Beliefnet
A year after the shootings at Columbine High School, we've all heard the stories about the horrifying massacre's main players. Maybe Cassie Bernall was a Christian martyr. Maybe Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gunning for jocks. Maybe they practiced their massacre on a modified video game.

The appeal of these stories is that they seem to make sense out of the senseless--except, as it turns out, the stories aren't true. They are classic cases of urban legend.

The common thread in them, however, is their appeal to making sense out of the senseless. What the stories suggest is that we are reluctant to understand the Columbine case as a classic example of what sociologists call "anomie:" a state of behavioral chaos and amorality associated with modern affluence rather than deprivation, as the cause of the killers' indiscriminate violence directed at others and ultimately at themselves.

By now, most people who have followed developments in theinvestigation know there is a dispute over who said what as the massacre took place. In Misty Bernall's book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall (Plough Publishing, 1999), shooting victim Cassie Bernall's mother describes her once troubled, then born-again daughter, who was supposedly asked by Dylan Klebold if she believed in God. After she said "yes," the story goes, Klebold shot her to death.

And so it was that the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall was born.Before her mother's book was even published, evangelical Christian youth groups around the country embraced Cassie's story as an example of a young woman who was ready to die for her beliefs.

But beginning with a series of reports by Salon.com reporter Dave Cullen, whose revelations provoked publication ofpreviously self-suppressed reports by journalists at the Denver Post, it was actually anotherstudent, Valeen Schnurr, to whom Klebold posed the question--after shehad already been shot. Schnurr recovered from her wounds.

Police investigators, reluctant to draw attention to the misattribution in light of the meaningfulness that Cassie's story had taken on, were nonetheless certain that neither a "yes" nor a "no" would have spared any student in the rampage. It was their intention to destroy the school and anyone in it.

She Said Yes begins with the admission that the "exact detailsof Cassie's death may never be known," yet rests its claim of martyrdomon the story that Cassie did confront her killer. In fact, eyewitness accounts, police and FBI investigation materials, and news interviews together paint a different picture: that in all likelihood Cassie never had a chance to verbalize her testimony of faith, at least within earshot of anyone else. Yet, like the faithful believers in many urban legends, defenders of the martyrdom story point to its underlying message and greater symbolic truth.

What is much less clear, though, was what or whom Harrisand Klebold were really gunning for. A few days after the massacre, another rumor surfaced that the boys had a hit list, andthat they singled out jocks, minorities, and Christians. Yet evidence to contradict this interpretation abounded. While they had indeedgenerated a hit list, they did not hit anyone on it. Harris' writings do include admiration for Hitler, but they also contain denunciations of racists. They taunted nearly all of their victims as they approached them--suggesting that the name-calling and asking the girls about God mainly served their overall project of becoming everyone's own worst nightmare.

What appears to have driven them was a blinding, unfocused hatred. Believing that Harris and Klebold were gunning for specific target group was easier for us to accept; we know about the rising activities of hate groups already, we know ways to teach tolerance to youth. What can we do for kids for whom nothing and no one truly matters--not even themselves? We don't the answer to that.

It was also rumored that Eric Harris had modified a computer video game for the boys to rehearse their massacre. This involved the redesigning of the "Doom" game's virtual interface, adding new "levels" to the game, to look like Columbine High's layout and replacing the target monsters with images of his classmates.

"Word is," a widely-forwarded e-mail text said, "that the levels are starting to be copied and spread." According to a debunking of this rumor at The Urban Legends Reference Pages, Harris was an avid Doom player and did formulate and share modified games over the Internet. However, none of his modifications mimicked Columbine or classmates, according to a number of reporters around the country, including those at The Hartford Courant, who downloaded Harris' versions in the days after the shootings.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus