Were the Oregon Shooting Victims Christian Martyrs?

It’s too early to say, but we’ve used the label for mass shooting victims in the past and it ended up being a mistake.

candlelight vigil during a memorial service called 'Prayers for
Christina and Kyle Workman and their daughters, Pepper and Samantha, attend a candlelight vigil during a memorial service called Prayers for Roseburg, at Riverbend Park in Winston, Oregon, on Oct. 3, 2015.

Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

One of the most shocking details from last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was that gunman Chris Harper-Mercer reportedly singled out people who said they were Christian. If his victims were killed because of their religious identities that would make them martyrs, and some are already eagerly claiming them as such.

On Friday, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson posted a photo online of himself holding a sign reading “I am a Christian” and urged supporters to use the slogan in their Twitter profile pictures “to honor the victims and their families.” Commentator Todd Starnes, the inventor of the War on Christmas, concluded that the “martyred” victims’ “families can take comfort in knowing that after they took their last breath on Earth, they took their first breath in Heaven.” Tennessee’s lieutenant governor even called on “Christians who are serious about their faith” to acquire handgun carry permits in response to the shooting: “Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.”

While we don’t yet know what happened, those seizing onto this as a story of true-life American heroism would do well to remember a previous account from a mass shooting: a martyrdom story that was inspiring, wildly popular, and false.

That myth, born out of the initial frenzied reports in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, has persisted to this day, which is a good enough reason to urge cautious skepticism in this case. There are other good reasons to take things a bit more slowly too. Critically, the most alarming claims about the shooter targeting Christians were made by people who were not at the scene. Stacy Boylan, whose daughter was wounded, told CNN: “[Harper-Mercer started] asking people one by one what their religion was. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he would ask them, and if you’re a Christian stand up. And they would stand up and he said, ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you are going to see God in just about one second.’ And then he shot and killed them.” Someone gave a similar account to NBC, saying that she was relaying a sibling’s eyewitness statement. A Twitter user who said her grandmother had been in the room shared a similar story online:

These dramatic preliminary secondhand accounts are reminiscent of the early reporting around a similar incident said to happen during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

The initial account then was this: In the Columbine library, one of the killers held a gun to the head of a 17-year-old girl named Cassie Bernall and asked if she believed in God. She said yes, and he shot and killed her. Bernall became an instant martyr, and an icon to many American Christians. She inspired sermons, prayer services, and songs, including the Christian pop star Michael W. Smith’s “This Is Your Time.” At her funeral, which attracted strangers from all across the country, her pastor proclaimed she was “in the martyrs’ hall of fame.” Bernall’s mother wrote a best-selling book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.

But Bernall’s martyrdom turned out to be untrue. The story originated with a boy who had misinterpreted an exchange between shooter Dylan Klebold and another girl, Valeen Schnurr. That student professed her belief in God after being shot, and she survived. But she also found that her story was often doubted by Bernall’s acolytes. “People thought I was a copycat,” she told Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post that fall. “They thought I was just following the bandwagon. A lot of people just didn’t believe my story. And you know, it gets frustrating. Because you know in your heart where you were and what you said, and then people doubt you. And that’s what bothers me the most.”

Sixteen years later, however, the Bernall myth has proven persistent. Writer Dave Cullen, who debunked it just months after the Columbine shooting, revisited it a few weeks ago when Rick Santorum referenced it (incorrectly) in a Republican debate. Cullen wrote that “too many people had found too much value—spiritually or financially—in the myth to simply let it die.”

It has been days now since the stories suggesting martyrdom in Roseburg, Oregon, were shared with the media, and there still have been no eyewitness anecdotes backing up the most dramatic detail: that Harper-Mercer not only asked victims if they were Christians but responded differently to people who said they were. It’s true that an online profile listed him belonging to a group called “Doesn’t Like Organized Religion” and that there are firsthand eyewitness accounts that he did ask about religion. But common sense alone is enough to raise an eyebrow at the narrative as it’s been described. It would take a truly extraordinary person to say “yes” after seeing a shooter respond like this once, and the implication that multiple martyrs gave their lives in this way seems unlikely to say the least.

More importantly, the eyewitnesses who have spoken to the press tell a more subtle and plausible story of a gunman who spoke with general hostility about Christianity but did not use it as a litmus test. Kortney Moore, an 18-year-old student who was at the school and said she saw her writing teacher get shot in the head, told the local newspaper that Harper-Mercer told people to get down on the ground and then to stand up and state their religion. But she didn’t say he was choosing victims based on their answers.  

Another account from a witness specifically denies that Harper-Mercer was targeting Christians. “Obviously he was asking what religion, but he wasn’t really just targeting. He was kind of just saying, ‘Oh, since you have a God, you’ll be joining him in a little bit,’ ” student Rand McGowan told the New York Daily News. “It wasn’t really like, ‘I’m targeting you and I’m going to kill you.’ ”

It’s easy to be cynical about the eagerness of some members of a majority culture to latch onto rare stories of persecution within their own country. And it’s proper to be cynical about politicians and columnists who do so, sometimes without the evidence to back up their assertions (see Santorum’s description of the racially motivated Charleston, South Carolina, church attack as an “assault on our religious liberty”). But a more generous interpretation is that reading Christian martyrdom into mass shootings is a way of making sense out of the senseless, transforming the tragic into something purposeful and inspiring. “I just thank God she died that way,” one of Cassie Bernall’s friends from Bible study said soon after her death. Turning victims into heroic players in a larger drama about good versus evil gives meaning to their deaths. The larger truth, no matter what happened last week in Oregon, is much bleaker: They were victims of yet another in a long string of pointless and needless American massacres.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the Oregon shooting.