The Unforgettable Mass Murder at Columbine High School and Its Inaccurate Cultural Mythology

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blue and white columbine flowers against a sunlit sky

Truly powerful people are not concerned about their power, but about being in a position of being able to empower.

Nadja Swarovski

In our culture and many others, flowers often commemorate people and events. Since April 20, 1999 a common wildflower has taken on an additional meaning no American should forget. That indelible association refers to Columbine High School just outside Denver, Colorado. The community where it’s located took its name from the state flower. The blue sepals symbolize the sky, its white petals represent snow, and the bright yellow center reminds us of the gold that helped establish the state.

Beginning in 1917, the advertising slogan “Say it with Flowers” has represented florists and reminded people of the custom of encoded messages flowers could once convey. The violent message here, although blatantly direct, has been one our culture has struggled to decode. Making sense of this tragedy started with blaming the usual suspects: violent video games, rock music lyrics, and other distractions from the actual and pervasive problems our public policy and our laws have yet to adequately address.

Aerial view of Columbine High School.

The reporting of Dave Cullen shows us that ultimately this event was not about the Steroid Poster Boys who bullied the school and the Trench Coat Mafia who hoped to avenge the bullying. It was larger than even a (dysfunctional) school or a community (that enabled and accepted that dysfunction). The intention was in fact to create “the most deaths in U. S. history.” In other words, it could have been far worse than it actually was. On the morning of April 21, 1999 the official death toll was released: 15 people died, including the two students who planned the entire thing.

One of the greatest moments in television took place on May 21, 1999 when one of the closest friends of the two shooters, Brooks Brown, appeared with his mother Judy on The Oprah Winfrey Show to share his priceless perspective and help a grieving and concerned nation make sense out of violent acts that seemed so senseless. He would later tell a much fuller version in a book called No Easy Answers. When Oprah would learn that Judy Brown knew the family of one of the shooters a little, she would ask Judy to tell Sue Klebold that she hoped to talk with her and express her condolences, but Sue Klebold was not ready to talk.

In July 1999, three months after the massacre, the FBI would hold a conference in Leesburg, Virginia involving mental health experts and other professionals. Some of the conclusions would not be shared in public until five years later. With the subtitle ‘At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It’, Dave Cullen’s article would state:

Most Americans have reached one of two wrong conclusions about why they did it. The first conclusion is that the pair of supposed “Trench Coat Mafia outcasts” were taking revenge against the bullies who had made school miserable for them. The second conclusion is that the massacre was inexplicable: We can never understand what drove them to such horrific violence.

But the FBI and its team of psychiatrists and psychologists have reached an entirely different conclusion. They believe they know why Harris and Klebold killed, and their explanation is both more reassuring and more troubling than our misguided conclusions.

Fuselier and Ochberg say that if you want to understand “the killers,” quit asking what drove them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were radically different individuals, with vastly different motives and opposite mental conditions.

In September, memorial trees were planted but relatives and friends of two of the victims chopped down two of them.

In November 2008, the parents of both shooters were contacted by author Jeff Kass, who told them, “In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one.” On March 25, 2009, it was–for a while–followed in April by Dave Cullen’s book Columbine claiming to be comprehensive and exhaustive. The first tome ran 336 pages; the second, nearly 500, would soon enter The New York Times bestseller list. According to Janet Maslin, who gives a slight edge to the first, “Neither one of them owns this story. It could take until 2027, when the last sealed depositions about the rampage are released, for a truly definitive Columbine story to appear.”

Then in February 2016, Sue Klebold began to tell her heart-rending account. Its title alone says plenty: My Son Was a Columbine Shooter. I hope you’ll watch it (and tell others). Here are a few excerpts:

Before the shootings, I thought of myself as a good mom. Helping my children become caring, healthy, responsible adults was the most important role of my life. But the tragedy convinced me that I failed as a parent, and it’s partially this sense of failure that brings me here today. Aside from his father, I was the one person who knew and loved Dylan the most. If anyone could have known what was happening, it should have been me, right? But I didn’t know.

After a lot of reading and talking with experts, I have come to believe that his involvement in the shootings was rooted not in his desire to kill but in his desire to die.

[There is no escape from] my feelings of guilt that no matter how much therapy I’ve had I will never fully eradicate. But here’s something I’ve learned: if love were enough to stop someone who is suicidal from hurting themselves, suicides would hardly ever happen. But love is not enough, and suicide is prevalent. It’s the second leading cause of death for people age 10 to 34 . . .

As you all know very well, our mental health care system is not equipped to help everyone, and not everyone with destructive thoughts fits the criteria for a specific diagnosis. Many who have ongoing feelings of fear or anger or hopelessness are never assessed or treated. Too often, they get our attention only if they reach a behavioral crisis. If estimates are correct that about one to two percent of all suicides involves the murder of another person, when suicide rates rise, as they are rising for some populations, the murder-suicide rates will rise as well.

Dylan found access to guns even though we’d never owned any in our home. It was appallingly easy for a 17-year-old boy to buy guns, both legally and illegally, without my permission or knowledge. And somehow, 17 years and many school shootings later, it’s still appallingly easy.

Job 14: 2 states, in one translation, “We blossom like a flower and then wither. Like a passing shadow, we quickly disappear.” Do we also learn from experience?

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