Did Cassie Bernall confess her faith in God moments before Dylan Klebold shot her? Did he, in fact, even pose the question--"Do you believe in God?"--that allowed Cassie's "yes"? Ever since the online magazine Salon.com ran an article subtitled "Everything You Know About the Littleton Killings Is Wrong" (Sept. 23) in which Dave Cullen attempted to debunk popular perceptions of the Columbine massacre, skepticism has mounted about the veracity of the alleged exchange between Cassie and her killer.
But the larger question is this: Why has Cullen's dubious assertion, based on incomplete reporting, so captured the imaginations of the media?
According to Cullen, investigators from the Jefferson County Sheriff's department encountered conflicting testimony about Cassie's last minutes, and they have expressed doubts that the question was ever posed. "A far more likely" scenario, Cullen wrote, has victim Val Schnurr's story "apparently misattributed to Cassie." The media seized upon Cullen's speculations, and the controversy took off.
The Washington Post's Hanna Rosin (Oct. 14) dismissed the encounter as a myth, then made the leap that "myth" alone is sufficient to animate the religious fervor of evangelicals, regardless of whether it is true. "It's the power of the story that counts," she wrote. "The truth is a trifle. … Should believers accept the literal truth, they'd be left with a hopeless equation." Mary Schmich and Eric Zorn echoed these thoughts in the Chicago Tribune (Oct. 20). "I suspect history will ultimately favor the Bernall myth over the Schnurr facts," Zorn wrote. "I'm not surprised," Schmich replied—conceding that She Said Yes, mother Missy Bernall's tribute to Cassie, is "an interesting little book, even if the title is wrong."
Leave aside, for the moment, the disparaging and demeaning implications behind these assumptions about believers—how are they different from Jesse Ventura saying "organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people"? Neither Rosin nor Zorn nor Schmich, let alone Cullen, has proven the debunking case. The writers settle for the Jefferson County Sheriff Office's opinions about something that the investigators themselves claim to have no stake in. In two separate interviews, information officer Steve Davis told me, "We are not in a position to say it didn't happen" and "We have no reason or desire to prove or disprove this story."
Legitimate questions have caused these doubts. Emily Wyant, a friend of Cassie's who was with her in the library, has said that she cannot recall the exchange between Klebold and Bernall. Craig Scott, who was also in the library during the shooting, attested to hearing the exchange between Bernall and her killer, but later pointed to the table of Val Schnurr when he was taken into the library and asked to point to the location of the voices. There has never been any dispute about Schnurr being asked the question and answering yes. She survived.
But there are equally compelling reasons for handling these doubts circumspectly. Several independent witnesses remain convinced that they heard the exchange between Cassie and her killer, including Craig Scott, despite his subsequent disorientation in the library. These dissenting voices have remained unreported by the writers disputing Cassie's final moments. "The whole world could say Cassie never said yes to the gunman," says Craig Scott, "and I'd still stand by my knowledge that she did. They can throw this all around, but I was there. Reporters or investigators can't tell me how it went. They don't know jack. I was there. I heard what I heard."
Joshua Lapp, quoted in CT's cover story (Oct. 4, 1999, p. 32), told me he stands by his account that he heard the killer ask Cassie if she believed in God, that she paused and then said a decisive yes, and that the gunman asked her why and then shot her. He also maintains he heard the same question posed a second time, to Val Schnurr.
"I heard a voice from a part of the room where I later heard Cassie was," says Evan Todd, another witness in the library. "She was praying out loud and they asked her if she believed in God and she said yes. Then they shot her.
"I did hear another young lady that I later found out was Val Schnurr," Todd says, "because she was on the opposite side of the room. She was shot or wounded and she was screaming, 'Oh my God, oh my God.' I didn't ever hear them ask her if she believed in God."
There are distinct differences between these two encounters: Cassie was shot after saying "yes," after the killer asked her "why?"; Schnurr was shot before the question, not after. Moreover, Schnurr and Bernall were on opposite sides of the library, which militates against confusing one with the other, especially amid the chaos. The account that circulated immediately after the event attests to Cassie's confession, and early testimony is generally accepted as being more reliable than later, revised versions.
As Jefferson County Sheriff's department investigator Gary Muse told me, "Any time you have a traumatic situation, even if only one person gets killed, every testimony is different." Steve Davis insists that these contradictions are "no different than any other aspect of this investigation."
Still, one is compelled to ask why Emily Wyant, who was right next to Cassie, does not remember an encounter so clearly recalled by others. How could Craig Scott be so sure he heard Cassie's encounter, then point in the wrong direction?
Dee Dee McDermott, director of Eagle View Counseling Centers in Wheat Ridge and Littleton, is trained in trauma recovery and has worked with more than half a dozen of the students who were in the Columbine library during the rampage. "Some people have a great capacity for processing the trauma as it's happening and are able to stay what we call 'fully present,'" she said in an interview. "They have a high level of recall. Other students are so traumatized they do not have the capacity to process all the information. Those students would be the ones who would have what we would call memory blocks. A diagnosis for this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)."
It could be argued that PTSD would similarly preclude the trustworthiness of witnesses who claim they heard the encounter between Cassie and the killer. This makes the accounts of what multiple witnesses heard independently (as opposed to what others did not hear and therefore cannot verify) all the more relevant.
As for Craig Scott's confusion when he was taken back to the library, McDermott says: "People who are interviewing these kids need to understand what trauma does and how they process it. Kids that were in the library associate the trauma with anyone in uniform. They can see a police officer or FBI agent and there [will be] some new wave of trauma. That interferes with accuracy and their feeling safe and just talking. If he is firm on what he heard, I don't think it's [significant] what direction it was coming from. That's highly traumatic, to walk into the library. That's not the time to be interviewing a child.
"There was smoke, which was disorienting, and they were in study carrels with hard wood sides that could have caused echoes," McDermott adds. "They were curled in fetal position upside down, or on their backs, or looking through their legs or knees or under their arms. The poor kid probably can't remember what direction he was facing."
There is, however, one level on which Rosin is right. The near-mythic status to which Cassie Bernall has been elevated by some trivializes her life and her death. And in that regard "the Cassie myth" lives. Who Cassie was and the battles she faced every day as a Christian cannot and should not be reduced to a slogan on a key chain, T-shirt, or bumper sticker. This has predictably set her up for a fall. The backlash has been felt in this controversy. Sadly, both the mythmakers and the debunkers have compromised truth. Perhaps "truth is a trifle" for both sides.
But many people can't seem to grasp that myths and legends are not what animate our confession. Truth is everything.
What really happened in the library that terrible day may be beyond the scope of any investigation. But Cassie's "yes" carries sufficient testimony not to be dismissed out of hand.
As for what her life means to the religious community, it takes tremendous courage to say yes to God in the face of death; it takes courage of another kind to keep saying yes to God while living every day in an incredulous and jaded culture.
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