Dave Cullen doesn’t have anything against “thoughts and prayers.” Let’s just get that out of the way, up top. He’s here for the thoughts; he’s good with the prayers. “As long as they’re in addition,” he explains, to meaningful action on gun violence. “As long as it’s not a euphemism.”
He isn’t sure where that all-American catechism came from. He doesn’t remember hearing it before Columbine, a tragedy on which Cullen has become an expert. His book, Columbine, is the definitive study of that seminal horror and the result of a decade of reporting. He wonders if maybe it’s one of those things that sneaks up on the lexicon, Pink Panther-style, until, one day, it’s everywhere. “I don’t think any of us noticed until later.”
Cullen is speaking with ThinkProgress the week of the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting, which is also the week his book Parkland is coming out. For someone who has spent the past 20 years becoming one of the unlucky few whose phones light up whenever a gun massacre makes headlines, Cullen sounds like a man in high spirits. He was not always this way — or, more accurately, he was this way, before Columbine — and then he went so long not being this way that it almost felt like the person who was that way was a different person altogether. Cullen had developed secondary post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his long, intense exposure to the horrors of Columbine.
One might think that the last thing someone in Cullen’s position should do is spend a year traveling with the survivors of the Parkland shooting. But spending so much time in the company of those teenagers who, energized by an avoidable tragedy on which none of their elected officials seemed willing or able to take action, went on to found March for Our Lives, seems to have restored Cullen back to his factory settings.
Before Columbine, “I was always this happy, bubbly person,” he said. Since then, “I didn’t realize there was still this melancholy or glumness over my life, or that I still had so much healing I needed to do, until I saw the ‘after’ picture, after a year with the Parkland kids.”
This was not the plan. Cullen has been at work on a book about gay soldiers for years. It is very late. (Please do not send this article to his editor.) He was sent by Vanity Fair to cover the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting and see what these teens, who’d already stunned the country with their eloquent fury and media fluency, were planning to do next — and if it was really true that these teenagers were the drivers of this whole operation, or if adults were behind the scenes, pulling every string. His five-week stint was meant to end with the March in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2018.
But for these student activists, that March for Our Lives event was meant as the beginning of a movement, not the end of one. Cullen was captivated by their energy, skill, and devotion. So he stayed, and this is how, one year out from the shooting — a year Cullen spent witnessing this fleet of young people’s relentless activism, astonishingly savvy PR and political strategy, and unity — he is “a different guy,” Cullen said. “I do feel like that’s kind of what they did for America, too. I really think America was in this bleak place, especially after Newtown, which felt like the death of hope on gun safety. It kind of destroyed any hope we had.”
We weren’t expecting children to be the leaders, but you look at Emma Gonzalez and it’s like: Here’s Joan of Arc!
The pathetic, history-will-one-day-judge-us-for-this inaction in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, which left 28 people dead, 20 of whom were very young children, was “why I was in an angry place,” Cullen said, and why so many Americans “reacted so immediately to David Hogg,” a Parkland survivor who did not observe the traditionally-recognized lull between grieving and calling for political change. Hogg was recording video on his phone while the school was still on lockdown, interviewing other students on the scene, and “call[ing] on legislators of this country to take action and stop this from happening.”
“As soon as everyone heard him say that adult America is letting us down, and we’re children and you failed us and you’re letting us die — we all knew that was true,” Cullen said. “Including gun owners! I think we were already feeling a sense of shame.”
Americans felt hopeless, Cullen said. “We didn’t know what to do. And the Parkland kids gave us a path out.”
Why wasn’t Newtown the moment? Why did it have to be Parkland? It’s a gruesome twist on a classic question: Why is this shooting different from all other shootings?
Once the Parkland kids’ movement exploded, “It instantly made sense to me,” Cullen said. “I realized, oh, we thought the extremity of the horror was what would be galvanizing. And it turned out, that really had nothing to do with it. Up to a certain point, the horror will shock us. But we’d already had horrors. And increasing the horror level wasn’t what we needed. It was all about the messenger.”
Though it may have seemed like the optimal time to push for gun safety legislation would be during a Democratic administration, the opposite has turned out to be true. “As much as Obama seemed like the perfect messenger at the time, he was not. No politician was.” And parents didn’t really cut it, either. “That’s who Obama invited to the State of the Union, parents of these children.” In 2011, first lady Michelle Obama sat in the SOTU audience with the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who was fatally shot only days after she performed at Obama’s second inauguration. “Front and center. The face of this tragedy. Also wrong!”
“And here’s why: When we see the parents of a dead child, we feel pain, sadness, grief. Those sorts of emotions. We feel sorry for them. And even outraged. But we don’t feel fear. But when we see David or Emma or Jackie, even if we don’t know their names, we have an emotional fear response that rips through our body. We’re not just seeing somebody who survived a shooting. We’re seeing targets.”
A kid who gets up and says we need to talk about gun violence now, “That kid might actually die. Someone like her is going to die.” As far as impact goes, Cullen said, “That’s a game-changer.”
“Movements don’t erupt in a vacuum,” Cullen added, and the Parkland kids could build on the momentum of a “powerful reaction which is so strong you can measure it in marches” and see it in the exponential rise of people self-identifying as part of the “Resistance.”
“There was tinder there waiting for the spark. Uprisings, revolutions: it has to come at the right moment. With Parkland, we were in this moment and these kids came forward and we were like: Wow. We weren’t expecting children to be the leaders, but you look at Emma Gonzalez and it’s like: Here’s Joan of Arc!”
It’s similar, in a way, to how the Harvey Weinstein story became the case that launched the modern #MeToo movement. For the first time in recent memory, the alleged attacker was less famous than his victims, many of whom were among the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood. Do you know the names of the Parkland survivors? Several, like Emma and David, have become stars in their own right. Do you know the name of the Parkland shooter? It probably doesn’t come to mind as swiftly as the names of the Columbine shooters. In the intervening years (with some notorious exceptions), members of the media have avoided giving these killers the attention they’re often seeking, headlines that can inspire the next would-be mass shooter to follow through on the slaughter they’re already imagining.
They didn’t go into this blind. They had the conversation — ‘Some or all of us may die’ — and they decided it was worth the risk.
Cullen marveled at the ease with which these recently-traumatized, still-grieving young people maneuvered their sudden, considerable fame. “With the kids, with trauma, there is still a trade-off,” he said. “And I guess it’s comparable with a rape survivor deciding to take on a trial. It can be very cathartic but it can be hellish all the way there, which is why a lot of them don’t want to do it. All the testifying, and defense attorney rips into you — the kids went through a version of that, too. They were accused of being crisis actors. They got death threats.”
Still, “I was really pissed off by people who say we are putting too much on these kids.”
Cullen spoke with Emma Gonzalez two hours before she gave her speech at the March for Our Lives, where her long, calculated silence — timed so her entire performance was the exact length of the Parkland shooting — read to some, in the moment, as a girl having a breakdown.
During their conversation, Cullen said, “Emma said something like, ‘We may die doing this.’ And I was like, what!? And she was just so matter of fact about it. Like, ‘yeah, we’re taking on some crazy people with guns and we may die doing this.’ I talked to the kids later about this, who all said, ‘Of course we talked about that in our meetings.’ They didn’t go into this blind. They had the conversation — ‘Some or all of us may die’ — and they decided it was worth the risk.”
“Once those kids make that decision, who are we to think better for them and want to make their choices for them?”
Not all the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School became household names, and some of the most intriguing moments of Cullen’s book are exchanges with teenagers who most of America has never heard of. As one puts it, not incorrectly, “The 12 kids in Never Again are not the entire student body.” (Eventually the group stopped using “Never Again,” an early hashtag that they realized was already inextricably linked to Holocaust remembrance, and stuck with March for Our Lives.)
These other students, too, survived a harrowing trauma; but they, too, were not visited by the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening during rehearsals for their musical. From a narrative perspective, it probably did not help that Spring Awakening is more obviously on-theme than the other student production, Legally Blonde. But one of the student actors pointed out that there were actually more victims of the shooting in Legally Blonde than in Spring Awakening, but that didn’t seem to matter to anybody as much as the fact that MFOL’s Cameron Kasky was in the Spring Awakening cast.
Cullen said he thought about devoting more time to the students who weren’t already in the spotlight. “I did really think about that. And I did want to spend more time with them. But you’ve got to make your choices [when] you’re reporting and writing a book within ten months.”
“I definitely understand the frustration” of the kids who are suffering but aren’t landing magazine covers. But it’s the MFOL kids “who are the champions of this cause. They are the ones who stepped forward and did something powerful that are making a difference. There are, literally tens of thousands or more high school activists out there, 99.9 percent of whom are unheralded. But I can’t write about them either.” While Columbine was intended as a book about grief and trauma, Cullen decided, midway through his reporting, on “the invisible subtitle: birth of a movement. That’s what this is really about.”
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a jerk, but you guys from Legally Blonde didn’t pick up the ball and make something happen. These are the kids who made something happen. That’s why we’re giving them attention. They are part of an uprising, which is so different from just being a survivor. And there are lots of good books out there, some of them by the survivors, about these kids, and that’s not the book I chose to write. I made a very conscious choice. My goal is to tell the story of this movement.”