How do you review a book like Columbine? It’s hard to say, “I enjoyed the book.” After all, it’s one of the most frightening, tragic, disturbing books I’ve read in a long time. And yet, it is so meticulous in its research and so compelling in its presentation that one can’t help but admire how well the author, Dave Cullen, told the story.
I thought I knew the basic facts about the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. I was wrong. Here are seven common myths about that tragic day:
Myth #1: The Columbine killers were social misfits who were bullied by their classmates.
Truth: Eric Harris was a lady’s man, a charmer who had a number of good friends at school. Dylan Klebold went to the prom the weekend before the shooting.
Both killers attended football games, dances, and school plays. Despite the media reports, neither of them were linked to the “Trench Coat Mafia.” Nor were they part of a street gang or known to dress in Gothic style.
Myth #2: The Columbine killers planned a shooting spree inside the school.
Truth: Columbine was a failed bombing. Eric and Dylan planted a bomb inside the cafeteria and then went outside to wait for it to explode. Their initial plan was to shoot students who tried to escape the building in the aftermath. Only once the bomb failed to ignite did they make their way inside to begin shooting students.
Myth #3: The Columbine killers targeted certain kinds of students.
Truth: Although initial news reports claimed the Columbine killers had targeted minorities, jocks, and Christians, the killing was indiscriminate. Their initial plan was to blow up hundreds of students in the cafeteria. When the bombs failed to go off, they killed students randomly. Interestingly enough, Eric’s friends described him as a sports enthusiast, and two of his best friends were Asian and African American.
Myth #4: The Columbine situation was a hostage standoff.
Truth: It is true that news reports initially treated the situation at Columbine as a hostage standoff, perhaps due to the fact that police officers did not enter the building until more than 40 minutes after the shooting began. But the Columbine killers never planned to hold hostages. Their goal was total destruction, not particular demands. It took three hours for the SWAT teams to find the killers (3:15 p.m.). They had been dead since 12:08, just forty-nine minutes after the attack began.
Myth #5. There were no warning signs that could have prevented the Columbine massacre.
Truth: Other parents had complained about Eric Harris, multiple times. Both Eric and Dylan had been arrested before. Thirteen months before the shooting, investigators discovered evidence that Eric was building pipe bombs. Dozens of pages of obscene threats on the internet were also documented. The sheriff’s department covered up the initial evidence that signaled the threat.
Myth #6: Cassie Bernall was martyred for her faith in God.
Truth: According to the eyewitness under the table with her, Cassie was shot when Eric poked his shotgun under the table and said, “Peekaboo.” The 911 tape verifies this testimony.
The martyr story arose from the testimony from another student in the library, Craig Scott (brother to victim, Rachel Scott), who recounted a conversation that took place across the room. Valeen Schnurr was the one who actually professed her faith in God, and this took place after she was shot. As she lay bleeding, she prayed, “Oh my God, don’t let me die.” Dylan turned around and asked her, “God? Do you believe in God?” Valeen said, “Yes, I believe in God.” When the killer asked why, she replied, “Because it’s how my parents raised me.”
Myth #7: Columbine students and teachers were able to communicate with each other via cell phones.
Truth: Though some students were able to call newscasters, the teachers and students hiding in the school were unable to communicate due to the ear-piercing fire alarm that blared for hours. The sprinkler system flooded the cafeteria, and the fire alarm and strobe lighting caused difficulty in communications with the SWAT team. Much of the terror and confusion that day was caused by the nerve-wracking alarm system that interfered with communication.