Decorated investigative journalist Dave Cullen researched the Columbine shooting for ten years in order to compose a highly-detailed, exquisitely-researched tome which toggles back and forth between the years leading up to the shooting and the months that followed it. In the sections set in the past, Cullen delves into the lives and minds of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with the help of the boys’ personal diaries, interviews with their friends and acquaintances, as well as the FBI investigator, Dwayne Fuselier, who served as the chief psychologist in the investigation and became an expert on both the boys. Eric Harris was a charming, egomaniacal psychopath who longed for the annihilation of the human race, and Dylan Klebold was a lost depressive subject prone to outbursts of anger. Together, they created a “tornado.” Bound by their hatred of those they deemed “inferior” to themselves, the two planned meticulously for over a year, all along “leaking” the revelations that they were in possession of both firearms and explosive devices to several of their close friends. On April 20th, 1999, Eric and Dylan, dreaming of glory, fame, and recognition of their “godlike” superiority over the rest of the human race, perpetrated one of the most violent and iconic terrorist attacks in American history. Originally planned as a bombing, the attack was a “failure”—the shooters claimed thirteen lives rather than the five-hundred-plus they hoped to take, and the large explosives they worked to build never even detonated. Nonetheless, the shooters conducted an execution-style massacre in the school’s library, taunting their classmates and cheering each other on the entire time. When they became bored with their spree, they attempted once more to detonate their two large propane bombs in the cafeteria, then returned to the library and committed suicide side-by-side.
In the aftermath of the attack, the Columbine High community—which dominated the population of the tight-knit, borderline-rural Jefferson County, just ten miles from Denver—grieved and struggled to understand the reason for the attack. The influence of the media on the public’s eagerness to believe erroneous motives—bullying, Goth culture, and the influence of violent video games and films—was unprecedented. Parents and families of the victims and survivors struggled to handle issues of blame, compensation, and conflicting information coming out of the county sheriff’s office. The shooters had both been in the Jeffco system for a variety of crimes and felonies, and many felt that not only could the attack have been prevented, but also that, during the attack, the sheriff’s office had made significant errors that led to tremendous loss of life by failing to breach the perimeter around the school for hours after the first shots were fired.
Cullen focuses on the survivors of the attack and the families of the deceased as a way of magnifying the unique trauma of the event. Through detailed accounts of the survivors’ recoveries and the grieving process of the bereaved, which span, in some cases, more than ten years, Cullen reveals an enduring failure to understand why gun control in America is unaffected by such horrific, large-scale violence; why “spectacle murder” and performative violence continue to motivate large numbers of shooters and killers each year; and why placing the blame on just one—or, in the case of Columbine, two—individuals in the wake of a mass murder is both comforting and problematic. Cullen tackles big issues such as the debate over how to handle mental health treatment in the case of potentially dangerous psychopaths, how shared grief and post-traumatic stress can both divide and solidify a community, and how the mythologizing and sensationalizing of national crises makes each attack to hit America—or any country in the world—more and more difficult to process, understand, overcome, and prevent from occurring again.