Tragedy has a way of imprinting so deeply on the brain that it always seems fresh. So for many, it will be hard to believe that Monday, April 20, is the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.
In spring 1999, two crazed Littleton teenagers, 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold, killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher, injured others, took their own lives — and left the nation reeling.
Dave Cullen was there. Notebook and minicassette recorder in hand. Clueless at first as to what he was witnessing.
He had heard of the situation that morning on TV, from his Capitol Hill apartment in Denver.
"I didn't even know where Columbine was," he remembers. "I didn't know where Littleton was."
He raced to the scene in case the news Web site he was working for, salon.com, wanted a story. He didn't expect they would. For hours, he stood outside waiting among frantic parents. He didn't know anyone was dead.
"We thought it was a hostage standoff for four hours," he says.
It wasn't until later that afternoon, when his editor told him the scene had run live on all the major TV networks all day, and then the sheriff announced that "up to 25" people were dead, that Cullen finally realized what he was dealing with. His story ran on Salon's home page the next day.
A few years later, he was still reporting on the story, mostly dispelling rumors and correcting false information. No, Cassie Bernall did not say she believed in God before she was shot to death. Yes, law enforcement was warned about Harris' suspicious behavior before the shooting. No, the shooters didn't target jocks, or anyone in particular for that matter. And no, the killers weren't outcasts or members of the Trench Coat Mafia.
Eventually, Cullen started work on a book. Released April 6, Columbine has quickly climbed the amazon.com best-seller list. It's one of two books documenting the tragedy to be published near the anniversary. The first, Columbine: A True Crime Story, was written by former Rocky Mountain News reporter Jeff Kass.
Cullen will be discussing his book and signing copies on April 21 in Colorado Springs at Borders. First, he talked about the experience:
Indy: Did you have any goal with the book other than just laying out what really happened at Columbine?
DC: Yes, I did. I had a couple different goals. I wanted to tell essentially two stories, the "before story" and the "after story." I wanted to tell the "before story" of why the killers did it and really introduce them as people. Not just give a reason, but allow the reader to see who these people were, to understand their lives and see the world through the eyes of both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and see why each of them did it — because there is no "they." They were two different people who did it for very different reasons. That was one goal. And the other goal was to tell the "after stories" — plural — of Columbine, and to take this really complex story of how it affected so many people in such vastly different ways and pick about half-a-dozen representative people to try and convey what something like this does to the community.
Indy: It seems like with a book like this, you'd always be hoping to prevent the next Columbine. Yet your book seems to offer little hope in that regard — basically saying there is no profile, no way to pick out the next maniac before he strikes. Was that disappointing to you?
DC: Some of it was, because it was not nearly as simple as I would have hoped. But there are a lot of things we can do, there's a couple really hopeful things. One ... was that the Secret Service report found that 81 percent of school shooters told someone explicitly ... and in the post-Columbine world the kids do tend to warn us. ... The other single most important thing that has changed is the police response ... there's something called the active shooter protocol [which says police should enter a building to stop an active shooter, instead of surrounding the building and trying to negotiate] and that's really been dramatic and it's really saved a lot of lives. I mean we'll never know for certain at Virginia Tech ... but it seems pretty clear that [killer Seung-Hui] Cho committed suicide once he saw the cops were on the way.
Indy: You note in your book that Eric and Dylan wanted media attention. Did this make you feel uncomfortable? Did you ever feel that you were fulfilling their wish?
DC: I had that thought quite a bit, and I worried about that, and I talked to my editor about that. At the end of the day, I thought that Eric and Dylan already were famous and that my book wasn't going to significantly alter that ... but I do think it's something we have to consider with future shootings, you know, what do we do to make the shooters less famous?
Indy: What do you think was the most shocking information you discovered in your research?
DC: In 1999, when I was doing a piece for salon.com I was shocked by the fact that it was intended primarily as a bombing and that those bombs — if Eric was half as smart as he thought he was at some things and wired those bombs correctly — that hundreds of people would have died. Five hundred people would have died instantly. And that just sort of knocked me over. I get the shudders just thinking about it.
Indy: You spend a lot of time in the book talking about how panicked and secretive law enforcement was in this situation — especially when it came to communicating with the press. How do you think media communications in mass shooting situations has changed since Columbine?
DC: I think the media's gotten better. I think the cops have learned some lessons too. And I think part of the problem with Columbine, with the aftermath and the information, part of the problem was one person, Sheriff John Stone, and he really made a difficult situation much worse. He really bungled that. ... Also [Jeffco officials] had met to specifically discuss how to keep the affidavit for a search warrant of Eric Harris' house a secret. ... It's the same mistake politicians are always told, that sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.
Indy: You seem really determined in the book to dispel the myths about Columbine — both good and bad. At this point, why is that important?
DC: Because the myths are still out there. Because we haven't gotten the word out and one of the mistakes people in our profession make repeatedly, which has frustrated me, is that if something has been reported somewhere then it's not "news" [i.e. not worth reporting again]. I think we need to figure out that if it would be news to 99 percent of the public, then it is still news!
Indy: Even as the old myths fade, there seems to be new ones popping up even to this day. I got an e-mail today, believe it or not, about a group that's convinced that Dylan and Eric were victims of molestation that were retaliating. Have you heard this one?
DC: [Laughs.] I got that yesterday too, and there was some file of buttrape-dot-something on the police thing and I was like, "Oh my god, you've got to be kidding."
Indy: Why do you think there's so much of this?
DC: With any kind of major event you will have that. Whether it's 911 — there's the conspiracy theory that the Israeli government was really behind it — or, you know, Waco, the Kennedy assassination ... there's going to be some of those wackos out there ... and then the other thing is just: We made a whole lot of mistakes at Columbine and once the myths take on the idea of fact, they're really hard to get rid of. Because we did a good job of convincing the public that this is what happened.
Indy: Mass shootings seem to be so common these days, it's easy to lose track of them. Yet the Columbine story endures. Why is that?
DC: It was a first attack of anywhere near this magnitude on children, and it was the first time by children using terrorist tactics. That really shocked us, and the fact that it went on for four hours and the bombs [explosions] were reported at first, and we realized this was an attack trying to kill hundreds of people. ... It really shattered our tranquility.
Indy: You said in your book that 10 years was really the final date — the last big commitment for victims and families. Do you still think that's true? Can the school and the community ever fully recover from this?
DC: I don't think they've ever fully recovered, all of them. Some of them have. But I do think it's the last hurdle that they have to get over. A lot of families tell me, though, every April will be hard. I had one person that said that in the springtime she'll just feel her stomach starting to knot up, and she'll have trouble sleeping and various different symptoms. And she'll be puzzled about what's going on, and then she'll notice a calendar and say, "Oh, it's April."