This is the first of two excerpts from Dave Cullen’s Columbine, being published this week by Twelve. Click here to read the other excerpt, about the wounding of a teacher during the Columbine assault, and here to read Cullen’s essay about how Columbine changed America. You can watch video of attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and you can read Cullen’s seminal 2004 Slate essay about Harris and Klebold: “At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It.”
This occurs in fall 1998, six months before the Columbine massacre.
Just before the Halloween of his senior year, Eric Harris began assembling his arsenal. He sat down in his room with a stack of fireworks, split each one down the side, and tapped the shiny black powder into a coffee can. Once he had a sufficient volume, he tipped the can and guided a fine little trickle into a carbon dioxide cartridge. He measured it out carefully, almost to the rim. Then he applied a wick, sealed it off and set it aside. One cricket, ready for detonation. He was pleased with his work. He assembled nine more.
The pipe bombs required a lot more gunpowder, and a PVC pipe to house each one. Eric assembled four of those that day. The first three he designated the Alpha batch. Not bad, but he could do better. He set them aside and tried a different approach. He built just one bomb for the Beta batch. Better. Still room for improvement. That was enough for one day.
Eric drew up a chart to record his production data. He set up columns to log each batch by name, size, quantity, shrapnel content, and power load. Then he rated his work. Six of his eight batches would earn an “excellent” assessment. His worst performance was “O.K.”
The next day, Eric got right back to it, producing six more pipe bombs—the rest of the Beta batch. Later, he would create Charlie, Delta, Echo and Foxtrot, using military lingo for all of the batches, except that soldiers use Bravo, not Beta.
Eric penned nearly a dozen new journal entries in the next two months. “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible,” he wrote, “so I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy, mercy, or any of that.’”
It was a mark of Eric’s ruthlessness that he comprehended the pain and consciously fought the urge to spare it. “I will force myself to believe that everyone is just another monster from Doom,” he wrote. “I have to turn off my feelings.”
Keep one thing in mind, he said: he wanted to burn the world. That would be hard. He had begun producing the explosives, and it was a lot of work. Ten pipe bombs and ten puny crickets after two days’ effort. Those would not destroy much. “God I want to torch and level everything in this whole fucking area,” he said, “but bombs of that size are hard to make.”
Eric took a few moments to enjoy the dream. He envisioned half of Denver on fire: napalm streams eating the skin off skyscrapers, explosive gas tanks ripping through residential garages. Napalm recipes were available online. The ingredients were readily attainable. But he had to be realistic. “It will be very tricky getting all of our supplies, explosives, weaponry, ammo, and then hiding it all and then actually planting it all,” he said. A lot could go wrong in the next six months, and if they did get busted, “we start killing then and there. I aint going out without a fight.”
Eric repeated that last line almost verbatim in an English essay. The assignment was to react to a quote from literature, and Eric had chosen this line from Euripides’ tragedy Medea: “no, like some yellow-eyed beast that has killed its hunters let me lie down on the hounds’ bodies and the broken spears.” Medea was declaring that she would die fighting, Eric wrote. They would never take her without a struggle. He repeated that sentiment seven times in a page and a quarter. He described Medea as brave and courageous, tough and strong and hard as stone. It is one of the most impassioned public essays Eric left behind.
Eric dreamed big, but settled for reality. Humans meant nothing; Eric was superior and determined to prove it. Watching us suffer would be enjoyable. Every week he devised colorful new scenarios: crashing planes into buildings, igniting blocks of skyscrapers, ejecting people into outer space. But the objective never wavered: kill as many as possible, as dramatically as imaginable.
In a perfect world, Eric would extinguish the species. Eric was a practical kid, though. The planet was beyond him; even a block of Denver high-rises was out of reach. But he could pull off a high school.