Myths from Columbine, Part Two – What Did She Really Say?

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.

CASSIE BERNAL – Did she really say “yes”?

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.

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33 Responses to “Myths from Columbine, Part Two – What Did She Really Say?”

  1. Michael J Alexander Says:

    Rich… Nicely done… And you provide links to back up assertions when needed. When there are no leaks, I take that as a sure sign that propaganda will follow. (example here)

  2. The Myths Of Columbine, Part Three – Columbine and Christ « Rich Merritt Says:

    […] Myths From Columbine, Part Two – What Did She Really Say? […]

  3. April 19th: A Day That Will Live In Obscurity « Rich Merritt Says:

    […] Myths From Columbine, Part Two – What Did She Really Say? […]

  4. Myth or Fact? “Christians in America today face a situation just like the Jews under Hitler” « Rich Merritt Says:

    […] Myths from Columbine, Part Two – What Did She Really Say? […]

  5. Morgan Says:

    You think that Catholics just made this up to have a martyer of their own that’s bs

  6. Silverback Says:

    My suspicion is that Rich Merritt himself is a homosexual trying to twist a knife. It seems to me, the Matthew Shepard murder (being tragic) was the result of a drug deal gone bad. I was at neither place, neither were you, but I have seen many half truths or whole lies trumpeted by the homosexuals to continue pulling wool over peoples eyes.

  7. bob Says:

    My suspicion is that Silverback really just has the lower back equivalent of a pearl necklace.

  8. A. Christian Says:

    What would you have said if a Grumman asked you if you believed in God!

    • Gail Harper Says:

      Being a Christian most of my life. I would love to say without a doubt I would say yes..I don’t know we all have an instinct to survive. This question haunts me. I pray I would have. I thank God for those that did.

      • Ariel Says:

        That is soo true! I am so happy you said that! Our human nature wants to ay no, but I pray, just like you that I wouldn’t even hesitate to proudly proclaim the name of my savior.

  9. FortheSake Ofanimals Says:

    “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.”
    I’m sorry but I missed the part where this was explained in your article. I also don’t like the way you transitioned from Matthew Shepard being the martyrs for gays in America so the Christians grabbed their own martyrs using victims like Cassie Bernall from the Columbine shootings. That is insane IMO. No wonder as a nation we can not make greater strides. Gays vs Straights, Blacks vs Whites, Men vs Women, Democrats vs Republicans, North vs South, Rich vs Poor etc etc etc We are so focused on how our differences divide us instead embracing the strengths of our differences. I don’t want everyone to be exactly like me and trust me those who know me don’t want that either LOL but seriously we all need to change our thinking. What are we so afraid of losing? Everyone claims they want change for the better. We all need to start by looking at ourselves first. It IS ALL our beliefs, attitudes, prejudices that create the dissension in society.

    • Mick Says:

      Did you read THIS:

      “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.”

  10. Andrea Says:

    no matter what she said shes still a hero in someones eye’s.

    • Pimp daddy Donald Says:

      Yeah, someone who needs to find a real hero. Ha.

  11. Mikayla Says:

    Cassie had some bad turns, but the Columbine massicre was not a mistake, and it wasn’t Cassie’s falt. She is one of my greatest heroes.

    • johnny walnut Says:

      Pfff

  12. Buddy Says:

    You are majoring on the minors. All else pales to irrelevancy beside the question that asks whether or not the God Cassie believed in exists.

  13. alex Says:

    One person that came out of there told reporters Cassie has said that; another person said she had not said that = the sceptics surprise, surprise choose – she did not say it! There is no definitive evidence either way, besides the obvious under stress in that situation & threat of death it can affect your perceptions & memory > even with no stress people can witness an event but give very different accounts.

  14. Val Says:

    you spelled her last name wrong.

  15. Emma Says:

    Whether Cassie said yes or not does not change the fact of what she went through and even being brave enough to pray when you know that you could be seen and be targeted for it, no matter what people say she will always be an inspiration to me and many other young people.

