27 August 2007

Fake History: The Unbelievable Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall

One of the most distasteful things about the Littleton Colorado school shootings was the way so many of the townsfolk used their fifteen minutes of fame to pimp for their religion. As I watched the coverage--so long ago now--I had to keep reminding myself that grief and shock do strange things to people, and that I should give them the benefit of the doubt. But I have to admit that the relentless and inappropriate plugging of their religion by students, parents, and various authorities, turned my stomach.

Even as the information about the event was coming in it was possible to filter out some of the noise. The killers were said to be gay--but people who knew them contradicted this factoid. They were said to be members of a group called "The Trenchcoat Mafia"--but actual members (as well as other students) set this record straight. The killers were said to have gone to the school library hunting for "jocks" (high school must have changed a lot since my day), they were said to have targeted blacks, Christians, or people who had picked on them. Everything I heard on that day made Littleton Colorado sound like a radically dysfunctional community, and the high school desperately in need of a major overhaul.

Perhaps the most distasteful episode was the vandalism of two of the memorial crosses donated by a local carpenter. Even in grief petty oneupmanship--my sorrow is better than your sorrow--seemed to be the order of the day.

Among the people who seemed more concerned with making social or religious statements than in dealing with the loss were some who claimed to be relatives of one of the victims, Cassie Bernall. One woman--I don't remember now if or how she was related--claimed that one of the killers had placed his gun to Cassie Bernall's head and asked her, "Do you believe in God?" The young woman is said to have replied, "Yes, I believe in God--" at which point the killer is supposed to have fired, killing her instantly. The woman who was narrating this commented that she didn't know if she herself would have had the faith that Cassie had, and so on and so forth. As I said, I had to remind myself that grief makes people do peculiar things.

While some in the Littleton community were spinning this event to glorify their cult, there was at least one person who knew absolutely that this never happened. Emily Wyant was hiding under a desk with Cassie Bernall, and her story is very different, according to Salon.
As the Rocky Mountain News reported Sept. 24, Wyant and Bernall were studying alone together in the back of the library. After the gunmen rushed in, the girls crouched beneath a table together, and Cassie began praying aloud: "Dear God. Dear God. Why is this happening? I just want to go home." Dylan Klebold suddenly slammed his hand on the table, yelled "Peekaboo," and looked underneath. He shot Cassie without exchanging a word. Wyant's mother confirmed that the Rocky Mountain News correctly reported the details of her daughter's account.
So where did this Christian martyrdom story come from? Well the exchange of words came from another moment in the library:
[Valeen] Schnurr was down on her hands and knees bleeding, already hit by 34 shotgun pellets, when one of the killers approached her. She was saying, "Oh, my God, oh, my God, don't let me die," and he asked her if she believed in God. She said yes; he asked why. "Because I believe and my parents brought me up that way," she said. He reloaded, but didn't shoot again. She crawled away.
Oh, that's very different, as Gilda Radner's Emily Litella character used to observe.

It's not as if the events weren't already horrific and senseless enough without somebody deciding to cash in on them to make a point for their particular religious notions.

Oh, sure, but isn't this is a matter of what Bokonin calls foma, harmless untruths that do nobody any harm. Hmm. What about Valeen Schnurr? I have no idea how she felt about this fake martyrdom story, but it was this young woman who, in shock and pain, bleeding from being hit by thirty-four shotgun pellets, who actually said that she believed in God, not knowing whether her answer might save or condemn her. That took guts. Of course she survived, since the psychopathic killer who faced her apparently found her answer acceptable. Or maybe he got distracted. The thing is that she wasn't a dead Christian martyr, but a living girl who went through hell on one all-too-memorable day. How did she feel having a bit of her life appropriated and used by others? Did she feel that her veracity was being called into question? I don't know, but the implication is there anyway.

And more to the point, what about Emily Wyant? She watched her friend blown away by a madman, heard other people make up stories that she knew weren't true, and was even urged by some of the people closest to her to keep quiet about it. After all Cassie's family was putting out a book. This piece of fake history was energizing youth Christian movements all over the country. What the hell could she have thought of the morals and sense of the adult community surrounding her? Even when she told her story to the local newspaper, to set the story straight, what happened? Nothing. The paper claimed that the matter was too sensitive to publish, whatever that means. It wasn't until an internet publication, Salon, carried some of the facts, that the local papers decided to reveal what they had known all along.

Okay, but finally things came out all right, didn't they? The truth came out, the fake story revealed for what it was, and it no longer has the power to harm anybody. Correct? Think again:
The two young men sauntered through the school halls. One wore a t-shirt with the inscription "Natural Selection." Approaching a blonde-haired junior, Eric asked her, "Do you believe in God?" Cassie Bernall's simple yet courageous reply, "Yes," was her last. Her killers continued their rampage of Columbine High.
This piece of unadulterated crap is the opening of a prize-winning but badly-researched essay by one Karin Hutson, "Evolution of Ethics: How Evolution Undermines Morality 101." Replete with irrelevant Bible quotations and a bibliography whose only respectable contributor is John Horgan (who finds himself in company with the likes of Ken (Tyrannosaurs ate coconuts) Ham, Chuck (Watergate) Colson, and the whole crowd of Answers in Genesis liars), this piece of idiocy slanders generations of scientists and researchers without giving a single piece of evidence to make the case. Of course the "prize" in this case is a scholarship to Liberty University, so Karin probably deserves it. I personally hope that she wakes up soon, and realizes that the people who are bamboozling her are not her friends. But maybe she doesn't care. What's a whopper or two matter if the cause is lofty enough, right? Of course she and the people who gave her this "prize" end up looking like first-class idiots--but then, they're probably used to that.

This piece is also being posted at Fake History.

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