On April 20, 1999, 12 students and 1 teacher were murdered at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado by two students who committed suicide. Yesterday, in Part One, I wrote about ten commonly-held beliefs about Columbine that aren’t true, and I discussed reasons for the first nine.
I saved the tenth for today.
Columbine is etched in our national memory as one of the most horrific tragedies we’ve endured, and the suffering of the victims’ friends and families continues to be a painful reality. Apart from the tragic aspect, however, the most intriguing component of Columbine involves Cassie Bernal, and what the aftermath of her story says about the nation and about the concept of truth and myth.
Immediately after the shootings, a story began circulating about a girl named Cassie Bernall. Cassie was in the library along with dozens of others when they heard shots. As confusion ran through the building and Harris and Klebold entered the library, some students hid under tables while others managed to escape. One of the students who escaped reported that he heard one of the shooters ask Cassie if she believed in God. When Cassie said “Yes,” the shooter killed her.
Instantly, Cassie became a martyr. Here’s a report by Dave Cullen from May 1999, just weeks after the shootings:
“Millions have been ‘touched by a martyr,’” Cassie’s pastor, the Rev. George Kirsten, told his congregation this past Sunday. He shared a vision youth pastor Dave McPherson received while ministering to the Bernalls: “I saw Cassie, and I saw Jesus, hand in hand. And they had just gotten married. They had just celebrated their marriage ceremony. And Cassie kind of winked over at me like, ‘Dave, I’d like to talk, but I’m so much in love.’ Her greatest prayer was to find the right guy. Don’t you think she did?” And while Kirsten works to console his grieving congregation over Cassie’s loss, he sees the girl’s murder as an opportunity to save more souls. “Pack that ark with as many people as possible,” he says.
Kirsten also considers the Columbine killings Satan’s work, and directs his congregation to God as an avenging force. He likens Cassie Bernall to the martyrs calling out to God at the onset of the Apocalypse, paraphrasing Revelations 6:10. “How long? How long will it be, until my blood is avenged?”
Cassie’s mother, Misty Bernall, published a book in September 1999 describing her daughter’s life and this version of her tragic death titled: She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. The book was an instant bestseller and Misty and Cassie’s father appeared on Today, 20/20 and Larry King Live.
The only problem with this story is that it didn’t happen this way.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
In order to understand the origins of the Cassie Bernal myth, you have to go back to October 1998, six months before the Columbine shootings, to Laramie, Wyoming, one state away. On the night of October 6, Matthew Shepard was taken from a bar by two men, pistol-whipped, tortured and left to die tied to a fence post on a frigid night. Early on the morning of October 12, Matthew died. Matthew instantly became a martyr to the gay community. Rallies, memorials, books, movies and hate crime legislation have resulted from this young man’s tragic death, the victim of anti-gay violence.
If you think it’s too much of a stretch to link Matthew Shepard and Cassie Bernall, I’ll try to explain it to you. Trust me – as someone who has bridged the gap from red to blue America, I haven’t forgotten my roots. No doubt you’re aware of the culture war we have been perpetually waging for many decades. Well, to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, Matthew Shepard was a direct assault on their territory: martyrs are supposed to be martyrs for Christ, not for one of the most heinous sins in the Bible. The reality of Matthew Shepard drove many right-wing evangelicals to apoplexy. So naturally, six months later, when presented with the opportunity to have an attractive young martyr of their own, the evangelical community jumped on it. In Cassie Bernall, the religious right had an answer to Matthew Shepard and they weren’t about to let go of her.
Not even when presented with evidence that refuted the story.
What really happened? Cassie was under a table in the library with Emily Wyant. The shooter looked under the table at Cassie, said “peek-a-boo” and shot her. She died instantly. Emily was looking at her the whole time and although Emily says Cassie was praying quietly as it happened, no one asked her if she believed in God. On the other side of the room, however, Valeen Schnurr was shot with a shotgun and was also praying “Oh God.” Klebold asked her if she believed in God and she said that she did. He asked her why and Valeen said it was because she had been brought up to believe in God. Klebold reloaded but walked away. Valeen survived her wounds.
But it was too late. The Cassie Bernall myth had already begun. Out in the parking lot, a boy who had escaped from the library, who shared Cassie’s faith, had already told reporters it was Cassie who had answered affirmatively about her belief in God. In the evangelical community of Littleton, Colorado, it was the small ray of light on this bleak dark day. The myth of Cassie Bernall mushroomed overnight. As Dave Cullen writes about debunking the Columbine myths:
But cooperative sources quickly clammed up when questioned about the most celebrated Columbine story of all, immortalized this month in Misty Bernall’s bestseller, “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.” “This is just too sensitive,” a key source said, insisting on anonymity even for that statement. According to Misty Bernall’s book, which has energized Christian youth movements around the world, the killers put a gun to her daughter Cassie’s head and asked if she believed in God. When she said yes, they blew her away.
But while no one would go on the record, key investigators made it clear that an alternate scenario is far more likely: The killers asked another girl, Valeen Schnurr, a similar question, then shot her, and she lived to tell about it. Schnurr’s story was then apparently misattributed to Cassie.
Why pick apart the memory of an innocent girl who was tragically murdered? It’s unpleasant and makes me queasy but there’s a larger lesson here that is vital that we, as an ongoing society, must learn: when we allow the myth to become literal truth, we present ourselves and future generations with a grave danger. Not that the Cassie Bernall myth poses that level of threat, but because it is so recent and there is so much evidence, her legacy is that we have an opportunity to look at the myth-to-fact phenomenon up close.
As the reality of Columbine recedes further in time, I wonder which “truth” will have more staying power. I’ll write more about it tomorrow.