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The Truth About Columbine

John on April 20, 2007 at 6:02 pm

I’m taking the time to write a follow up to this post on the motives of the Columbine killers. Today is the Anniversary of the killings, so it seems a proper moment to note how muddled some of the public discourse on this topic was and still is. As with that earlier post, this topic inevitably necessitates a content warning.

In addition to the notebooks which I analyzed in the post linked above, the killers also made a series of “basement tapes” in which they discussed their plans on camera. Though the tapes haven’t been released because of a court order, partial transcripts were distributed as part of the official Columbine Report. Here is an excerpt from those transcripts in which the killers recapitulate some of the same themes highlighted in Eric Harris’ notebook:

Dylan: “I don’t like you, Rachel and Jen, you’re stuck up little bitches, you’re fucking little.. Christian, Godly little whores!”

Eric: “Yeah.. ‘I love Jesus! I love Jesus!’ — shut the fuck up!”

Dylan: “What would Jesus do? What the fuck would I do..?” (he acts like he’s shooting the camera with his hand, with sound to accompany it)

Eric: “I would shoot you in the motherfucking head! Go Romans! Thank God they crucified that asshole.”

Eric and Dylan: “Go Romans!” “Go Romans!!” “Yeah!!” “Wooo!”

You can click here to hear an audio excerpt of those last four lines. The Rachel mentioned in the first line is Rachel Scott, the first person to die in the killings on this day in 1999.

Though the tapes have never been released to the public, Time magazine did a high profile story on the content of the tapes in December 1999. Time had access to all the tapes for their story. While the story rambles on for seven pages, it never mentions the killer’s atheism or their targeting of Rachel Scott because of her beliefs. The section of the tapes quoted above was not published by Time.

The “Myth” of Martyrdom

One important side story which can’t be ignored in this discussion involves what supposedly happened to Columbine victim Cassie Bernall. Shortly after the killings, a story was circulated saying that one of the shooters had pointed a gun at Cassie and asked “Do you beleive in God?” She reportedly said yes and was shot in the head at point blank range, becoming in effect a Christian martyr.

The story led to the publication of a book titled She Said Yes by Cassie’s mother Misty Bernall which repeated the story and became a nationwide bestseller. But in September of 1999, Salon broke the news that the exchange as reported in the book had never happened. Furthermore it appears Misty Bernall had been told by eyewitness Emily Wyant that the story was false prior to publication of the book.

Atheists were quick to jump on this revelation. In October of 1999, just a few weeks after the Salon story, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine wrote a piece based on the Cassie Bernall “myth” which absolved atheists en toto:

In reality, the story as it is reported is that the only targets of the shooters were athletes. The rest were just random shootings. Atheists are not to blame.

The statement that athletes were targets is false and was dismissed in the same Salon article which first raised doubts about the Cassie Bernall story. As already noted, Rachel Scott was mentioned in the context of her faith by the killers prior to the attack. So is the fact that she was the first to die that day part of “random shootings”? Finally, I agree that “atheists” are not to blame for the actions of Harris and Klebold. That said, atheism played a significant role as I’ve demonstrated in my earlier post examining Harris’ notebooks.

Shermer then goes on to suggest that the killers may have spared the person who actually expressed her faith that day:

In fact, the girl to whom the murderer actually spoke the words “do you believe in God?” Valeen Schnurr, said “yes” and she was spared.

She was spared?! This has to be one of the most despicable things anyone has said about Columbine. Here’s the reality of how “she was spared.”

Valeen and five classmates were in the library studying when Harris and Klebold came in shooting. “We dove beneath a table,” Valeen recalls, the slight quiver in her voice betraying her usually calm, purposeful demeanor. “My friend Lauren [Townsend] and I grabbed hands, and I began praying, begging God to help us. Lauren kept saying, ‘It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”‘

As the gunfire drew closer, Valeen felt a searing pain shoot through her. Then the force of the bullets knocked her out from under the table. “Oh God, help me!” she cried, looking up directly into the eyes of one of the gunmen.

“Do you believe in God?” he sneered, pointing his gun at her. Valeen thought about lying to him, but couldn’t. “Yes,” she said.

“Why?” he asked. “Because it’s what my parents taught me,” she replied. “It’s what I believe.”

While he stopped to reload, Valeen crawled back under the table. When the pair left the library, she knew it was her chance to escape. “Lauren,” she whispered to her friend, “we can go now!” Lauren didn’t respond. Valeen nudged her again, but still nothing. Guessing her friend had passed out from shock, and gravely injured herself, Valeen gathered her remaining strength and ran out of the library. She collapsed just outside the school and was eventually rushed to the emergency room.

Three days later, she learned that Lauren, her friend since preschool, had died. “Lauren was such a good person,” Valeen says. “Why did I live while she died? You can’t answer those questions. They’ll just eat you alive. I just try to accept that it happened and focus on what I can do in my own life.”

Her life since has been marked by a grueling routine of operations and physical therapy. The doctors told her parents that she had at least nine shotgun wounds and numerous shrapnel injuries in her chest, arms, and abdomen. “They said divine intervention must have saved my life,” she says.

Determined to attend graduation, Valeen left the hospital in time to walk across the stage to collect her diploma. She’s still facing more plastic and reconstructive surgery to remove the remaining metal fragments and try to smooth the 40 scars that cover her arms and stomach, yet it’s the emotional wounds that have proved hardest to heal.

A shotgun blast to the chest, numerous surgeries, the death of a close friend, not to mention the fear which remains with her. This is spared, Michael Shermer?

The reality is that the Columbine killers were motivated by their atheism. They felt it placed them above their victims. It’s also a fact that they targeted at least one of their victims because of her faith.

Finally, the “myth” of Cassie Bernall is used by Shermer (and many others) to insinuate that the Christian faith itself is a touching story which turns out not to be true. What they fail to note however — even outright lie about in Shermer’s case — is that the myth in this case turned out to be largely based in fact. The story wrongly attributed to Cassie Bernall was a story of faith in the face of imminent death. Would any rational person read Valeen Schnurr’s account of what happened that day and call it a myth?

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