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Columbine Report to Vindicate Nonbelievers

by Andrea Szalanski

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 2.

The finishing touches are now being put on the final report of the investigation into the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, last spring. The word is that, when it is released, nonbelievers will be officially exonerated as having any connection to the tragedy.

Portions of the report, prepared by the Jefferson County sheriff's Department, which conducted the investigation, were leaked to the Denver Post. According to lead investigator Kate Battan, "This was not about killing jocks or killing blacks or killing Christians. . . . It was about killing everybody."

The report will disclose the findings of interviews with more than 5,000 people and examination of more than 10,000 evidentiary items. Special care was taken with the evaluation of what occurred in the school library, where the most students died, including Cassie Bernall. The girl's death came to be characterized as a martyrdom, as reports circulated that she was killed after an exchange with the gunmen in which she affirmed her belief in God. Her story became the subject of talk shows, religious youth meetings, and even a best-selling book.

The trouble is, it may not be true. Although the recent leaks of the final report did not mention Bernall, news reports last fall indicated investigators had come to doubt the story, and said that the exchange may actually have occurred with another girl, who survived.

In the days after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 fellow students and a teacher and wounded 21 others, many, understandably, searched for a cause, and explanation. But what some settled on did a great injustice. Klebold and Harris were said to have targeted Christians, as well as blacks and athletes. Nonbelievers were vilified nationwide, and there was a flurry of legislative activity to institute prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools as preventive measures. Many current campaigns to mix religion and government still use Columbine as a principal argument, leading some pollsters to label voters who want to see more religion in public life as "Columbine Conservatives." 

The trend toward blaming the "godless" for school shootings started in Paducah, Kentucky, in December 1997 when Michael Carneal, 15, opened fire on a school prayer meeting, killing three fellow students and wounding five others. Carneal was immediately branded an atheist, and some Christians claimed that gangs of atheists roamed the corridors of his rural Kentucky school beating up Christians. His priest confirmed that the boy was in fact a confirmed Christian. "Michael Carneal is a Christian. He's a sinner, yes, but not an atheist," said the Reverend Paul Donner of St. Paul Lutheran Church. (Thanks, Reverend Donner, we think.)

School killings have profoundly shocked American society. The reasons for their occurring are complex. But the only truly effective response there can be is a rational attempt to uncover the causes and change the factors that led to their occurrence. Let's hope we see no more of these tragedies, and that nonbelievers will cease being made scapegoats for society's ills.

Andrea Szalanski is managing editor of the Secular Humanist Bulletin and Free Inquiry

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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