Editor's Note: The following is an expanded version of the interview that was published in the September 2009 issue of POLICE Magazine.
Dave Cullen's "Columbine" is not just a best-selling true crime story. It doesn't just journalistically examine the events of the nation's most infamous school massacre, it brings them to life.
Focusing on 10 characters-including the mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold-as well as teachers, parents, cops, victims, and survivors, "Columbine" is a non-fiction novel, a non-fiction horror novel.
The monster in this horror story is 18-year-old Eric Harris. Cullen makes a forceful argument that Harris was a sadistic psychopath who felt absolutely no remorse and acted with no conscience. Even if you don't buy Cullen's hypothesis, it's hard to argue that Harris wasn't a monster.
Although Columbine ended up being the nation's most infamous school shooting, it was planned as a bombing. Harris and his accomplice Dylan Klebold, 17, placed two large propane bombs in their school cafeteria right before the lunch hour rush. Their plan was to wait until the bombs detonated and then mow down the panicked survivors with a small arsenal of shotguns and carbines.
Cullen, a freelance writer who lives in Colorado, has been delving into the psyches of Harris and Klebold ever since the day of the attack when he rushed to the scene to cover the breaking story. It's a story that he can't seem to shake because every time a school shooting occurs anywhere in the world, the media contacts him. "It can be a bad way to wake up," he says.
POLICE Magazine editor David Griffith recently spoke with Cullen about the psychology of Eric Harris, law enforcement response the day of the massacre, the investigation, and how school shootings can be prevented.
When did you first get involved with the Columbine story?
Sometime A little before noon that day I saw it come on TV. I didn't know where it was. I drove out Highway 6 until I saw the helicopters circling south from the highway. That was my first clue that it was much worse than I thought. So I just got off at the next exit and drove until I was stopped by a police barricade.
Then I pulled into a strip mall and got out on foot and ran. I got as far as the Columbine Library, which was maybe half a mile from the school. That was one of the two rendezvous points. Most of the scenes in the book of the parents waiting there for word about the fate of their children was from what I noted there that day.
Why do you think Eric Harris decided to murder his classmates? Was it because he hated jocks? Or preps? Or bullies?
With Eric what I always tell people is please avoid cherry-picking the Eric quotes because Eric rants about everything under the sun, including slow drivers. That doesn't mean he shot up his high school because of slow drivers.
But when you look through the hundreds of pages that he left, the patterns leap out at you, and the patterns are really important. One of the patterns is his real desire, which he repeats more than anything else in all of his writing other than perhaps "I hate you all," and that is: "I want to kill you all." His ultimate fantasy was annihilation of the human species.
He couldn't destroy the world, so he settled for his school.
Yes. He complains in his journal about how hard it is to get enough explosives to destroy one building. Then he says, "Bombs are hard." The rational side of Eric realized: Destroying the world is way beyond me. Burning down Denver is way beyond me. Even downtown Denver is way beyond me. But I can take out my high school.
The pattern of terrorists in general is that they usually go for symbols, and they usually go for explosions. They also usually go for symbols of power and authority. Eric and Dylan attacked the biggest power center of their world, which was their school.