2016-06-30
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 the investigation 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 of previously self-suppressed reports by journalists at the Denver Post, it was actually another student, Valeen Schnurr, to whom Klebold posed the question--after she had 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 details of Cassie's death may never be known," yet rests its claim of martyrdom on 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 Harris and Klebold were really gunning for. A few days after the massacre, another rumor surfaced that the boys had a hit list, and that they singled out jocks, minorities, and Christians. Yet evidence to contradict this interpretation abounded. While they had indeed generated 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.

Barbara and David Mikkelson, editors of the Pages, also sought out other Doom aficionados across the country who had played and saved "the Harris Levels." None had even heard about such modifications. The widespread desire to see violent computer games as the cause of the rampage will no doubt feed this and other rumors that blame games, popular music, and trench coats for the ruination of young minds.

In the end, though, the reason for the massacre comes down to that strange-sounding word: anomie. The term was first used by French sociologist Emile Durkheim at the turn of the century to describe an increasingly impersonal and transient world where the social threads tethering humans to one another on a collective basis have slackened or disconnected altogether.

To face this problem in our youth is to face too daunting a task for many, as it denies simple answers. Each of these urban legends of Columbine, however, enable tired but comfortable shibboleths that merely delay us from facing a complex reality.

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