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Originally published Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Columbine": The truths of a tragedy

In his investigative work of nonfiction, "Columbine," journalist/author Dave Cullen unearths unsettling truths about the horrific Colorado high school shooting. Cullen reads April 27 at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Dave Cullen

The author of "Columbine" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. April 27 at Seattle's University Book Store. Free (206-634-3400; ubookstore.com).

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"Columbine"

by Dave Cullen

Twelve, 417 pp., $26.99

"Columbine" used to mean a flower. For the past 10 years, that definition has been overtaken by a high-school massacre in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. The word is so recognizable that a new book about the 13 murder victims (12 students and one teacher), 11 wounded, plus the suicides of the two shooters (seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) requires no subtitle.

Like most folks who care about news, I read a lot about the Columbine High School deaths during 1999. I thought I knew a lot. It turns out that much of what I "knew" was wrong. Why? Because so many journalists reported inaccurately, and because local law-enforcement officers lied about what they knew.

Dave Cullen, a journalist who disseminated mistaken information for a while and then decided to get it right, has written a remarkable book.

It is painstakingly reported, well-organized and compellingly written.

The book contains thousands of important paragraphs that need disseminating so that readers not only understand the specific massacre at Columbine, but also understand larger truths about school attacks, those who plan them and those who react to them.

Those in charge of informing the public about the real Columbine story failed to disclose unambiguously that the two murderers wanted to set a death record by collapsing the entire school with bombs.

"For investigators, the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack," according to Cullen. "Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed."

Cullen watched as the information about the bombs instigated a new media shock wave. "But, curiously," Cullen notes, "journalists failed to grasp the implications. Detectives let go of the targeting theory immediately. It had been sketchy to begin with, and now it was completely disproved. The media never shook it off. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They filtered every new development through that lens."

Journalists performing poorly in times of disaster is nothing new. Cullen explains how and why so many journalists went astray, while giving credit to those who labored mightily to achieve accuracy. Law-enforcement officials covering up their failures in times of disaster is nothing new, either, but perhaps more disturbing because of the life-and-death power they wield.

On the day of the massacre, the primary law-enforcement failing revolved around the failure to rescue Dave Sanders, the teacher who died. He bled to death over several hours, despite opportunities for law-enforcement officers to rescue Sanders while still alive.

After the massacre, the primary law-enforcement cover-up, mostly involving the Jefferson County sheriff's office and the local prosecutor, took root.

More than a year before the school massacre, investigators knew Eric Harris possessed the capability to kill. They also knew that Dylan Klebold, though more a follower than a leader, had been involved in criminal activity. But they botched the pre-massacre cases, then hid what they had known year after year until the persistence of author Cullen, loved ones of the murder victims and more dispassionate advocates of open government pierced the secrecy.

For any reader who wants to understand the complicated nature of evil, this book is a masterpiece.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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