From 'Columbine' to 'Parkland' — and beyond
Dave Cullen’s new book traces a way out of the endless cycle of school-shooting horrors with, as the subtitle states, the ‘Birth of a Movement’
By Ted Cox
Dave Cullen was weary of being “the mass-murder guy.”
Cullen’s 2009 book “Columbine” debunked the myth of the infamous Colorado shooters from a decade before as what he refers to as “cultural Robin Hoods … you know, robbing from the social haves and standing up for the social have-nots.” Instead, he now labels one of the pair simply “a little monster.” It also led to the now-common journalistic practice of removing the name of a shooter from the ensuing media coverage whenever possible — the better to discourage copycats.
But along the way Cullen became what he himself refers to as “the mass-murder guy,” the go-to interview subject for every school shooting. He also suffered from what he describes as secondhand post-traumatic stress disorder, forever altered by replaying the events in his head of the Columbine shooting he’d covered and laid bare.
“I swore I would never go back,” Cullen writes in his new book, “Parkland,” which debuts on The New York Times Book Review best-seller list this weekend.
But he almost immediately sensed something different about the Parkland, Fla., shooting that took place on Valentine’s Day a year ago — a sense that this time was going to be different because the shooting survivors themselves were determined to make it different, as reflected in the book’s subtitle, “Birth of a Movement.”
“Parkland changed everything — for the survivors, for the nation, and definitely for me,” he writes in the prologue, and goes on to offer an account of his almost yearlong process following the Parkland survivors — Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and others — and just how this time was different for good.
A product of Elk Grove Village in the Chicago suburbs, Cullen was a colleague of mine at The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early ‘80s. We sat down at the Billy Goat Thursday afternoon between interviews on a book tour that was to take him to Anderson’s Bookshop, 13 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville, at 7 p.m. Friday.
A year after the Parkland shooting, with public support for gun control said to be once again declining in national polls, Cullen nonetheless insisted that things had changed for good.
“I think we’re on a new road,” he said. “Each time something happens, we’ve figured out what we misunderstood.” Cullen added that everyone thought Sandy Hook, N.J., would change things, because many of the victims were 6 years old. That, sadly, didn’t turn out to be the case; the horror faded. President Obama couldn’t change things with his outrage over another shooting, because, Cullen said, “a politician can’t lead this … especially in this polarizing world,” with gun-rights and gun-control advocates both fixed in their positions.
“It’s not the outrage that fades, it’s the hope that fades,” he added. “It isn’t about the level of outrage, it’s about the other things, including the messenger.” And this time the messengers were different.
“It’s not the outrage that fades, it’s the hope that fades. It isn’t about the level of outrage, it’s about the other things, including the messenger.”
“Parkland” author Dave Cullen (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
At One Illinois, we heard a year ago from Patrick Korellis, a survivor of the 2008 Northern Illinois University shooting exactly 10 years to the day before Parkland, about how victims of various incidents were joining together on social media to share their common experiences in something of a healing process. Being almost-of-legal-age millennials, the Parkland survivors took that social media and the mass media at large and, to borrow a cliche of the day, weaponized it, turning the tables on the usual debate.
In something unique to their generation, they almost shrugged off the inevitable internet trolls, because they’d been dealing with such trolls, and seen their teen-dream heroes dealing with the same, since they were kids. “For the most part, they brushed that off,” Cullen said. “They’re coming from a different place” from adults who are sometimes shocked when whatever they post on the web gets a vicious response.
“Death threats bothered them more,” Cullen said, and he told the story about how, when he recently sent a box of freshly printed “Parkland” books to one family, the father freaked out thinking it might be a bomb on the doorstep. By contrast, Cullen said, another girl who’d survived the attack simply commented, “I guess if it had been a bomb it would have gone off by now.”
According to Cullen, they were just as matter-of-fact about confronting the realities of their national “March for Our Lives” campaign a year ago. They spent four days traveling across Texas, making stops in concealed-carry country where some spectators brandished their guns and rifles. Cullen said the Parkland kids openly discussed how “we might die doing this. … We’re threatening, you know, crazy people with guns.”
Their large — but, Cullen pointed out, unmarked — bus was trailed by some in the group in an SUV, to stand witness in case something might happen to the bus itself. Their two-vehicle caravan was trailed, at one point, by a car with an oversized model of a rifle on its roof. Cullen said the kids discussed, “Should we still do it?” Their answer: “Yeah.”
As for Cullen, he described how, just last week, while at home in New York City, he got a call from an MSNBC producer asking if he could come right over to its Rockefeller Center studios, because there’d been a shooting — here in suburban Aurora. “This is how pitiful it is,” Cullen said. “I put my suit on, I walked to 30 Rock, but by the time I got there he said, ‘Uh, we’re pivoting off the story now,’” after it was found to be a more or less “routine” incident involving a “disgruntled worker.”
“So it was like a 20-minute story at MSNBC, and what was it — five people dead?” Cullen said, shaking his head.
The Parkland survivors, however, never gave in to what can be the media’s jaded cynicism. They carried on, as Cullen describes in the book, because they thought their effort was critical. Rather than just campaign blindly for gun control, they deliberately targeted last year’s midterm elections as a goal, and they achieved many of their intended ends in the voting results, with the impact from that now being carried out in Congress and in state capitals. Cullen pointed out how, for the first time, gun control turned up on exit polls as a key issue for those in favor.
Cullen said, if anything, the movement they initiated only widened, now that many of the Parkland survivors have graduated from high school and scattered to various universities across the nation, where they continue to carry on their advocacy.
Some of the survivors continue to struggle with PTSD, but Cullen took a clear-eyed view of their effort to create a movement, saying, “I think it’s been really, really helpful to them.” And their larger battle goes on.
“So, there isn’t any time limit,” he said. “The civil-rights movement had certain setbacks … but as long as the trend line is up and you’re not giving up the fight, we’ve still got some heroes who are sort of like our icons there.”
The book, published by Harper, was given an unbelievably quick turnaround in the publishing industry. Cullen said he only did his last interviews for the book in mid-December. So they lost what is usually a months-long ramp-up of promotional publicity to get the book out instead with urgency.
“I wanted to do this book in the moment, you know, as it was still happening,” Cullen said.
The book might be done, but the story’s happening still. Cullen remains in close contact with the Parkland kids as they continue to strive to have an impact on the gun-control debate. Where a year ago Cullen seemed determined to be done with the whole school-shooting phenomenon, he now seems re-energized to follow where this particular movement leads.