Concentrated Evil

Appeared in Creative Loafing, 2009

Dave Cullen

I used to drive past the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building a couple times a week when I lived in Oklahoma. When terrorist Timothy McVeigh bombed it in 1995, he killed 168 people in the building, but he wounded a whole country.

That was two years after the fiery siege of cult leader David Koresh’s religious compound and four years before two schoolboys shot up some classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colo.

All of these events happened the same time of year, right around April 20, the birthday of Adolf Hitler.

Some of my Oklahoma friends still won’t go near any sort of Federal building – even a post office – that time of year. It’s the time of concentrated evil.

So this year, we all held our breath for the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. We made it through it, and now it’s time to consider Columbine without tears.

Dave Cullen’s Columbine is a masterwork of journalism. Since the heady days of New Journalism in the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, etc.) that style they pioneered — no longer “new,” it’s called Literary Journalism — has sometimes been suspect.

One of the tenets of journalism is that it’s true. So many authors try to blend fact and fiction and re-imagine things that happened . . .  things they cannot verify as truth. So a lot of stuff that is fiction have been published under the aegis of Literary Journalism. (This raises another question: is anything ever over the aegis?)

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All that is by way of saying that Dave Cullen might single-handedly give Literary Journalism back its good name. Much like the moment-by-moment telling of the 9-11 attacks – Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn’s 102 Minutes – this book looks unflinchingly at that which is the most horrifying part of human capability.

Lots of great, heart-tugging stories emerged from the Columbine massacre. Some of them weren’t true. Some storytellers never let truth get in the way, but Cullen sifts through the mythology and delivers the truth. Cullen has done a magnificent job of burrowing into the dark souls of the teen-age assassins, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

In press releases, the publisher compares Columbine to Capote’s In Cold Blood. That story of a multiple murder and its consequences is carved into the Literary Journalism Rushmore.

Maybe we need to start carving Columbine into that mountain. It not only deserves the comparison with Capote. It sets a new standard.