Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Martyrdom Of Cassie Bernall by Dave Cullen

Greg Scott took it hard.. He had seen horrible things in the library at Columbine High that morning, but he'd heard something wonderful. During the worst of it he'd heard a girl profess her faith. Amazing. Craig began telling his story that first afternoon. It spread like a brush fire. Among Evangelicals, e-mails, faxes and phone calls whipped across the country.

On Friday it hit the the mainstream media. Both Denver papers featured it. The Rocky's piece, "Martyr for Her Faith", opened with a play-by-play:

A Columbine killer pointed his gun at Cassie Bernall and asked her the life-or-death question: "Do you believe in God?"
She paused. The gun was still there. "Yes, I believe in God", she said.
That was the last thing this 17-year old Christian would say.
The gunman asked her "Why?" She had no time to answer before she was shot to death.
Bernall entered the Columbine High School library to study during lunch. She left a martyr.

The Post ran a similiar account. The national press quckly jumped aboard. On Saturday, an Evangelical Teen Mania rally in Michigan "turned into a Cassie Bernall festival" according to Weekly Standard writer J. Bottum. He described 73,000 teens in the Silverdome "weeping along with sermon after sermon about her death."

Sunday morning, April 25, the Columbine churches were packed. Afterwards, the crowds trekked down to the Bowles Crossing Shopping Center, across from Clement Park. Organizers had planned for up to thirty thousand mourners in the sprawing parking lot. Seventy Thousand showed up. Vice President Al Gore was on the platform, along with the governor, most of Colorado's congressional delegation, and a whole lot of clergy. The TV networks broadcast the ceremony live.

"Put your faith and trust in the living son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ", Reverand Billy Graham's son Franklin instructed the crowd. "We must be willing to recieve His son Jesus Christ".

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. There was a whole lot of Him tha day. Reverand Graham dominated the ceremony with a long, impassioned plea for returning prayer to public schools. He invoked the name of his personal savior seven times in a single forty-five-second flurry. He called upon God and Jesus nearly fifty times in the course of the speech. Cassie had been ready, he said. She stood before a gunman who'd transported her immediately into the presence of Almighty god. "Are you ready?" he asked.

The country was transfixed. In the first ten days, newsmagazines on the four main broadcast networks devoted forty-three pieces to the attack. The shows dominated the ratings that week. CNN and Fox News charted the highest ratings in their history. A week afterward, USA Today was still running ten seperate Columbine stories in a single edition. It would be nearly two weeks before the New York Times would print and issue without Columbine on page 1. And Cassie Bernall's martyrdom was showing the most legs.

"She's in the martyrs hall of fame," Cassie's pastor proclaimed at her funeral. That was not hypebole. A noted religious scholar predicted Cassie would become the first officially designated Protestant martyr since the sixteenth century.

Cassie's fame grew. Her pastor embarked on a nationwide speaking tourto spread the good news. "Pack as many onto the ark as possible", he said. By summer's end, the local youth group Revival Generation had blossomed from a few local chapters to an organization in all fifty states. The organizers's put on natonal touring shows with Columbine High survivors. Cassie's name sent teenage girls storming to the stage.

In the Weekly Standard, J. Borrut compared her to the third-century martyrs Perpetua and Felicity and "tales of the thousands of early Chistians who went joyously to their deaths in the Roman coliseums." And the response felt like the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, Bottum said. He foresaw a generation of kids rising up to recast our cultural landscape. He later described a national change of heart, "trembling on the crisp of breaking forth...It's an ever-widening faith that the whole pornographic, violent, anarchic disaster of American popular culture will soon be swept away."

Christian martyr Cassie Bernall offered hope. In September her mother went on a national book tour. She Said Yes leapt onto the New York Times best-seller list in its first week. It has since been reissued in two paperback formats, a library edition, an an audiobook. It has sold over a million copies. The Web is loaded with sites unabashedy recounting the myth. The Evangelical churches have stuck with their story.


  1. Emily Wyant watched in disbelief as the story mushroomed. "Why are they saying that?" she asked her mother. Emily had been under the table with Cassie. Thy were facing each other. Emily was looking into Cassie's eyes when Eric Harris fired his shotgun. Emily knew exactly what had happened....

    Emily heard the shots coming from down the hallway- one at a time, not in bursts. They were getting closer. The doors opened; she heard them come in. They were shooting and talking back and forth and shouting stuff like "Who wants to be killed?"...

    The girls whispered back and forth. "Dear God, dear God, why is this happening? Cassie asked. "I just want to go home."

    "I know", Emily answered. "We all want to get out of here."

