On April 20th, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold perpetrated one of the largest mass shootings in American school history. Harris and Klebold, students at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado, turned their firearms on fellow students and faculty alike on a day that would prove to create as much myth as it did reality. Fourteen Columbine students (including the shooters) and one teacher died that day in Littleton. The rippling effects of Columbine can still be felt in American schools today.
Nearly ten years after the shooting Dave Cullen (Columbine) and Jeff Kass (Columbine: A True Crime Story) published revisionist works that corrected the mainstream media myths by using the official FBI reports as well as emails, police affidavits, videotape, appointment books, eyewitness accounts, and the journals of both Harris and Klebold. What we now know is strikingly different from what was reported and repeated by “reputable” news-gathering organizations immediately following the shooting.
According to Greg Toppo, who wrote the USA Today article detailing the publishing of the myths in 2009, “much of what the public has been told about the shootings is wrong.”
Myths about the Shooting and Shooters at Columbine High School
1) The Columbine massacre was not originally about firearms. Firearms were used as a last resort when the planned bombing fizzled and the situation broke down into a 49-minute shooting. The bombs were set in the cafeteria, which is located directly beneath the library from where many of the myths from that day originated. When the faulty wiring of the bombs did not detonate, Harris and Klebold resorted to guns.
2) Harris and Klebold were not involved in any cowboy duster-wearing cabal of teen angst called the “Trenchcoat Mafia.”
3) Harris and Klebold were not bullied and, in fact, had boasted in journals about picking on both freshmen and “fags.” There are many reasons to be concerned with bullying in schools. However, Columbine is not one of them.
4) Harris and Klebold were not ordinary kids pushed to the brink of psychological madness via bullying. Psychologist Peter Langman, in his book Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, wrote, “These are not ordinary kids who were bullied into retaliation, These are not ordinary kids who played too many video games. These are not ordinary kids who just wanted to be famous. These are simply not ordinary kids. These are kids with serious psychological problems.”
5) There was an “enemies list” created by Harris and Klebold, but the enemies had graduated a year before.
6) Harris and Klebold were not on antidepressants, were not Goths, and were not loners. Granted, they did feel like outcasts to certain segments of the high school community, as many kids do, but they did have many friends.
7) Harris and Klebold did not target athletes, minorities, or Christians. The improperly wired bombs were designed to kill everyone, including friends of Harris and Klebold, not targeted groups.
8) Harris and Klebold were not two sides of the same coin, two similar kids, or brothers from different mothers. They were quite different. Describing their starkly contrasting journals, Toppo wrote, “Harris drew swastikas, Klebold drew hearts.” Cullen described Harris has having “a preposterously grand superiority complex, a revulsion for authority and an excruciating need for control,” While Harris once wished he was God so everyone could “OFFICIALLY be lower than me,” Klebold once described himself as a “god of sadness.”
9) There is no evidence that either Harris or Klebold intentionally planned the massacre around Adolf Hitler’s birthday, nor is there evidence that they were inspired in any way by the music of Marilyn Manson.
10) There was a belief that cell phones saved lives inside of Columbine High School. While some students were able to call newscasters, an odd choice of phone calls, many were unable to communicate due to the blaring alarm system that drowned out most of the noise in the school. The sprinkler system flooded the cafeteria and SWAT teams had communications issues due to both the volume of the alarms and the use of strobe lighting in conjunction with the alarms.
The Myth of Cassie Bernall
Maybe the most popular and most repeated story of Columbine was that of Cassie Bernall. The 17-year-old was killed in the library, reportedly after she outwardly affirmed her belief in God. This spiritual affirmation of Christianity became the inspiration for many books, sermons, church groups, and songs (particularly “Cassie” by Flyleaf and Michael W. Smith’s “This Is Your Time”). Some even drew a direct line between the martyrdom of Joan of Arc and the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
While Bernall’s story is inspirational, heart-wrenching, and truly touching, FBI reports and eyewitness accounts show that it is also false. Emily Wyant, hiding under the same table as Bernall, reported that Harris said “peek-a-boo” and shot Bernall as she prayed aloud.
As the Bernall martyrdom story became more popularized and canonized in Colorado and around the nation, Wyant kept asking her parents, “But that never happened! Why are they saying that?” She was next to Bernall and had told her story to a variety of outlets from differing perspectives
The truth is that some have also reported a similar confession of faith story about Klebold and Valeen Scnurr, another student in the library. Klebold asked Schnurr if she believed in God after she had already been shot. Schnurr answered “Yes,” and Klebold asked “Why?” He then reloaded, but he did not shoot her again. Schnurr survived.
