Lessons from Columbine

Two people in Aurora, Colorado, comfort each other following a mass shooting at a movie theatre last week (Barry Gutierrez/Associated Press)

First aired on As It Happens (23/07/12)

Last week's mass shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, which killed at least 12 and injured dozens more, has opened up emotional debates about gun control and speculation about the mental health of alleged shooter James Holmes. The horrific event had parallels to the 1999 shooting rampage at Columbine High School, also in Colorado, that left 12 students and one teacher dead. Both shootings involved stockpiled weapons and left similar death tolls. Both had their respective communities and the media at large struggling to understand the motives of those involved.

But journalist Dave Cullen, author of the comprehensive book Columbine, cautions against mythologizing the Aurora shooter before all the facts are out there.

"I think everybody in the audience knew several basic things about Columbine," he told As It Happens during a recent interview. "That there were two loner outcasts [Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold], kids from the trench-coat mafia, who were bullied just relentlessly and ferociously by jocks, so they eventually shot up their school in revenge and targeted the jocks in particular. All of that is wrong. Every single bit of it."

Contrary to early news reports, the pair of high schoolers weren't taking medications for anti-depressants, and didn't target any group of students in particular during their killing spree. Personality-wise, they were also "night and day," according to Cullen. Harris was reportedly an intelligent student, but his dark, hate-filled journal entries would suggest he was a textbook psychopath. Klebold, on the other hand, was what Cullen has referred to as a classic example of an angry depressive. He was shy, lovesick and angrier at himself than at other people.

"And every journalist who covered the story knew it was wrong. I didn't uncover some unknown thing here.  The people who don't know is the general public. Once we get a story out and it solidifies into fact, it doesn't matter how many times we report the correction, you can never take that story back."

Cullen believes that people are drawn to narratives when such terrible things happen and the media can be too eager to comply.

"I think it's comforting, first of all, that it's not 'normal people.' It's not somebody like us, it's that weird guy who like doesn't talk to anybody, the strange person, he's the one we have to fear. Our friends and the people I talk to are all OK, we're all safe, we're all good people. I think it's easier to believe that."

columbine-book-cover.jpgCullen thinks that at this point, the news media is doing a better job of sticking to the facts around the Aurora shooting, instead of devoting too much time to profiling suspect James Holmes. The public is hungry for more information about this incident, but what gets reported, especially in the early stages, colours how we see and remember it. Cullen argues this must be considered since jury members are plucked from the public.

"They will all be influenced by what they learned and if they go in with some really deep preconceptions which are very wrong, that's another different kind of huge problem."