Noon in the Garden of Good and Evil

The tragedy at Columbine began as a crime story but is becoming a parable

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America decided 200 years ago to keep her church and state separate, out of respect for both. But Columbine confounds the Constitution; everyone is coloring outside the lines, between what is sacred, what is secular. Ministers call on lawmakers to pass gun-control laws, lawmakers call for religious revival, and Al Gore appears on Larry King Live, not just to talk about his three-point plan to make the Internet less toxic but also to recall his days as a divinity student and cite parables and argue that Littleton is "a spiritual signal," a chance to ask questions that aren't for church or state, but both.

The Columbine tragedy didn't start out as a front-page story about the battle between good and evil. But it has been moving there, as the trauma overflowed the argument about guns and culture and spilled into other realms. With each passing day of shock and grief you could almost hear the church bells tolling in the background, calling the country to a different debate, a careful conversation in which even Presidents and anchormen behave as though they are in the presence of something bigger than they are, and maybe should lower their voices a little and speak with less authority.

The Closure Industry has not been able to sweep up and move on, for all the round-the-clock coverage. In the past our public pageants have concluded with the funeral, the cortege carrying the body of the beloved President or princess. In the case of Columbine, when the funerals were over, the service seemed to be just beginning. This owes in part to the fact that the massacre occurred square in the heart of America's evangelical community--Colorado is home to the Promise Keepers, James Dobson's Focus on the Family and vast and growing megachurches--and so from the beginning the reflex was to look not for reasons but for meaning.

All eyes fell first on the killers, and the questions we can neither avoid nor answer. The talk-show rituals of absolution--blame the culture, the parents, the guns, the video games--left too much unresolved for those inclined to declare that the boys were simply, deeply wicked. But for those with an eye toward larger battles, the killers were not themselves evil; they were instruments of it, of the dark force we met in Narnia and try not to think about once we grow up, until the day we have no choice. Hence the 15 crosses planted up on the hill, and the argument about whether the killers deserved to have their crosses alongside those of the victims, whether they needed them most of all.

If the killers gave evil a face, the victims lent theirs to grace. In ever widening circles the story that lingers is the tale of Cassie Bernall, the girl who when asked "Do you believe in God?" was murdered when she said yes. We expect our martyrs to be etched in stained glass, not carrying a backpack and worrying about their weight and their finals. Hers is a mystery story, the tale of a girl lost to bad friends and drugs and witchcraft and all the dark places of teenage rebellion. Even a youth minister who had some experience turning poisoned kids around had little hope for her. "I remember thinking when I met her," says church volunteer Vali Wilson, "that nothing was going to penetrate that shell." Her parents were advised to take her out of school, get her away from her friends, let her go out only to church and hope for a miracle.

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