, April 25th.

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