Schnurr’s story has been unwavering. After investigators had finished interviewing the students that were in the library, they concluded that Schnurr’s conversation with Klebold was the only discussion of God. Many of the investigators doubted that any part of the Bernall myth was based in fact.
Though Wyant had recalled the real story to the Bernalls shortly after the shooting, Misty Bernall, Cassie’s mom, released a curiously titled book about Cassie in 2000. It was entitled She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. It is easy to understand a parental search for value and meaning in such a senseless act that was tragic for so many. Yet, Cassie Bernall was never asked if she believed in God. And Cassie Bernall never said “yes.”
Afraid of potential backlash due to the popularity and the inspirational nature of the Bernall story, the Rocky Mountain News sat on the truth for months and allowed the myth to become more prevalent. Wyant reported telling her story to Bernall’s parents (before publication), as well as authorities, the Rocky Mountain News, and the FBI. The book was still published, still made the bestseller lists, and still landed the Bernalls on Today, 20/20, and Larry King Live.
What are we as a learned society if we keep believing myths are factual because we want to believe in the morals that we learn from them?
The Postscript of Columbine
In the same Greg Toppo USA Today piece that detailed the existence of many Columbine myths, another curious suggestion is made. The journalistic trend is to not just report but to also suggest follow-up actions to a public who high-minded journalistic institutions believe cannot possibly “figure it out.” The online edition of the USA Today suggests in Toppo’s piece that there are “Lessons from Columbine” that should be adhered to immediately by the American populace.
The corresponding piece, co-written by Toppo, describes a Roanoke, Virginia, art teacher who sternly demands a student to “Take your hood off!” It is this sort of attempt to look for any outward sign of discontent that now permeates schools nationwide. What are teachers supposed to do about teen grief, anger, inconsistency of mood, or insecurity in social interaction? Report it, of course. Document it, naturally. Increase the security state, by all means.
Toppo described Roanoke art teacher Benjamin Addison’s new self-realized job description as “focus(ing) on their eyes, looking for small signs of anger or grief, some crumb of unhappiness or aggression left over from the weekend, the night before or the previous school day. (Addison) sees it in their body language too — a shove, a murmured insult. Little things.”
This move toward documenting every citizen’s mood and actions (How many of you do this for them yourselves on Facebook?) for governmental institutions to log, analyze, and control should be nothing less than disturbing. Yet, it is something often seen as necessary and warranted – especially when it is someone else’s child, someone else’s spouse, or someone else altogether. What amount of freedom and trust is lost when Americans – like Cold War East Germans looking for a better ration position within the eyes of the government – “say something” every time they “see something”?
It was Columbine that unleashed a plethora of zero tolerance policies upon American children. It was the overreaction to Columbine that meant that an 11-year-old bringing a plastic knife in his Batman lunch box so that he could eat birthday cake would now be deemed a weapon-wielder. It was the overreaction to Columbine that meant that a menstruating 13-year-old girl with a Midol would now be suspended for possessing drugs at school… or even worse, become a drug dealer for dispensing it to her equally awkward menstruating friend.
The Impossible Prevention
All actions are supposedly being undertaken to “prevent another Columbine,” but is there anything that can really be done to do so, or are school districts assembling boards, focus groups, and studies just to avoid potential legal responsibility if a random act of unpreventable violence occurs within their district? Could “another Columbine” be stopped?
Psychologist Langman wrote, “It is hard to prevent murder when killers do not care if they live or die. It is like trying to stop a suicide bomber.”
When the dust settled and school resumed in Littleton, Colorado, Americans latched onto Columbine to fuel debates ranging from parenting styles to gun control to school culture to the perceived impact of rocker Marilyn Manson. In the words of Barack Obama compadre and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Waste Within the Echo Chamber
The first news conference called reported “25 Dead in Colorado.” The inaccuracies seemed to steamroll from there. In their haste to be first rather than correct, journalists reported rumors as truth, hearsay as evidence, and treated all supposed eyewitnesses as valid. But these practices are not things that occurred “then” and “there.” They occur now and here. Why do we believe a report on the news simply because it’s “on the news”? And why do we believe a rationale just because it keeps getting repeated? Repetition is not truth; truth is truth.
Time is a great healer of the heart as well as the mind. It is also a great equalizer to historical inconsistencies. Today, 18 years later, Columbine is more true than ever. That truth stems from journalists and researchers reading all the reports, talking to all the eyewitnesses, perusing the journals, logging the emails, and challenging every fact that was knee-jerkingly presented on that fateful April day. Now, if we could only remember that the next time we see a “Breaking News” banner flash across the screen…