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Columbine: A Monument to the Sins of Mainstream Media

Columbine Victims

On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, stormed Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, injuring 23 students as well as killing 13 students, one teacher, and then themselves. The media scrambled to get to the scene, with coverage from over-air helicopters showing live footage of students running through parking lots with their hands on their heads, SWAT teams and police officers surrounding the school, and injured students climbing out of windows with bodies laying on the sidewalks. The tragedy that has become known simply as “The Columbine shooting” is still common in political discourse, especially in light of recent events occuring in Newtown, Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and so many other horrific events whose names are sadly forgotten.

According to a New York Times article written by James Brooke released April 21, 1999 a day after Columbine, “Students said… Members of the group found their way out of anonymity at the school by banning together, dressing in dark gothic-style clothing including long black coats. These students became easy to notice among the 1,870 students at the school, since every day, regardless of the weather, they wore their coats."

This is just one of the myths that circulated the media during the confusion and heartbreak revolving around Columbine High School. Dave Cullen revealed the fallacies around the rumors and myths the media threw into the public: the girl who professed her faith in God before being gunned down in the library; the “Trenchcoat Mafia” and the feud between the goths and jocks; the idea the Harris and Klebold were disaffected, unpopular, motivated by resentment or revenge. Rather than dramatizing and romanticizing the horrific event, Cullen shows the world the realities of the suicidal and homicidal duo that put Littleton, Colorado on the map.

The problematic coverage of Columbine was a snowball effect that built on itself. First, by the misperceptions of the witnesses and then, almost immediately by the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled an enormous game of telephone. "The Columbine situation played out slowly," Cullen writes, "with the cameras rolling. Or at least it appeared that way: the cameras offered the illusion we were witnessing the event. But the cameras arrived too late. . . . We saw fragments. What the cameras showed us was misleading. . . . The data was correct; the conclusions were wrong."

Among the most disturbing material is that uncovered by FBI Agent Dwayne Fuselier, a hostage negotiator and clinical psychologist whose son attended Columbine. After the shooting, Fuselier profiled the killers and decided Harris fit the profile of a “budding young psychopath."

"The main event was scripted in three acts, just like a movie. It would kick off with a massive explosion in the commons. More than six hundred students swarmed in at the start of 'A' lunch, and two minutes after the bell rang, most of them would be dead. Act I featured two bombs. . . . Each was strung with nails and BBs for shrapnel, lashed to a full gasoline can and a smaller propane tank, and wired to similar bell clocks. . . . The fireball would wipe out most of the lunch crowd and set the school ablaze," Cullen wrote.

Through the duration of his book, Cullen forces the reader to let go of their concept of “the killers.” Their motives and personalities were polar opposites. Harris was monstrous and Klebold was loving but bitterly angry inside; Harris cared only about self-aggrandizement, and Klebold was focused on ending his own despair.

Patrick Ireland crawling out of a school room window

Survivor Craig Scott - whose sister, Rachel Scott, the first one killed by Harris and Klebold - was in the library when Cassie Bernall was shot. Bernall, who became famous for affirming her faith in the seconds before Harris murdered her was subsequently held up as a martyr by many evangelicals. “It was a great story. It gave Brad and Misty tremendous relief,” wrote Cullen. But it was not long before Valeen Schnurr’s remarkably similar account was revealed to the public, even though her exchange about God was after she had been shot by Klebold. Resembling this narrative, Emily Wyant watched in disbelief as Bernall’s story spread nationwide. “Emily had been under the table with Cassie. They were facing each other. Emily was looking into Cassie’s eyes when Eric fired his shotgun. Emily knew exactly what had happened,” wrote Cullen. Taunting Bernall in her final moments, Harris bent down and taunted her saying “peekaboo.”

Cullen describes Wyant’s recount of the story, "Eric poked his shotgun under the table rim as he came down. He didn’t pause long, or even stoop down far enough for Emily to see his face. She saw the sawed-off gun barrel. The opening was huge. She looked into Cassie’s brown eyes. Cassie was still praying. There was no time for words between them. Eric shot Cassie in the head."

Nearby, Bree Pasquale was under another table in the library and watched the entire event happen as well. Both Pasquale and Wyant knew Bernall never had the chance to speak and gave detailed accounts to investigators about Bernall’s final moments. Nonetheless they waited for the truth to come out rather than telling Misty Bernall - Cassie’s mother - themselves.

This casual brutality exhibited by Harris was exemplified in his journal and website, both of which Cullen references throughout. Yet this very same notion denounces the idea that Harris and Klebold’s intentions were targeted. Instead, they were random and beyond reason. In part, that's the fault of the media, which inserted itself into Columbine, asked a few questions, and then parachuted out. As Cullen argues, it was easy to buy into the narratives already in place: tales of bullying and alienation, of tension between rival cliques. That's the problem with quick-hit journalism, a style of reporting Cullen convincingly refutes. An example of this very style can be seen in Brooke’s explanation of Harris and Klebold being part of the Trench Coat Mafia:

"[It] is a small band of about a dozen juniors and seniors at Columbine who are easily recognized yet little feared, according to people who live in the neighborhood near the school. Regardless of the weather, they favor long black coats and the Gothic look popularized by the rock singer Marilyn Manson, neighbors said. Some even wear white pancake makeup and dark eyeliner, one student said."

However, drawing upon years of research, Cullen reveals that Klebold and Harris were not social outcasts who “just snapped,” nor were they members of the school's Trench Coat Mafia. The boys could even be bullies themselves — telling themselves that they were “superior beings.” The book asserts that Harris and Klebold were not disgruntled geeks but terrorists. Cullen uses this word dispassionately, yet repeatedly. Columbine, he says, was an act of terrorism. Although the Columbine shooting was certainly not the first school shooting, it had been deemed the worst school attack in US history. But then came Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook.

Now in 2018, reporter Michael Roberts said “the Parkland incident was at least the 208th school shooting to take place in Columbine's wake.” With 13 victims dead in Columbine, it was also one of the deadliest shootings overall. But then came San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and Parkland. In the nearly 19 years since Harris and Klebold’s attack, the country has seen so many more mass shootings that the attack isn't even among the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern US history. Three of the five deadliest shootings have occurred in just the last year and a half according to CNN reporters AJ Willingham and Eric Levenson.