Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul

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Many find this to be the awkward one, the child that doesn’t belong anywhere. It’s slotted between two punk-spirited albums full of anger and vitriol, often eschewing melody for lyrics. The Manics sounded on their previous album like they’re more interested in starting fires than playing rock music. The Holy Bible was a philosophy professor going off-topic and refusing to let his students go. What does this collection of depressed soft rock has to do with anything?

Maybe these two albums were actually the abnormalities, not this. If you listen to them closely, you’ll find the same despair lurking there. Generation Terrorists wasn’t a victorious, rabble-rousing album but a car on fire just waiting to crash. What fueled its anger was despair, the thought that no matter how loud they’ll play nothing will change. That’s why it sounds so different compared to other political music. As for The Holy Bible, beneath the philosophy and big words it had “This is Yesterday”, “Die in the Summertime” and “4st 7lb”. The only reason the lattermost doesn’t fit here is because it’s not melodic enough.

This is the definitive Manic Street Preachers. It’s not their best album and it suffers from filler, but it’s one that captures their essence. If you have to distill the Manics, they’re a melodic rock band with as much brains as they got despair. ‘Despair’ is the key word here, because every song drips with it.

Just look at the song titles. It’s one of those albums that can convince you of having a concept – “Life Becoming a Landslide”, “From Despair to Where”, even a title like “Roses in the Hospital” hints more at despair than anything else. Even when they sing about something other than despair, it comes to that. “La Tristessa Durera” – a contender for their best song – is about a veteran who’s been abandoned by society, forced to live with his memories alone. I wasn’t in combat duty, but I did have a tough role in the military and that song is dead-on in expressing the alienation, the loneliness, how everyone treats your service like everyone goes through it. To me, this song is a godsend, showing us someone understands the loneliness of a discharged soldier.

The music is more softer, more melodic. Some expressed astonishment at this, but were the Manics ever brutal? Even The Holy Bible has its melodic, almost poppy moments. They just play at mid-tempo, which brings their melodic chops to the surface. If it was odd that their later records were so melodic, it’s only because we wanted to forget this record and believe in the Manics as explosive rock-n-rollers.

They never were that. Gold Against the Soul is the only logical continuation of their debut. All its fury and politics and anger and telling to people to fuck off were a last attempt at recovering from despair. Here, they wake up, quite indifferently, to a reality they knew they couldn’t change. How else to react to a rebellion you knew was lost in the first place?

The album’s power comes not just from despair, but a unique hopelessness. There was never a good time according to this music. Everything was always bad, but they just happen to sing about it now. “Life Becoming a Landslide”, in one sentence, points to a past that’s the same as the present. A lot of depressive music wax sentimental about a fall from grace. The fall is a common element in our thinking in dark times. Nostalgia is a place to run to, knowing that if things used to be good then maybe they have a chance of improving. The darkest albums have these, since they describe some kind of deterioration. There’s none of that here, just a monotony of despair.

The mood and sound are strong, but the songs alone don’t reach these heights. The album especially falters after “Roses in the Hospital”, and the final tracks are bursts of noise that only help to keep the overall mood, but not add to it too much. It’s also reliant on its sound more than anything. It sounds great when played from beginning to end, but if you find yourself choosing an individual song the choices narrow. “Sleepflower” is fantastic as an opener only.

When it’s good, it’s brilliant. “La Tristessa Durera” is a masterpiece. “Roses in the Hospital” is the second highlight, a funky Alternative Dance number that turns its despair into a protest. It’s the one song that captures some of the debut’s anger with the cry of “We don’t want your fucking love”, but only to fall back to despair. Other songs need the album’s mood to stick, but they’re good enough – “Life Becoming a Landslide” is strangely pretty, “From Despair to Where” is okay with brilliant lyrics and “Drug Drug Druggy” captures some Hard Rock intensity.

It’s also the album where the Manics begun their career as some of Rock’s best lyricist. The poetic titles are enough, but there are countless quotables here – “My idea of love comes from/A childhood glimpse of pornography”, “I am just a fashion accessory”, “I feel like I’m missing pieces of sleep”. If you need words to give your thesis or your book a title, there’s plenty here.

So it’s not their best album, but it is their best album, but if I have to direct a beginner I’ll direct them to this. They have more explosive albums, angrier albums, smarter albums and catchier albums. No album captured their essence like this, a poetry full of despair and intelligence that happens to go along with Pop hooks and guitar noise. Start your exploration here.

What the hell does the album title mean, by the way?

4 roses in 5 hospitals