  16. Ariel Says:

    Cassie’s God does exsist, and her God did for us what she did for Him. You see He came as a human to earth, but He never sined. He was perfect, and only God can be perfect. God knew that humans can’t be perfect, its immposible. And inperfection equals death. God came and died for you and for me He was whipped almost to death and then they laid him on a pole and litterally nailed him to it. Then they stabbed Him in the side and He died. His last words were “I forgive you”. But thats not all, as immposible as it seems, He came alive again after three days in a grave. And He is waiting for you and me in heaven. He forgives you of every bad thing you’ve ever done. He sees you as His child, and He loves YOU more than you could ever know. He paid the price of death, so that you could have life, all you have to do is accept it. Get to know Him, God isnt a big being in the sky, He is a friend and a loving father and He can’t wait to hear from you soon.

  17. Ariel Says:

    Cassie’s God is MY God.

    • nicolecraft Says:

      omg im just doing this for homework

      • nicolecraft Says:

        why me i dont want to do this biography orgaizer thing

      • ariel Says:

        I don’t think it really matters whether she said “Yes I do!” or not. I think it is pretty cool that she lived in such a way that they knew who she was, a follower of Jesus. I read a book about her and she had gone through ALOT of HORIBLE things before she got to where she was, no one is perfect, not even Cassie. Its not that she was perfect that made her story important, it was that she live out every day one at a time trying to follow Jesus as best she could. Others also died that day, one of them was Cassie’s friend named Rachel, they both died in gruesome ways. And their families were devastated. The two boys that shot Cassie died too that day. I cant imagine what would drive someone to the sorrow, hate, and desperation that was extreme enough to cause murder. It breaks my heart that people would be so lonely and depressed to do that. Who knows, if someone would have even just smiled at them that day, or complimented them, or encouraged them that may have never happened.

  18. Toad Says:

    If we can’t get a story right from 20 years ago, how can we trust a story from over 2,000 years ago? It wouldn’t be such a big deal except that religious weirdos hold positions of power and do dangerous things in the name of their chosen superstitions.

    • ariel Says:

      Toad, you are absolutely right. Its always hard to get the story straight, especially when its old. And there are a lot of people who claim to be flowing the true god, what ever they believe that is. It is horrid when radical terrorists and Islamic sects kill hundreds and say it was the will of their god. I believe in the One True God, he doesn’t tell me to kill or hurt, he tells me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. That may sound stupid but If I did what I wanted to do instead of love my enemies I would have killed them all. We are born into sin, each and every one of us and our first response is revenge. My God is not only my God but he is my loving and perfect father, friend, savior, and King. If you look at the Bible you can see that it is the most historically accurate record we have. Nonreligious historians and archeologists use it because it is reliable. You should check it out.

  19. Robert Moretti Says:

    Shame on Mr. Merritt. I don’t think he knows what was or was not said. Why is it so important to malign this young woman who was killed. What’s the difference what she said. Be a decent human being and let her rest in peace. No class whatsoever.

  20. Katie arms Says:

    I think its soooooo sad what happened April 19th 1999…I was a sophomore in highschool…It just devastated me..Rachel was an inspiration…To say they believe in God even know their lives were at risks gave them so much courage they believed in God even in the darkest days..They never stopped doubting their faith…

    • Ariel Says:

      It is very sad, I don’t like at all that Mr. Merit said that “the Christian community saw a attractive youth that could be their martyr they jumped on it.” There are a lot of not right things in that Opinion. First, whether Matthew Sheperd had died or not the death of Cassie still would have been just as devastating and horrible! Second, young or old ugly or attractive the death of a person is just as horrifying! Cassie stood for what she believed. To call that a boost in a gay vs Christian war or to say that the only reason that it was a big deal is because of the fight for a martyr is inhumane, grotesque, and insensitive! She died! So did Matthew! So have millions of others around the world! They are both people who left behind grieving families. Cassie and Rachel and the others that died that day died with bravery and selflessness. That is that.

  21. Paula coll Says:

    Satan is working wonders through you.

    • Rich Merritt Says:

      I hope so!

      >

    • Ariel Says:

      What do you mean by that?


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