Interview With ‘Columbine’ Author Dave Cullen

"Columbine" author Dave Cullen dispels some common myths associated with the 1999 high school massacre.

One of the things that happened about this time in history was the birth of the World Wide Web. These kids came in as freshmen with the Web and that’s an amazing amount of information that you get for free on anything, including bomb making.

Exactly. It’s free and there’s no audit trail, and no one is tracking it. It makes it much easier to get the “Anarchist’s Cookbook” and you don’t have to face questions from a librarian or bookseller.

Whether or not that really would have stopped anything is unlikely. A librarian or bookseller probably would not have turned [Harris in for getting bombmaking books]. But to a kid’s point of view that sounds like a big obstacle. “How am I going to get the book without asking someone and tipping them off?” And I think those kind of things are natural inhibitors because the kid is perhaps more worried about that than he or she needs to be. But with the Web, they can go find anything and it’s all private and anonymous. They can easily look over these things without anybody looking over their shoulders.

Could anything have been done to treat these kids and prevent this tragedy by helping them?

I don’t think there was any way to help Eric. I think there were an extraordinary number of different ways to have helped Dylan. I’m not blaming anybody for not figuring this out with Dylan, but had he gotten treatment, he may well have not become a mass murderer.

Your book is really sympathetic to the frontline law enforcement officers at Columbine. Can you describe what they went through that day?

It was a metrowide call for assistance. And so you had all sorts of people responding, but they really didn’t know what was happening. Quite a few people thought it was a terrorist attack because there were reports of bombs and automatic weapons.

There also seemed to be many shooters. They had so many different reports-and credible reports-of multiple shooters because Eric and Dylan took off their coats after they were first sighted.

Also the cops could tell there was heavy weaponry involved because the killers kept exploding pipe bombs in there and the walls of the building were shaking. So they knew something horrible was going on in there, but nobody knew what.

A lot of the cops were really frustrated. They were ordered to set up a perimeter. You know they were thinking: There’s something terrible happening in there. Shouldn’t I be doing something?

But I’ve been in the army and I think that sort of helps my perspective. I was in the infantry, and the last thing you want to do in a chaotic situation is add to the chaos and be the stupid lone wolf who goes off and complicates things further by charging in there by himself. You have to rely on your command and obey orders and do what you’re told.

Some of the accounts have attacked the officers. Some have even called them “cowards.”

That’s one of the things that frustrates me with some members of the public and the media about this: They fail to-or refuse to-put themselves into the shoes of the other person. It’s sort of the wishful thinking way of looking at this [event].

They believe that the cops in that situation should have known what we know now and charged in there.

That’s just silly. You have to put yourself in the shoes of a cop or commander arriving at that time and think what you’re supposed to do. They did what the book said.

And they were operating under the intelligence they had at the time of the incident.

Absolutely. And here’s an example of that: They thought the bombs had motion triggers. I don’t know why JeffCo (Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department) has never publicized this.

The diversionary bomb was set in the park, the killers drove away, and then, coincidentally, there was a surveying team out there. So a surveyor had his sextant out and the bag was in his line of sight. He went over there and moved the bag. Shortly thereafter, it erupted.

Anyway, he assumed that it went off because he moved it and that there was some kind of sophisticated motion detection device or something in there. There was nothing anywhere near that sophisticated in that bag. But he didn’t know that. So he made a reasonable assumption. And so did the cops.

Could the police arriving at Columbine actually have saved the lives of any of the students?

Two officers arrived soon enough. But they are the only ones who are really relevant. The rest of the debate about whether the SWAT teams should have gone in sooner, it’s all moot. The killing all took place in the first 15 or so minutes.

So the whole debate about whether the SWAT team should have gone in is largely moot, with the exception of Dave Sanders, obviously. And so the whole idea that most people have about the SWAT team should have charged the building, well that’s sort of big picture thinking. But look at the details from the shooting, by the time SWAT was there, the killing had stopped.

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