The Trench Coat Mafia was “mythologized” and continues to color the way the public thinks of Columbine. Though “we remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the TCM snapping and tearing through their school hunting down jocks,” Cullen insists that “none” of that is true, and neither did the attacks have any connection to Marilyn Manson, Hitler’s birthday, or the desire to slaughter Christians. Though no reputable sources or experts on the case believe any of these myths anymore, much of the public still does, and Cullen attempts to explain why.
The ways in which the media got Columbine completely wrong are outlined in this chapter. The root of their errors, Cullen says, was the mythologizing of untruths such as the TCM and the shooters’ plan to sync their attacks with Hitler’s birthday. By focusing on details that would be sensational in their own right if they were true, and then sensationalizing them even further, the media created a firestorm of intrigue and confusion.
Just hours into the coverage, the media had assigned the blame for the attack to the TCM, “a cult of homosexual Goths in makeup orchestrating a bizarre death pact for the year 2000.” Though journalists, Cullen says, were mostly careful, using “disclaimers like ‘believed to be’ or ‘described as,’” the problem with the coverage was “repetition.” Addressing the rumors repetitiously, however carefully, created an enormous impact that the media was largely “blind” to. Though the media assured the public that the “kids” were informing them of the facts, the kids were actually being informed by the coverage they saw on TV, creating a self-sustaining spiral of confusion.
It is repetition of erroneous facts, Cullen insists, not the idea that the facts were erroneous in and of themselves, that created the confusion, sensationalism, and false beliefs that came to characterize the way the public remembered the Columbine shooting for months and even years after the incident.
Explaining the shootings as “targeted” was “reassuring” because it addressed the “known threats [of] bullying and racism.” The shooters, however, were not targeting any specific social or ethnic group—their aim was total, indiscriminate annihilation.
The media’s desire to explain away the motive for the shooting with a safe, easy explanation fueled their repetition of false facts.
The third major problem with the coverage, Cullen writes, was the media’s role in equating “student” with “witness.” All two thousand students “were deputized as insiders” by the media, adding more acutely to the confusing and conflicting reports.
This is a crucial point: though everyone in Columbine at the time of the shooting was a witness in a certain sense of the word, they were not eyewitnesses in the technical sense—and the media failed to understand, or honor, the gap between the two roles.
As “many survivors” descend into the early stages of post-traumatic stress disorder, Cullen considers that “some who had been in the library [were] fine, while other who had been off[-campus] would be traumatized for years.” Witnessing violence directly had nothing to do with the atmosphere of trauma in Columbine. Students are also gripped by survivor’s guilt, and pack the hospitals where their classmates are recovering in order to be close to the wounded.
It didn’t matter what students saw—or if they saw anything—when it came to the trauma they experienced in the wake of the attacks. Being a student at Columbine on April 20th, 1999, was enough to be traumatic. Each student dealt differently with the fallout, but the trauma of the situation radiated through the community in an all-encompassing way.
Patrick Ireland’s doctors focus on helping him regain brain function, and do not bother to operate on his injured foot. Patrick’s parents are told he’ll never walk again, but Patrick remains unaware, assuming he will make a full recovery. His speech begins to improve, his vitals stabilize, and he is moved out of the ICU to a regular room. His parents ask him if he was the boy who tumbled out of the library window, and he tells them that he was. A neurologist from Craig Hospital, one of the “leading rehab centers in the world,” helps the Irelands make plans to transfer Patrick there, reassuring them all that there is “hope.”
Patrick’s recovery will be a long one, but his parents, bolstered by their son’s bravery, feel hope that he will regain some sense of normalcy. All three Irelands are at this point aware of how lucky Patrick is to be alive—and how many of his classmates were not as fortunate as he.
As students begin to move past grief and towards anger, some of them begin telling the press that the killers were “outcasts, freaks, [and] fags.” Cullen observes that “gay [is] one of the worst epithets one kid could hurl against another in Jeffco.” Most of the media “carefully sidesteps” rumors of the boys’ homosexuality, instead seizing on rumors of their obsession with Gothic culture. Some report, accurately, that the “morose [Goth] community is quiet, introverted, and pacifistic,” attempting to dispel the Goth connection. The media then moves on to probing the “outcast” angle, focusing on “bullying and alienation,” again falsely reporting that there were “long-simmering rivalr[ies] between the TCM and [Columbine] athletes.” Though the details are accurate—there were indeed tensions between these two groups—Eric and Dylan were a part of neither, and the media’s “conclusions [were] wrong.”
The students’ fear and sorrow quickly turns to anger. Because the killers are dead, there is no one alive on whom the blame can be fully placed—so the students lash out against the killers by slandering the lives they led before the attack, and by seeking to lower and humiliate the killers even in death.
No evidence supports the theory that bullying led to the Columbine massacre, though it was an issue at Columbine. Frank DeAngelis insisted he was “unaware” of this fact. His “unusual rapport with the kids created a blind spot.” One student tells Cullen that her “Goth friends” hated their time at Columbine, citing Mr. D’s perhaps accidental “preference” for supporting athletics. Reports of Columbine as a “toxic” place begin to emerge, and it becomes characterized as a school “terrorized by a band of restless jock lords.” Columbine begins to “embody everything noxious about adolescence in America,” and Cullen, citing Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, stays that “by observing an entity, you alter it”; meaning that in the weeks following Columbine, the community was so deeply scrutinized that it became picked apart “beyond all recognition.”
One of the most pervasive myths about Columbine was that it stemmed from bullying. Though bullying was indeed an issue at Columbine, it was not the cause of the massacre. Nonetheless, many students and members of the Jeffco community come forward—angry, confused, and desperate for closure—to call out the problems within Columbine. As they do so, the media continues to scrutinize the school, putting a spotlight on hurting and angry students and thus inspiring an unhealthy, microscopic focus on their school.