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April 20: Columbine Massacre

Columbine Massacre (1999) and Religion

It was on this date, April 20, 1999, that two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, brought guns and explosives instead of textbooks to school. After their 49-minute rampage, which left 12 students and a teacher dead and 24 wounded, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took their own lives. They had planned their massacre for over a year—even making videotapes, including one on the day of the violence.

Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott: They never had a chance to say “yes”

Never allowing a tragedy go unexploited, three famous, media-savvy conservatives—former political candidate Pat Buchanan, former vice president Dan Quayle, and Georgia Congressman Bob Barr—saw the massacre as an excuse to advocate bringing state-sponsored prayer back into public schools, in contravention of the 1963 Supreme Court rulings forbidding all but voluntary, student prayer. And many other conservative social critics latched onto stories that two of the student victims, Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, proclaimed their faith in God when they were asked with a gun pointed at them. Cassie’s mother even published a book: She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.

There is a yearning among some evangelical Christians for the strength of faith displayed in the legends of the early Christian martyrs: the temptation is strong, in these irreligious times, to show the same religious courage Christians showed when they were a persecuted minority—although only a few score of true martyrs for Christ can be attested, fables and church literature to the contrary. We should stipulate that any innocent person’s death by violence is tragic; but tragedy doesn’t liberate anybody from telling the truth: the FBI investigated and determined that Cassie and Eric Harris did not exchange any words before he shot her in the head.

What about Rachel Scott? She was the first victim of the Columbine shootings and was eating lunch outside on the school lawn with a male friend who survived the shooting. He later claimed that Rachel was mocked about her religious faith by the killer before he opened fire. The FBI investigated and determined, as with Cassie, that Eric Harris exchanged no words with either of the students before he killed Rachel with multiple gunshot wounds to her head, chest, arm, and leg.

In fact, Cassie’s and Rachel’s stories were conflated with that of 18-year-old Columbine survivor Valeen Schnurr. She had been seriously wounded by gunshot and shrapnel and had cried out, “Oh, God help me!” Klebold approached her and asked if she believed in God. Schnurr replied with a no, then a yes. When Klebold asked her why, she said her family believes. Klebold then reloaded his shotgun, said “God is gay,” and walked away.

It is rather disingenuous to claim that the incident that has come to be known simply as “Columbine” constitutes some message from God that our nation has strayed from the path of righteousness. The U.S. is a violent society to begin with: as Michael Moore pointed out in his Oscar-winning 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, other industrialized democracies don’t have the problems we seem to have with kids and guns and random violence.

So could this massacre have been prevented by mandating prayer in schools? Organized prayer is so watered down, it is unlikely to foment any religions transformation; more specific prayers would violate somebody’s personal religious sensibilities, anyway. Maybe if the Ten Commandments—“thou shalt not kill” and all—had been posted? One would be forgiven for confusion in that event, because Christians know in their hearts that Christianity itself is founded on a murder.

Ah, yes, the religious partisan will say: remember that Harris walked into the school wearing a t-shirt that read “Natural Selection.” What about the anti-religious effect of your godless schools with their teaching of Darwinism and their avoidance of religious morals? Well, Klebold wore a t-shirt saying “Wrath.” What of it? In fact, Harris was a fan of the 1994 film Natural Born Killers, which satirizes the media frenzy that murderous violence attracts in American society. It is a fair assumption that other Columbine students learned the fact of the natural origins of humanity without feeling the urge or planning the means to kill anybody: in fact, one could probably recall around 2,000 other Columbine students who grew up peacefully in the same culture.

Other suggestions for blame included violent video games, lack of parental supervision, anti-depression medication, a “Goth” subculture at Columbine, dark music like that of Marilyn Manson, and so on. Each partisan has his or her pet peeve to blame, in the hope of advancing a favored cause. But what if the cause is all of these—and none of these? What if Columbine, and school shootings before and since, are not a product of the breakdown of parental or religious authority or addressable by increased policing? (Columbine did, after all, have an armed security guard.) What if, as Michael Moore vainly pleaded to a deaf America in his documentary, American society itself bears responsibility for the massacre? What if the warning signs in the pre-massacre behavior of Klebold and Harris were ignored because they are all too common? What if, as one commentator framed it,

[T]he concentration on individual warning signs will be of little help in preventing further tragedies. Attention should be focused, rather, on the social warning signs, that is, the indications and indices of social and political dysfunction that create the climate that produces events like the Columbine HS massacre. Vital indicators of impending disaster might include: growing polarization between wealth and poverty; ... the glorification of militarism and war; the absence of serious social commentary and political debate; the debased state of popular culture; the worship of the stock exchange; the unrestrained celebration of individual success and personal wealth; the denigration of the ideals of social progress and equality.

In other words, what about American society would spawn an Eric Harris, described by investigative journalist Dave Cullen (Columbine, 2009) as a “callously brutal mastermind,” and a Dylan Klebold, described by Cullen as a “quivering depressive,” who, rather than fighting for a cause or righting a wrong, instead simply planned for a year to create as much media-ready pain and suffering as possible?

The real reasons Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris engaged in this long-planned but mercifully incompetent* terrorist attack—although, the perpetrators being white, the media would never use the word “terrorist”—were probably just as they claimed in their videos and journals: years of ridicule and bullying, social ostracism and isolation in school, and, of course, easy access to bomb-making materials and guns, financed though Harris’s part-time job at a pizza parlor.

It is a little dishonest to claim that the Columbine killers, because they presumably lacked God in their lives, therefore took the lives of Cassie and Rachel and 11 others. If Cassie and Rachel really would have “said yes,” where was God when they needed him to save their lives?

* I use the word “incompetent” not out of insensitivity, but because most of the bombs Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris set, mercifully failed to explode, thus saving many lives through their sheer incompetence. Furthermore, the date of April 20 was a day later than the two had hoped to make their attack because some supplies they had been expecting did not arrive until too late for the 19th. The 19th was chosen for being the 4th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing—another terror attack not so called once it was learned that its perpetrators were white.

Comments on the rant above can be found at this link: The Columbine Letters.

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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