According to the "Register-Guard," "Stacy Boylan, the father of 18-year-old Anastasia Boylan, who was shot in the back during the massacre ... told CNN News on Thursday that his daughter said the shooter specifically targeted Christians."
"People" magazine reported that "The gunman who killed nine and wounded seven others at Umpqua Community College in Oregon asked his victims whether they were Christian - and then executed them if they answered yes, according to witnesses. Mercer then allegedly proceeded to ask the cowering students if they were Christians. 'And they would stand up and he said, ‘Good, because you're a Christian, you're going to see God in just about one second.'"
These details have fueled outrage among Christians who feel persecuted because of their faith. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, for example, soon promoted the social media hashtag "#IamAChristian," in support of the Christian victims in Oregon.
Others, however, have questioned whether Christians were in fact targeted. The "Register-Guard" noted that "During an interview conducted at the Springfield hospital by ABC's ‘Good Morning America' and aired Monday morning, Anastasia Boylan did not mention the word ‘Christian' during her talk with ABC's Neal Karlinksy. ‘He had us get up, one by one, and asked us what our religions were. The shooter said (they) would only feel pain for a couple of seconds, and that (they) would be with God soon. And then he shot them.'"
In this version of the story Harper-Mercer gave his victims no reason - anti-Christian or otherwise - for his actions. Depending on the exact words he used, he may simply have been tailoring his response to the religion of his victims and referring to "God" because they told him they were Christian, instead of choosing to shoot them because they were Christian.
Harper-Mercer was clearly a troubled individual and at this early stage in the investigation it's impossible to determine his motivations. News reports have offered various pieces of the puzzle but few confirmed facts.
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Harper-Mercer wrote about his despondency at not having a girlfriend, though people on the autism spectrum (as he was) often have difficulty establishing and maintaining close personal relationships - and in any event the vast majority of those who suffer from mental illness are non-violent. He also allegedly expressed racism and an antipathy toward organized religion, though whether he acted on that remains to be seen.
Cassie Bernall and Columbine The theme of young Christian martyrs in mass shootings has surfaced before. In the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre, a Christian student named Cassie Bernall gained posthumous fame when a friend claimed she defiantly affirmed her belief in God when the shooters threatened her. Early eyewitness reports claimed that one of the shooters confronted Bernall and asked if she believed in God. Bernall, fearing for her life, bravely answered "yes" before being shot and killed.
Cassie's mother soon wrote a book titled "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall." The book recounted Cassie's journey from a troubled youth obsessed with death rock and vampires to an upstanding Christian. It had all the elements of a good Christian redemption story: a lost child who found her path in Jesus, only to be killed for defending her faith before Satan's merciless thugs.
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After the book's publication, the Bernalls made the media rounds, giving interviews and appearing on televangelist Robert Schuller's Sunday television show, telling their story to millions.
As it turned out, Cassie's martyrdom was in fact unlikely. Investigators showed that Cassie was not the young woman who had this exchange with her killer, but that it was instead a girl nearby, Valeen Schnurr. The shooter had asked if Schnurr believed in God; when she said yes the gunman spared her life. Instead of Bernall dying for affirming her Christian faith, Schnurr lived by affirming hers.
The truth of Bernall's encounter when faced with evil turned out to be exactly the opposite of an inspirational Christian martyr story. Prior to publication questions regarding the book's accuracy were brought to Plough, the small Christian publishing house that handled the book. Although the premise of the book was in doubt, both Plough and the Bernalls decided to release it, and it soon became a New York Times bestseller.
Last Words and Eyewitnesses The words of killers and victims just before and during a shooting are treated by the public as especially significant, as they seem to offer insight into the motivation and state of mind of those there at the time. However eyewitness accounts of the precise words exchanged are often confused, contradictory and flat-out wrong.
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For example just before his attack in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, James Holmes was claimed by eyewitnesses to have shouted "I am the Joker!" at a Batman film premiere. This comment helped fuel media speculation that Holmes had been inspired to kill by the Batman villain. It fit in neatly with the established narrative and seemed to confirm many people's fears about the evil influences of the mass media.
However later investigation revealed that the shooting had nothing to do with the Joker, and no evidence about it emerged at his trial. As John Miller reported on the CBS show Face the Nation, the initial claim about Holmes's statement "turned out not to be true."
In fact, Miller noted, "Every single witness that (the police) have spoken to, and that we (CBS News) have spoken to, has said that he did not say a word, he just opened fire. And in fact he was wearing a gas mask with a movie going on in the background so had he actually elected to say anything, no one would have heard him anyway."
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It also happens with victims. Within days of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., eyewitnesses claimed that Brown called out "Hands up! Don't shoot" just before he was shot and killed. However further investigation found no evidence that Brown ever uttered that famous phrase, which has since become synonymous with police killing unarmed African-Americans.
These incorrect claims about what happened in life-or-death encounters are not lies nor hoaxes but instead simply the result of mistakes made in memory and perception. The fact is that in the initial chaos and confusion of something as traumatic as a mass shooting, it would be unusual for eyewitnesses to accurately recall the exact words that a person uttered.
The words may have been misheard, misremembered or possibly never even spoken. In some cases, such as those of Cassie Bernall and Michael Brown, it is not the victims and survivors but instead their friends, family, and supporters who promote the false stories of heroic (or tragic) last words.
It may be true that Harper-Mercer did in fact single out and execute Christian students for their faith, as has been claimed. But it's just as likely that when all the facts are in and the evidence has been examined, the truth will reveal a different story.