Review: Columbine, by David Cullen (2009)
I don’t think even favorable reviewers of this book get what the real crisis is. Columbine is a very important book warning us profoundly to reject the news media and interest-group discussion of sensational issues involving teenagers.
Cullen’s indictment of press coverage of the 1999 Columbine massacre is deservedly devastating. Likewise, our analyses at YouthFacts of hundreds of press reports on teenagers reveals the news media’s relentlessly false fear crusade against American teenagers, fed by self-serving interest groups—a crisis more serious than even Cullen allows.
The problem, shown in this book and repeated analyses, was not press confusion during the Columbine massacre’s chaotic initial events. That’s to be expected. The larger problem is much more troubling: major media reporters and interest groups persisted in dispensing false, even vicious myths long after truthful accounts had debunked them, often simply manufacturing “evidence” to support their false narratives even to this day.
In teenage stories, whether the Gloucester “teen pregnancy spike” and “pact” (there was no “spike” and no “pact,” the entire story was a complete fabrication); the supposed “wave” of Chicago “school aged murders” (Chicago’s school-aged murders are at an historic low); the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case as evidencing a mass-teen “rape culture” (rape and sexual violence among young are at all time lows)—and on and on—the press behaves as a single-celled amoebic organism demonizing the young.
The post-Columbine myths were created in service to the boilerplate prejudice (raised in nearly every report on teenagers) that mass bullying, brain-dead teenage cruelty, and a hidden world of universal adolescent rage and craziness (unknown to innocent, shocked adults) underlay the tragedy. In the press/interest-group fantasy, shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were typical, out-of-control teenage boys “next door” bullied by cruel school peers into violent retaliation. IT CAN HAPPEN IN YOUR TOWN, TOO!
Cullen assembles a wealth of evidence that mastermind Harris was a psychopath, not a “typical teenager” (whatever that is), and that Klebold was a severe depressive who used Harris’s mass-murder scheme to accomplish his own grandiose suicide. Such murder-suicide dyads are very rare, and they occur mainly among adults (i.e., Los Angeles’s Hillside stranglers).
Another admirable point: unlike most other popular books and articles on youth issues, Cullen has the self-discipline to refrain from indulging ugly stereotypes against teenagers as a means of proclaiming the author’s (and by extension, the reader’s) moral superiority. Cullen presents teenagers as a wide range of individuals, from compassionate and heroic on one hand to the two killers on the other—much like the grownups. Columbine is distinctly different in tone, complexity, and content from the crude, one-dimensional misrepresentations of young people by authors such as Mary Pipher, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Barbara Strauch, Rachel Wiseman, Meredith Maran, Jean Twenge, James Garbarino, Mark Bauerlein, and a host of pop-psychologist/journalist indulgences.
Unlike another recent debunking book, Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon (who unfortunately ignores her iconoclastic research on bullying and retreats into dispensing the usual demeaning anti-youth stereotypes and silly adult conceits), Cullen applies his research to his findings. He uses the diversity of young people to buttress his point that the Columbine shooting was not a “teenage” event, or even one properly understood as stemming from “mental illness.” Psychopaths may display warning signs, visible in retrospect, but they don’t resemble those of mentally disturbed individuals inclined to violence.
Columbine reinforces our conclusions that the news media, with a few exceptions, is too biased, unreliable, and enslaved by their own superficial myths to serve as a reliable source of information on youth issues. But it isn’t just the media. A wide array of interest groups and pop authors have arisen to profit from negative stereotypes—or, rather, the negative stereotype, since the same one is invoked over and over—which makes a true debunking book like Columbine all the more welcome.