How false remembrance harms us (4/20/00)

Well, it's time for the one-year anniversary column of the Columbine High School shootings. I knew I was going to have to write this column, for various reasons, but I was having trouble deciding what to write on, simply because so many things about it make me angry. There's the treatment by the media, the demonization of the shooters and their parents, the way so many people have ignored the violent deaths of Robert Craig and his stepfather which took place a year earlier and said "Nothing like this has ever happened here before." Or even the way that the people in Littleton are eating each other alive over the smallest issues. (Did you know that eighty percent of the clergy left Jonesboro within a year of the school shooting there? There's a reason.)

What I settled on, however, is the martyrization of Cassie Bernall. I'm sure you all heard the story: reportedly, she was asked by one of the shooters whether the believed in God. When she replied in the affirmative, she was fatally shot. Since then, a book has been published, titled "She Said, 'Yes,'" about the incident, and she has become a sort of mini-icon for teenage Christians.

However, the story is probably false. Some of the witnesses have admitted that they were mistaken, and that the question was asked of Val Schnurr, after she was shot (she survived). Other witnesses contradict themselves, and still others refuse to comment, afraid that they will damage the image of the martyr that Bernall has become. Even if the story is true, there is no evidence that the shooters were doing anything but picking people at random, despite their words, and some indications that point to their not having been fully aware of who they were killing.

"So what?" you ask. I'll tell you what. Imagine being the parent of any other child who died at Columbine. Imagine being told that this child, Cassie, died for a reason, that she died for the glory of God and that because of her declaration, her death and life had meaning. Your kid? Your kid died for nothing, sorry, he or she just wasn't special enough, and so their death has to remain part of a senseless act. I don't care if they were a Christian - they didn't happen to speak the words. It's cruel to assign this sort of status to one fatality, to give one death meaning at the expense of others.

Not buying it? How about this: how do you grieve for a martyr? As a friend, as a parent, who sincerely believes that Cassie was killed because "She Said 'Yes,'" how do you grieve for her without wishing that she had said no? Adn how do you wish for a martyr's life back without feeling as though you have transgressed against God? Without feeling guilty? How do you wish that she had said no, been a Wiccan, dropped out of school, anything, as long as she was still alive? How do you wish that, when she has been held up to the world as a person whose death gave her life meaning?

To make a martyr out of Cassie Bernall is worse than inaccurate. It is an act which only encourages the media's carnivorous and wildly inaccurate coverage of the event, it is cruel to all those who lost loved ones at the school last year, and it is crippling to those who are trying to deal with her absence in their lives. Let us honor the dead not by making plaster saints out of them, but by helping the living.

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