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Journalist Looks At The 'Why' Behind Columbine

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Journalist Looks At The 'Why' Behind Columbine

Book Reviews

Journalist Looks At The 'Why' Behind Columbine

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Next week marks the 10th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Journalist Dave Cullen was one of the first journalists to arrive at the scene. He spent the next 10 years investigating it and his new book is titled, simply, "Columbine."

Writer Susan Jane Gilman reviews it for us.

Ms. SUSAN JANE GILMAN (Writer): Ten years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their Colorado high school armed with sawed-off shotguns and an arsenal of explosives. They committed the largest mass murder on school grounds at the time, while Americans everywhere watched the drama unfolding from outside.

The violence of Columbine has since become iconic. Yet in his new book, Dave Cullen turns much of what we believe about the crime on its head.

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 disaffected Trench Coat Mafia. Their attack on Columbine wasn't an emotional outburst or revenge fantasy, either. It was carefully orchestrated.

The boys plotted for over a year. Their goal? To kill indiscriminately: First blow up the school, then bomb emergency services when they arrived. Ideally, the destruction should surpass Oklahoma City - wipe out, Harris wrote, as much humanity as possible.

The boys placed two large bombs in the cafeteria and two car bombs in the parking lot. When these failed to detonate, they resorted to random shootings and Molotov cocktails. The Columbine massacre that America witnessed? That was improvised, Cullen argues, a default, Plan B.

Cullen's book has been compared to "In Cold Blood." Here, I disagree. His writing has none of the investigative tension or lyrical empathy of Capote. "Columbine" is a good, strong book, but not a great one.

At its best, however, it parallels Malcolm Gladwell's work because "Columbine" does something important: It delivers a clear-eyed portrait of human pathology. Cullen explains the way the brain works, and challenges our assumptions about how and why people behave as we do.

Without sensationalizing, he shows that one of the Columbine killers, Harris, was a textbook-definition psychopath. And by explaining what this means, and how the world might be perceived emotionally by a psychopath, Cullen answers better than anyone, perhaps, the question most people ask about Columbine, namely what were those boys thinking?

In doing so, the implications of Columbine extend far beyond the walls of a high school.

The book asserts that Harris and Klebold were not disgruntled geeks but terrorists. He never connects the dots between the boys' mindset and that of, say, al-Qaida. And I, at least, wished he had because he makes crucial observations about what might actually compel someone to strap on an explosive belt or drive a car full of fertilizer into a day-care center.

Ultimately, his book implies that terrorism isn't rooted in politics, religion or teenage angst but lodged in the human brain itself, in depression and psychoses, in pathologies that are all too easily harnessed by extremism or, in this case, by one disturbed teenage boy handing another a gun.

SIEGEL: The book is "Columbine" by Dave Cullen. Reviewer Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is called "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven."

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