The press has misreported a lot about the Newtown shooting, and if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event. In his book Columbine, Dave Cullen revisited that soul shattering school shooting 13 years ago. He tells Bob that our story of that event is largely frozen in early misreporting.
Grizzly Bear- What's Wrong
BOB GARFIELD: We’ll follow the lesser-known history of the NRA with another story many of us think we already know, but don't. In his book, Columbine, Dave Cullen revisited that soul-shattering school shooting 13 years ago and found that our memory of that event is largely frozen in early misreporting.
DAVE CULLEN: “Two loner outcast Goths from the Trenchcoat Mafia went on a revenge slaying, where they targeted jocks specifically to pay them back for years of relentless bullying.” Everything that I just said is wrong. There was no targeting of jocks. They weren’t loners or outcasts. They, you know, had lots of friends, so all of that was wrong. We came to that conclusion within a few days and it stuck, and almost everyone still believes it.
BOB GARFIELD: The term “Trenchcoat Mafia” stands out for me.
DAVE CULLEN: Sure. One of the things that I talked about in the book is how all the myths have at least a kernel of truth. So there was a group called the Trenchcoat Mafia a year earlier, and they were friends with a lot of the same kids of Eric and Dylan. Eric and Dylan weren’t really part of the group but they were, they were close. And Eric and Dylan did wear trenchcoats, so it all seemed to fit. It was like, ah, trenchcoats on them, there was a group like that, they had a few jocks, and we were putting things together and creating imaginary pictures. And, in this case, we were way off.
BOB GARFIELD: How did we not arrive, for all of the information that has come out in the intervening 13 years, at a much more accurate and nuanced version of the story?
DAVE CULLEN: This story dominates the news for about a week or two, and then no matter how horrible it is, something else happens and we move on. Believe it or not, after Columbine, it lasted about two weeks, and then there was one day where there was a huge series of tornadoes in Oklahoma and the national press literally left, not overnight, but over about an hour and went to Oklahoma. It’s boom, [SNAPS FINGERS] there’s just sort of a particular day where it stops. And there will be one day when this one stops. Whatever day that is, any misunderstandings on that day will be with us forever.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s one particularly unsettling bit of myth. It, it concerned one of the victims, a girl named Cassie Bernall.
DAVE CULLEN: The story that we, we knew at the time was this poor young girl was hiding under a table in the library. Eric came up to the table and asked if she believed in God. She said yes and he shot and she died. Very quickly, within a few days, pastors picked it up, magazines. It was in all the mainstream press. And she became this heroic martyr figure who professed her belief in God.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s easier for the public to imagine a, a proud martyr than the hapless victim.
DAVE CULLEN: Exactly. What actually happened was in another part of the room, Dylan Klebold shot several people with a shotgun, including a girl named Val Schnurr. She eventually tried crawling away and he saw her and stopped her and started taunting her, “Do you believe in God” and actually had a conversation, and she said yes. He asked her why. She said, because that’s how my parents raised me. Then he got distracted, so he just walked away. He didn’t really care about her, so he just let her go.
She ended up living. She was rushed to the hospital and, unbeknownst to her, while she was in surgery, one of the other students in the library made a mistake and for some reason thought it was Cassie, and the word spread. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that Cassie had died. Hence, the martyr was born.
Meanwhile, Val, she was ridiculed and people in her own church even, you know, came up to her and derided her for trying to take over some heroine’s story and use it for her own.
BOB GARFIELD: So powerful is the desire to find meaning in the face of the horrific, that even when we find the truth we’ll reject it in favor of the myth that's more comforting?
DAVE CULLEN: Some people will, including the youth pastor at her church, who famously said to Hanna Rosen at the Washington Post something like - the church will never change our story.
BOB GARFIELD: All right now, we began this conversation by you capsulizing the public's notion of Columbine. Tell me, to the best of your understanding as the author of Columbine, what was in the heads of these kids when they murdered their classmates?
DAVE CULLEN: Well, the main thing to remember about Columbine is we’ve got two killers here and they were polar opposites. So Eric Harris was the driving force of the plan, and he was a sadistic psychopath, which is someone with no empathy, no regard for the feelings of other people and who, in fact, enjoys inflicting pain. He was paired with Dylan Klebold, suicidally depressed, distraught, considering suicide for two years. And Dylan is the model of what we most often see in these types of killers, someone who has gotten to such a point of hopelessness that they’re ready to lash out and do something horrible and dramatic. And that's what we saw there.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it's obvious that bad reporting can yield false understanding that can yield bad public policy. Is this case, sketchy reporting led to false understanding, which led to good public policy. I’m talking about anti-bullying policies in schools, and so forth.
DAVE CULLEN: It’s actually one of the great joys of my life to see this anti-bullying campaign that has come out in the wake of Columbine. I, I was bullied as a kid, and I've seen so many kids who were bullied, but I still feel the need to stand up for the truth and say, yes, we should be doing this but we’re doing it for a mistaken reason.
BOB GARFIELD: Dave, many thanks.
DAVE CULLEN: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Reporter Dave Cullen is the author of the book, Columbine.