Interview With ‘Columbine’ Author Dave Cullen
"Columbine" author Dave Cullen dispels some common myths associated with the 1999 high school massacre.
Dave Cullen’s “Columbine” is not just a best-selling true crime story. It doesn’t just journalistically examine the events of the nation’s most infamous school massacre, it brings them to life.
Focusing on 10 characters-including the mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold-as well as teachers, parents, cops, victims, and survivors, “Columbine” is a non-fiction novel, a non-fiction horror novel.
The monster in this horror story is 18-year-old Eric Harris. Cullen makes a forceful argument that Harris was a sadistic psychopath who felt absolutely no remorse and acted with no conscience. Even if you don’t buy Cullen’s hypothesis, it’s hard to argue that Harris wasn’t a monster. (Story continues below.)
Although Columbine ended up being one of the nation’s most infamous school shootings, it was planned as a bombing. Harris and his accomplice Dylan Klebold, 17, placed two large propane bombs in their school cafeteria right before the lunch hour rush. Their plan was to wait until the bombs detonated and then mow down the panicked survivors with a small arsenal of shotguns and carbines.
Cullen, a freelance writer who lives in Colorado, has been delving into the psyches of Harris and Klebold ever since the day of the attack when he rushed to the scene to cover the breaking story. It’s a story that he can’t seem to shake because every time a school shooting occurs anywhere in the world, the media contacts him. “It can be a bad way to wake up,” he says.
Here Cullen talks about the psychology of Eric Harris, law enforcement response the day of the massacre, the investigation, and how school shootings can be prevented.
When did you first get involved with the Columbine story?
Sometime a little before noon that day I saw it come on TV. I didn’t know where it was. I drove out Highway 6 until I saw the helicopters circling south from the highway. That was my first clue that it was much worse than I thought. So I just got off at the next exit and drove until I was stopped by a police barricade.
Then I pulled into a strip mall and got out on foot and ran. I got as far as the Columbine Library, which was maybe half a mile from the school. That was one of the two rendezvous points. Most of the scenes in the book of the parents waiting there for word about the fate of their children was from what I noted there that day.
Why do you think Eric Harris decided to murder his classmates? Was it because he hated jocks? Or preps? Or bullies?
With Eric what I always tell people is please avoid cherry-picking the Eric quotes because Eric rants about everything under the sun, including slow drivers. That doesn’t mean he shot up his high school because of slow drivers.
But when you look through the hundreds of pages that he left, the patterns leap out at you, and the patterns are really important. One of the patterns is his real desire, which he repeats more than anything else in all of his writing other than perhaps “I hate you all,” and that is: “I want to kill you all.” His ultimate fantasy was annihilation of the human species.
He couldn’t destroy the world, so he settled for his school.
Yes. He complains in his journal about how hard it is to get enough explosives to destroy one building. Then he says, “Bombs are hard.” The rational side of Eric realized: Destroying the world is way beyond me. Burning down Denver is way beyond me. Even downtown Denver is way beyond me. But I can take out my high school.
The pattern of terrorists in general is that they usually go for symbols, and they usually go for explosions. They also usually go for symbols of power and authority. Eric and Dylan attacked the biggest power center of their world, which was their school.
Eric leaked a lot of information about his plans. Why didn’t somebody realize that he was a threat?
Eric was so smart about knowing where to stop. You can see that in the school assignment paper that he wrote about the Nazis. He knows in that paper exactly what he’s got to say so that the teacher doesn’t think, this kid is dangerous. But in his journal, he writes: “I want to do this, too. The Nazis are role models for me. I want to do everything those people did. They had a great plan.”
You argue that Dylan Klebold would not have turned homicidal without the psychopathic influence of Eric Harris. Let’s flip that for a moment. Do you think that Harris would have attacked his schoolmates without Klebold for support?
I think that Eric Harris would have done something terrible, whether it would be his schoolmates or not is an open question. What’s really an open question with Eric is what the time frame would have been before he attacked.
And the older he got and the longer we waited for something to happen from him the worse it would have been. With each year he grew older, he got smarter and he had more resources. If it had been even a year later and he was moved out of the house, it would have been much worse. His parents were a limiting factor; he had to be careful about hiding stuff. Living on his own, he would have had a lot more freedom and a lot more money with a full-time job and a place of his own. He could have been buying truck loads of fertilizer like Tim McVeigh.
About 12 months before the attack, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department investigator Mike Guerra looked into threats by Eric Harris against a fellow student and drafted an affidavit seeking a warrant to search the Harris house based on information on Eric’s Website about bombs. Why didn’t he follow through and get a search warrant?
We don’t know for sure. Guerra hasn’t spoken to the press. But we have statements from Jefferson County that say Guerra was pulled away to another case, a multiple murder case. Then for whatever reason didn’t come back to it.
What I tried to do in this book was look at the events from the point of view of the people in that story line and how they were looking at the world at that point. I asked myself: What made sense to them at that time, not what makes sense from our judgment looking back on these events.
It’s very easy to point fingers. But when I look at the work that was done by the cops ahead of time, for the most part, I think it’s very reasonable that they didn’t see any threat coming with the information that they had at the time I don’t think anyone would have.
This is the one particular moment where they should have. Guerra really put it together; Guerra really figured it out. I give him a lot of credit for having figured it out. But he got pulled away to another case, an actual murder, that’s understandable.
Some of the cops I’ve spoken to about this have said: “You know how many complaints we get about some neighborhood brat who is causing mischief and making wild threats? It just becomes noise and static, and it’s easy to dismiss.” I think one of the lessons here and one that good cops have picked up on is: Don’t be too quick to brush those things off because sometimes they are real.
What role did bullying play in this massacre?
Bullying did not play a role with Eric, who was the driver. There were at least a couple of cases of ongoing bullying that were documented at Columbine. What I didn’t see was an excessive amount of bullying at Columbine.
Psychologist and military historian Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of “On Killin
g,” has called first-person shooter video games “murder simulators.” Do you think the killers’ love of “Doom” played a role in conditioning them to kill?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that. I’m a little skeptical of any of the outside factors such as violent movies and video games and bullying because I don’t see the killers telling me that.
That said, when it comes to video games, I have recently been told that I need to go back and do more research on this because there has been some research that does show some correlation between these types of video games and violent kids.
I’m always a little skeptical of that kind of research because causality is hard to prove. Just because you see a link statistically between a higher percentage of people liking violent video games is that cause or effect? Maybe violent kids like these violent games because they embody their fantasies.
A lot of blame for Columbine gets cast on “lax” gun laws, but the same gun laws-or even more relaxed gun laws-were in place in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. It’s not just about access to guns. I knew gun enthusiasts in high school, and they weren’t dangerous.
Right, and I think it’s pretty clear that most of the people interested in guns aren’t interested in mass murder. And so the access to guns is definitely not the driving force here.
I leave the gun issue up to the reader, but I think it’s pretty clear if there were a way to keep guns away from kids, the killers would not have been able to do it. I don’t know whether that’s realistic or not.