Last night I finished reading Columbine, Dave Cullen’s play-by-play of the 1999 school shooting. It was the most compelling nonfiction book I have read since Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open. (Which was, flat-out, one of my favorite books ever. Props to ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer for near-poetic narrative skills and to Agassi for his introspection, clear memory and willingness to lay it all out there. Also for the storytelling masterstroke of having married Brooke Shields.)
In Columbine, Cullen does a really good job of shifting focus tight and wide and back again, of showing us the crime in progress upfront and then again, from different viewpoints. He is good with character studies, and while I question his frequent use of terms like “brewskis” and “chicks”—I would have to read the killers’ journals; did they really talk like that?—he writes well.
What lingered with me most were the flaws he laid out in two institutions: the press and the police. Law enforcement failed to connect dots before the crime, and covered up their faults afterward. Rules about shielding evidence allowed them to do so, and to what end? As for the press, which printed an awful lot that turned out to have been wrong: Does speed inherently conflict with truth? Is the need for a compelling narrative and a quick “why” so pressing that mistakes large and small are inevitable and tolerable? I hope not, on all counts. Perhaps it is a given that initial accounts of anything are faulty and it is only with time (ten years, in Cullen’s case) that the truth will reveal itself. Through luck and avoidance, I never covered breaking tragedies, so maybe this is just easy for me to say.
One thing is for sure: The shielding of so much evidence for so long allowed mistaken interpretations to endure. Obviously I am always biased in favor of more information instead of less. I do not understand why so much material was allowed to stay under wraps for so long; sensitivity to victims is invoked, but isn’t understanding the truth the most sensitive thing we can do for everyone?
By the way, it may have something to do with my detachment from religion, but I never really got the Cassie Bernall-as-martyr piece. The story—refuted by Cullen—asserted that the killer asked if she believed in God, she said yes, and he fired. That version implies that she was taking a risk by saying yes, courageously not giving the answer that would have spared her. How would she have known there was a “right” answer? How, for that matter, do we?