In a school of over two thousand students, fifteen members of the Columbine community died from injuries sustained in the attack. The incident left behind many more survivors—and potential witnesses—than it did fatalities. Though being a witness, Dave Cullen argues, is a difficult and complicated role to play in any situation of gravity, in the Columbine attack—the traumatic nature of which actually made reliable eyewitness testimony nearly impossible to obtain—the role of witness was an even harder one. Cullen makes the argument that though not every student was a witness in the legal or investigative sense of the term, every member of the Columbine community was, in a way, witness to a unique and in many ways unprecedented American horror.
In the wake of the Columbine attack, “student” did not necessarily equal “witness,” Cullen argues. Not every student present in the high school saw the shooters. Even those who did often were still unable to provide fully accurate testimony due to the interference of trauma, because during moments of terror, the brain is unable to form new memories. The “universal-witness concept”—or the false equivalency that the media and some police officials drew between “student” and “witness”—then fed into the media circus that came to pervade Jeffco, and contributed to a deepening of the trauma that had set in to the daily lives of many students, regardless of whether or not they were also witnesses in the truest sense of the word. This cycle of mayhem, trauma, and the idea that every student could potentially have held the key to unraveling the “why” of the attack had the effect of turning everyone involved in Columbine into a witness—if not to the actual events of the attack, then to the never-before-seen level of lingering trauma, intrigue, and chaos which made Columbine, even in its aftermath, such a devastating phenomenon.
Those who bore witness to—or unwittingly assisted in—Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s preparations for the murder had a particularly difficult role in the aftermath of the attacks. Dylan’s prom date Robyn Anderson, who’d helped the killers purchase the guns used in the attack, was both wracked with guilt and terrified to come forward. Several of their friends, including Nate Dykeman, Zack Heckler, and Chris Morris, also had to reckon with the fact that Eric and Dylan had told them about acquiring ordnance and experimenting with building pipe bombs and napalm-powered devices. Warning their friends of their impending attack through divulging small bits of information gave Eric and Dylan feelings of excitement and power. Through ultimately providing investigators with as detailed testimony of their friends’ behavior as they could, these witnesses found solace and redemption in exorcising their guilt over having been witness to a different kind of horror than those who witnessed the attacks, but had no personal connection to the killers.
The burden of having witnessed such spectacular violence, and how it affected the students at the time of the attack as well as throughout the course of their adult lives, is at the crux of much of Cullen’s reportage. His intimate interviews and correspondences with several of the victims and their families reveal, however, an overwhelming resilience and desire to prevent the killers from “winning.” Being a witness to horror even tangentially, Cullen argues, can ultimately be transformed into a source of strength and not just a burden. He then illustrates this radical point through accounts from several survivors—both legal “witnesses” and those who are not—who have gone on to draw strength from the healing power of delivering their own testimony, from one another, from their own perseverance in the face of injury and post-traumatic stress, and from the grace of forgiveness.
Memory, Bearing Witness, Trauma, and Testimony ThemeTracker
Memory, Bearing Witness, Trauma, and Testimony Quotes in Columbine
The fundamental experience for most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view. We would learn the truth about Columbine, but we would not learn it today. The narrative unfolding on television looked nothing like the killers’ plan. It looked only moderately like what was actually occurring. It would take months for investigators to piece together what had gone on inside. Motive would take longer to unravel. It would be years before the detective team would explain why. The public couldn’t wait that long. The media was not about to. They speculated.
For investigators, the [discovery of the] big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily it had been a bombing that failed. [When] officials announced the discovery, it instigated a new media shock wave. But, curiously, journalists failed to grasp the implications. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They [continued to] filter every new development through that lens.
The crowds kept growing, but the students among them dwindled. Wednesday afternoon they poured their hearts out to reporters. Wednesday evening they watched a grotesque portrait of their school on television. It was a charitable picture at first, but it grew steadily more sinister as the week wore on. The media grew fond of the adjective “toxic.” Apparently, Columbine was a horrible place. It was terrorized by a band of reckless jock lords and ruled by an aristocracy of snotty rich white kids in the latest Abercrombie & Fitch line. Some of that was true—which is to say, it was high school. But Columbine came to embody everything noxious about adolescence in America.
Because dyads, murderous pairs who feed off each other, account for only a fraction of mass murderers, little research has been conducted on them. We know that the partnerships tend to be asymmetrical. An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair. The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill. “It takes heat and cold to make a tornado,” Dr. Fuselier is fond of saying. Eric craved heat, but he [easily grew bored and] couldn’t sustain it. Dylan was a volcano. You could never tell when he might erupt.
Eric didn’t have the political agenda of a terrorist, but he had adopted terrorist tactics. Sociology professor Mark Juergensmeyer identified the central characteristic of terrorism as “performance violence.” Terrorists design events “to be spectacular in their viciousness and awesome in their destructive power. Such instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.”
[Eight years later] at [the] Virginia Tech [shooting in 2007,] Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people, plus himself, and injured seventeen. The press proclaimed it a new American record. They shuddered at the idea of turning school shootings into a competition, then awarded Cho the title.
After most tragedies, I confer with some of the great minds on mass murder. That’s a privilege. When I write on this subject, I’m responsible for every opinion, but I can rarely claim them as original ideas. Mostly, I’m the messenger. It can be invigorating, getting inside these killers’ heads, hashing out ways to outmaneuver them. But the killers have stayed maddeningly ahead. It’s begun to feel like failure, failure, and failure for a decade and a half. I used to get angry for an hour or to, then I’d brush that aside to get to work. Lately, it just rages. Because we are not powerless, especially we in the media. We are just acting like it.
There’s another pernicious myth: that Eric and Dylan succeeded. Measured by [the shooters’] own standards, Columbine was a colossal failure so unrecognizable as terrorism that we ranked them first among the school shooters they ridiculed. Killers keep trying to relive the glory and elation at Columbine. There was none.