I started this review on April 15th with the line, “I don’t like the style of this book.” Which was true at the time, and ultimately led me to abandon reading it until a couple weeks ago.
One of my favorite podcast discoveries this year has been one called Martyrmade. It’s a history podcast in the style of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, heavily detailed with long episodes. The man who makes Martyrmade, Darryl Cooper, has another podcast (which I do not recommend, by the way), called The Decline of the West, in which he had an episode on mass shootings. This discussion spurred me into picking this book back up, and I intended to center my review around the idea that these massacres tend to have a very basic commonality. Namely, that the killers tend towards being disaffected by the societies in which they live, and are responding to a fear of anonymization by the all-pervasive modern age consumer society in which we live. Their response to this is to lash out violently; it’s an attempt to reclaim some individuality and sense of purpose.
And on it’s face, this seems plausible. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had trouble fitting into the society of his adopted home, which at least in part led to his self-radicalization. Omar Mateen certainly struggled fitting in. He had what amounted to an obsession with law enforcement – though his violent history made him a terrible candidate of the police force. He claimed affiliation with both al Qaeda and ISIS, two oppositional groups. He was even alleged to have been a frequent visitor the Pulse nightclub that he eventually terrorized. And Eric Harris certainly fits this mold: he hated the world and wanted to bring about humanities extinction. And, as we all know, the Columbine shooters were outcasts, bullied by jocks and isolated to a group called the “trench coat mafia”.
So when I returned to this book, I had these thoughts rattling around in my head.
We all know this story, right? I was in high school when this happened, and vividly remember people talking about the trench coat mafia and devil worshiping goth kids, bullied for liking Marilyn Manson and violent video games. I remember the heroism of the teacher, David Sanders, gunned down while holding the door so students could escape unhindered. I remember the killers calmly walking through the library, executing those students who most savagely brutalized them, seeking retribution for unfair treatment. I remember them choosing Hitler’s birthday as the date for the massacre, in homage to their perverse fascination with the Nazi party. I remember the martyr, Cassie Bernall, executed for professing her faith in Jesus Christ.
So much of this narrative, of course, was simply untrue. Almost all of it, in fact. And the ideas I wanted to explore in this review vanished into the ether from which they came.
The killers weren’t bullied. If anything, they were popular kids who relished the abuse they hurled at others. They were nascent criminals who spent a solid year planning this horrorshow – but they weren’t targeting ethnic groups, or cliques they didn’t like (or belong to). They killed indiscriminately. They killed because they wanted to. They executed or spared people at random. Eric Harris was a full-blown psychopath, and Dylan Klebold was a depressive who would as soon kill himself as others, but was keen to follow Harris’ lead. Cassie Bernall, based on all available accounts, wasn’t asked if she believed in God before she was killed – but another student was (and she was allowed to live after affirming her faith). The teacher, Dave Sanders, was a hero, but he wasn’t standing in the hallway holding the door – he was trying to escape, and encouraging other students to do the same. Marilyn Manson had nothing to do with the massacre. The killers weren’t members of a “trench coat mafia”, though there was a group of kids given that name. If anything, Columbine wasn’t a school shooting, it was a failed bombing. They wanted to kill everyone – not “just” 13 students.
Prior to reading this book, I, like most people, accepted the common narrative at face value. I remember these events, and the firestorm of coverage that followed. I simply took it for granted that the media basically got it right. Or, at the very least, couldn’t say precisely what the media got wrong. In fact, the media got most of it wrong.
None of which is remotely surprising, I guess. As we’ve learned since, the cycle of coverage by the 24-hour news industry frequently eschews truth over a compelling narrative. And the notion that two brutalized and mistreated kids snapping and unleashing a torrent of violence on their classmates is just too tempting a narrative to not sell.
But the reality is far more difficult to market. And to understand. This book ably does both, I think.
Eric Harris didn’t want to rid the world of humanity because he was an “outcast”. He was a full-blown psychopath, utterly disconnected from basic empathy. His brain literally operated differently than yours or mine.
This book did a fairly spectacular thing. It not only changed the way I conceptualized this tragedy by divesting it of the myth of “Columbine”, it also fundamentally disproved the mindset I had going in to reading it. While it’s no doubt true that there are people left standing outside of society, and that they are sometimes driven to extreme acts by their lack of belonging – that is by no means the only explanation for why these tragedies happen.
Sometimes, an asshole with a gun exhibits numerous warning signs that aren’t picked up by the right people at the right time, and their ready access to guns, freedom from accountability or supervision, and ability to exploit the basic trust of their friends and neighbors all combine into a toxic amalgam of terror and tragedy.