Caught in the Columbine crossfire

Heidi Johnson didn't volunteer to fight in America's culture wars, she got caught in the crossfire in the Columbine High School library.

A crowd of preachers, political activists, rock musicians and boisterous teens became extremely quiet last week when the willowy 16-year-old spoke at a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington. She is one of several survivors who has spoken at religious rallies and conventions and faced waves of media interviews. Still, she seemed poignantly out of place in the marble-and-gilt environs of a U.S. Senate caucus room.

She spoke quickly, keeping her voice under tight control as she moved through the minefield of her memories. April 20 was a normal day. She went to the library at lunch, as usual. She heard explosions. The shots drew closer. Then the gunners were right there, killing the kids who were under the library tables. The story hasn't changed. It was real.

"I saw things that no one should every have to see. My innocence was lost," said Johnson, at a rally urging students to back a Nov. 17 effort to spread the Ten Commandments in public schools, using T-shirts, book covers and signs.

"When kids are killing kids, it's time to go back to the basics," she said.

People keep asking Johnson and other survivors the same questions. But there are so many questions she can't answer -- including many of her own. She still isn't sure exactly what happened. It was hard to hear, in the cacophony of gunfire and taunts and screams and sobs. Johnson said she has "blanked some of it out" of her mind.

Many ask about the exchange between Cassie Bernall and her killer. Witnesses have said that a gunman asked, "Do you believe in God?" Bernall said, "Yes, I believe in God." The killer laughed and said, "Why?", then killed her. But some people claim he asked, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?", and blame the media for covering this up. Even more elaborate stories are circulating at rallies and on the Internet.

Johnson said she doesn't remember, but said other witnesses have told her they heard: "Do you believe in God?" No one knows why Eric Harris -- who Johnson said was doing most of the talking -- asked the question.

"It really doesn't matter. It wasn't really him talking," said Johnson. "When I saw his face and looked in his eyes, he just wasn't there. There was no one there. ... I believe he asked that because he was possessed. That question came from somewhere else."

In the weeks after the massacre, some commentators -- secular and religious -- have talked openly about evil and even the demonic. Some have quoted Pope John Paul II, who believes the principalities and powers of this age have created a "culture of death."

The killers, ultimately, were responsible for their actions, argued veteran speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal. But they were symbolic figures. Children are like fish swimming in toxic images, ideas and values, she said. Some of the fish get sick.

Using news reports, Noonan drew a small pool of ink from this sea, containing: "...was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested. ...took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired. ...said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide. ...court battle over who owns the frozen sperm. ...contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women. ...died of lethal injection. ...had threatened to kill her babies. ..." And so forth and so on.

"What walked into Columbine High School," said Noonan, "was the culture of death."

Another Columbine student -- one of the dead -- made a similar point at last week's rally. A speaker read a letter from the mother of Rachel Scott, who was one of Columbine's most outspoken young Christians. The letter contained an entry from her daughter's journal, written days before her death.

"I'm dying," wrote Scott, describing the despair felt by many young people. "Quickly my soul leaves, slowly my body withers. It isn't suicide. I consider it homicide. The world you have created has led to my death."