Back to School

The Fire Last Time

They dreamed of fire.

It would be a cleansing fire, fueled by propane, gasoline, gunpowder, homemade napalm -- and their own savage hatred. Explosion after explosion, building to a conflagration that would settle all arguments and consume hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.

At first, when the fire was just a revenge fantasy flickering in the fevered brains of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, they thought about ways they could escape retribution for the killing. There had to be some island where they could find sanctuary, a tribe somewhere that would embrace their kind. But as the plan hardened, practical considerations dictated a suicide mission. They did not want to be taken alive.

If, by some strange luck, they survived the annihilation of Columbine High School, they would take the campaign to the streets. Harris was full of notions about how to boost the body count, which he scribbled in his journal. One idea was to hijack a plane and fly to New York City.

And then crash the plane into a skyscraper.

Days after the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999, investigators dismissed the hijacking scheme as just one more example of how unhinged the two killers were. Everybody knew that two teenagers didn't have the sophistication or the resources to engineer such an unimaginable catastrophe. No, something like that, if it was even remotely possible, would require professional terrorists, specially trained for the job.

But Harris and Klebold were terrorists. Amateurs, certainly, with an imperfect understanding of explosives and timers -- if the bombs they planted in the school cafeteria had worked, they could have killed more people than the Oklahoma City bombing -- but terrorists just the same. The differences between what they did and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are dramatic, but they're chiefly matters of scale and ideology. In both cases, the object was to commit not just a crime, but an act of war, a kamikaze strike that would end in the fiery deaths of the attack force and as many civilians as they could take with them.

Although it was the worst school shooting in American history, the attack on Columbine was essentially a failure. The toll was "only" fifteen dead, including the gunmen, and two dozen wounded. (Small comfort for the injured -- some of whom face a lifetime of surgeries and rehabilitation -- and the families of the dead.) Yet there is much we can learn from the failures of Harris and Klebold, just as we are beginning to learn from the hideous success of the September 11 attacks.

In recent weeks, the talking heads have saturated the airwaves with their musings on "the new face of terror." But we have seen this face before, in different guises. We've seen it in a yearbook photo taken in the suburbs, graced with an awkward, I've-got-a-secret half-smile. We've seen it in grainy surveillance video of an adolescent commando strutting through the wreckage of his high school, trying to act out the Tarantino-style shootout playing in his head. But nobody recognized that face for what it was until it was too late.

Do we recognize it now?

Pieces of Hate

The truth about Columbine has emerged slowly over the past thirty months. Much of it has been pried loose, piece by painful piece, from reluctant school and police officials, who have refused to discuss the stickier details about what their agencies knew about Harris and Klebold before the massacre or how they responded once the attack began.

The battle over information dates back to the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, when parents waited for hours -- and, in some cases, days -- for confirmation that their children had been murdered. It took Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone's office more than a year to release its official report on the shootings -- a tidy, self-serving CD-ROM package that didn't begin to address the most troubling questions about the attack ("The Lost Command," July 13, 2000).

By the second anniversary, thanks to a lawsuit filed by families of the dead and wounded, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office had been forced to release 11,000 pages of police reports and witness interviews, as well as recordings of 911 calls and school surveillance videos -- raw evidence that was considerably at odds with the official version of events presented in the sheriff's report. Last spring, 60 Minutes II aired proof that even though the sheriff's office had more prior knowledge about Harris's bomb-making activities than the department had admitted, it had mysteriously dropped its investigation ("Lights, Camera...No Comment," April 12).

The broadcast caused a furor in local media circles and put pressure on the department to release other Columbine documents. Over the past six months, as a result of ongoing open-records requests filed on behalf of the families, CBS News and Westword, nearly 5,000 additional pages have been made public, including formerly "misplaced" witness interviews and some of the ballistics data that Columbine parents have been seeking for more than two years.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast