Belief, Truth, and the Columbine Tragedy
"Cassie Bernall, hailed as a martyr in the Columbine High School massacre for professing her belief in God before she was shot dead, may never have had such an exchange with her killer," opened the September 25 Los Angeles Times (Home Edition, A:15). Yet the story of her suicidal confession has led to a revival among Christian teenagers, according to the Denver Rocky Mountain News (September 10, 1999, 4A), with prayer clubs growing in numbers and members all across the state and the country. She Said Yes: the Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, her mother's account of her own daughter's transformation from a disturbed teen with suicidal and murderous thoughts to a "Good Christian," has sold hundreds of thousands of copies (it sold 200,000 copies in its first two weeks alone).
Nevertheless, the Jefferson County sheriff's department has canvassed the details and found that the story is not likely to have transpired as it is being told, and believed, by Christians everywhere. The only report of her martyrdom in the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School comes from a few students whose accounts conflict in important details, and who were not in fact eye-witnesses of the event (they only claim to have heard the exchange while hiding under a table). And the one surviving eye-witness of Cassie's death--a girl sitting right beside her when she died--gives a decidedly different account of what happened. Furthermore, there is actually a story about another girl which sounds very similar--except the outcome was entirely different: after answering "yes," the killer spared her, although she was already badly wounded and bleeding at the time. She recovered.
The fullest account of the new evidence appears in the Denver Rocky Mountain News (September 24, 1999, 5A). The only eyewitness, Emily Wyant, 16, reports that she and Cassie, 17, were alone, studying together in the back of the library, and that she hid with her under the table when the shooting began. At that point, Cassie began praying out loud. According to Emily, "She was saying, 'Dear God. Dear God. Why is this happening? I just want to go home,'." Emily hushed her, saying "I know. We all want to get out of here." Emily believes that Cassie's loud praying may have drawn the gunman to them (they were, after all, all the way in the back). As the Denver Rocky Mountain News reports, "All of a sudden, [Dylan Klebold] slammed the top of their table, said 'Peekaboo,' and looked under the table at both girls." Emily says he immediately looked at Cassie and shot her, without any words exchanged. Then he turned to Emily, but was suddenly called away by Eric Harris, Klebold's accomplice. As Emily heard him, Harris said to Klebold "Hey, there's a n----- over here."' The two of them then shot to death Isaiah Shoels, a young black teen.
The sheriff's investigators have examined the more popular "martyr" account given by Craig Scott, and found that he had only heard the ''Yes'' comment and "recognized the voice as Cassie Bernall's. He did not actually see the individuals involved," reports the Denver Rocky Mountain News. In fact, when they questioned him about where he heard the voice, Scott pointed to the table where Valeen Schnurr was hiding, not Bernall. Other witnesses report that in fact Schnurr was the one asked if she believed in God and said "yes." She had already been shot multiple times and was also praying out loud, no doubt fearing that she was bleeding to death, when Klebold asked the question. But unlike the story we have been hearing, when he heard Schnurr's answer, he decided not to shoot her, and she lived.
This gives us a very different picture of the killers. As Jefferson County sheriff's investigator Kate Battan says, having reviewed all the evidence, including the diaries of Harris and Klebold, the killers "were driven by the desire for fame, not a particular hatred for jocks, minorities or Christians" (The Denver Post, September 23, 1999, 2nd ed., B-01). Apparently, they wrote that Hitler did not go far enough in singling out certain groups, but they felt he should have destroyed the whole human race. They also threatened to return as ghosts to haunt anyone who tried to blame their massacre on anything or anyone but themselves. Repeatedly, fame was their claimed motive. There is no clear evidence of any kind that they were atheists, but they clearly toyed with Neo-Nazi culture and were racist enough to disparage, single out, and kill a black student for apparently no other reason than his skin color--but if the account of Schnurr's conversation with Klebold is correct, he was prepared to spare a confessed Christian, not to kill one.
Now that the story of Cassie's martyrdom has essentially been blown apart, the Bernall family is trying to find a safe spiritual middle ground. In the words of Misty Bernall's publisher, Chris Zimmerman, "We don't feel that this discussion . . . takes anything away from the crux of Cassie's story," for "This is a book about a troubled American teen-ager who changed. She changed to the extent that she was ready to face the challenges of her life, and her death, with confidence" (Denver Rocky Mountain News, September 24, 1999, 5A), although Emily's account makes us wonder if Cassie really had such fortitude in the face of death.
To an atheist, the irrational behavior of Cassie (praying out loud to a God whom she already believed could hear her even if she prayed quietly in her mind) appears as a sad example of how religion can indeed be bad for you--and others. After all, Emily's life was only spared by the combination of chance and the killers' racism. Had it not been for the unfortunate sighting of Shoels, Cassie's behavior would have been partly responsible for Emily's death. It was already partly responsible for her own. Strangely, Christians are praising what amounts to suicidal behavior, instead of teaching their children something much more useful: when huddling among the hunted, either stand and fight, or hide and shut up.
It must be said, however, that Cassie's mother did not hide the fact that there were different accounts of what happened, and her book's focus was almost entirely on her daughter's transformation, not her murder. Nevertheless, several still refuse to believe it isn't true. One of those who reported the exchange originally, Joshua Lapp, although also not an eye-witness, still insists upon his account: ''She said it, plain and simple.'' It clearly does not take much to make someone into a confirmed believer in an inspiring story, even one that isn't true. The irony should not be lost on us that this kind of distortion and denial of the evidence could very well have been instrumental in the rise of the Christian faith, as inspiring, and perhaps not entirely true accounts of the death of Jesus were circulated.
[Richard Carrier is feedback editor for the Secular Web and Ph.D. candidate specializing in ancient Roman history at Columbia University.]
Richard Carrier Reconsiders:I am now ashamed of the article above. Although the facts remain to my knowledge correct, the opinion I expressed was based on a mistake of reasoning, and I now agree with Stephen R. Welch, whose analysis is far superior to mine. I was bothered by the use of this particular myth to prove the benefits of Christianity, as if it gave Cassie some special fortitude in the face of death, which was plainly not there. But failing Cassie is not the same thing as doing her harm, and that is where I missed the boat. This story tells us nothing about whether Christianity is "bad" for you -- rather, it only refutes the claims of those who say that in this case it was good. The fact I missed is that Cassie was simply no different than anyone else. There is no message to be gleaned here, as I erroneously thought.
I owe an apology to all for this mistake. The only consolation I can offer is that I do learn from my mistakes and am willing to own up to them. My opinion does remain that it is possible to act heroically in the face of such circumstances, to die fighting in defense of others, or to keep in our mind the thought of others and the consequences of what we do, even under duress, and in light of that, to bite the bullet and remain silent when it is necessary. But I have no reason to fault Cassie for not being a hero in that sense. I fault those who claim she was, because I would rather we taught our children the heroism that will be of benefit to them and others, and this story will not accomplish that, however both sides spin it. I was as wrong to use it this way as anyone.