    Between exchanges, Cassie prayed quietly. Eric and Dylan passed by several times but then stopped at their table, at Cassie's end. Emily could see his legs and boots, pointing directly at the right side of Cassie's face. Eric slammed his hand on the table, then squatted halfway down for a look. "Peekaboo" , he said.

    Eric poked his shotgun under the table rim as he came down. He didn't pause long, or even stop far enough down for Emily to see his face. She saw the sawed-off gun barrel. The opening was huge. She looked into Cassie's brown eyes. Cassie was still praying. There were no time for words between them. Eric shot Cassie in the head.

    Bree Pasquale was sitting there, right out in the open a few steps away, beside the next table over. She also saw Eric walk up with a shotgun in his right hand, slap Cassie's tabletop twice with his left hand, and say "Peekaboo". He squatted down, balancing on the balls of his feet. Cassie looked desprate, holding her hands up against the side of her face. Eric poked the shotgun under and fired. Not a word.

    Eric was sloppy with that shot, a one-hander in an awkward half squat. The shotgun kicked back and the butt nailed him in the face. Blood began pouring out of his nostrils.

    Eric and Dylan found fifty-six people in the library. They killed twelve and injured eleven. The remaining thirty-four were easy pickings but the killers got bored. They walked out seven minutes and a half minutes later, seventeen minutes into their attack. Aside from themselves and the cops, they would not shoot another human again..

  2. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned their attack on Columbine High as a bombing. Had their propane bombs denoted, they would have incinerated most or all of the inhabitants of the commons. They would have killed five hundred people in the first few seconds. Four times the toll on Oklahamo City. More than the ten worst domestic terror attacks in U.S. History combined.

    For investigators, the discovery of the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed.

    Officials announced the discovery of the big bombs, and their destructive power. It instigated a new media shock wave. But, curiously, journalists failed to grasp the implications. Detectives let go of the targeting theory immediately ( Tench Coat Mafia, Gay Gothic Revenge, attack on religion, retaliation against bullies- Eric and Dylan were among the most voracious bullies in their school). It had been sketchy to begin with and now these motives were completely removed. The media never shook it. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They filtered every new development through that lens.

    For Eric Harris Columbine was a performance. Homicidal art. The whole point was impressing people. Details mattered. Wardrobe, staging, atmospherics, audio, pyrotechnics, action, suspense, timing, irony, foreshadowing- all the cinematic elements were important. He actually referred to his audience in his journal: "the majority of the audience won't even understand my motives." He scripted Columbine as a made-for TV murder, and his chief concern was that we would be to stupid to see the point. He wanted to maximize terror. He wanted kids to fear their daily lives.

    Most terrorists target symbols of the system they abhor- generally iconic government buildings. Eric followed the same logic. He understood that the cornerstone of his plan was the explosives. When all his bombs fizzled, everything about his attack was misread. He didn't just fail to top Timothy McVeigh's record- he wasn't even recognized for trying. He was never catagorized with his peer group. We lumped him in with pathetic loners who shot people.

  3. Columbine" by Dave Cullen; 12TWELVE, .N.Y.. 2009.

    Eric Harris was a psychopath who was easily able to dissemble his motives and thinking from his parents, teachers and numerous officers of the law with whom he had run-ins prior to his attack on Columbine. The author discusses this extensively with primary reference to the work of Hervey Cleckley, "The Mask of Insanity" (1941). and Robert D. Hare ( Eric believed that science, society and government had subverted the process of natural selection, robbing superior people of their passion, advantage and liberty. Thus, in his view, most people really deserved to be dead. He dreamed of destroying the whole City of Denver but settled for the more practical ambition of completely destroyng Columbine High.

    Dylan Klebolt was a dangerously depressed person, thwarted in love, who was primarily interested in committing suicide.

    The role their upbringing played in all this remains a matter of speculation.

    Local Evangelical churches in the area around Columbine experienced no long-term increase in membership. Shootings and bomb threats remain a serious concern in the area and nationwide.

    However, the tactics of SWAT teams have changed. During active shooting events they now move in right away rather than simply establishing a perimeter. Local government and law enforcement has paid at least a limited price for their persistent cover-ups of the results of their investigations. Several brain injured and paralyzed victims have made remarkable recoveries, though the same cannot be said of many parents.

  4. since we now know the myth of Cassie Bernall's martyrdom, I suppose we can't expect Southern Baptists to stop repeating it, after all, blonde haired all American teenage martyrs, don't grow on trees, and Cassie's family, along with Rachel Scott's can keep collecting those speaking fees