Columbine shootings an example of Christian killings, says Tavis Smiley

More than a decade after the attack on Columbine, the high school's name remains a buzz word -- and an infinitely flexible one.

Example: Public Broadcast Service talk-show host Tavis Smiley used the massacre as an example of violence done by Christians -- a position that's earned him criticism from PBS's own ombudsman.

Check out a key part of the May 25 exchange between Smiley and Somali-born activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wants Christians to challenge Muslim extremism:

Tavis: I guess I'm trying to understand where the evidence is that suggests that all of us who happen to be Christians or enlightened in some other way need to take on Muslims here in the West.

Ali: Okay, I think first and foremost what we have to acknowledge is we're not going to get a monster with horns, blue in the face, looking like a dragon called jihad coming in and terrorizing us. The people who are engaged in terrorist activities look like you and me. They look like everybody else here. Major Nidal Hasan, the military guy who in November shot 13 of his colleagues and injured 32, he's going to be on trial pretty soon, I think this week, the young man, Faisal Shahzad, in Times Square who tried to blow innocent people that he doesn't know up, these guys are acting on conviction. Somehow, the idea got into their minds that to kill other people is a great thing to do and that they would be rewarded in the hereafter.

Tavis: But Christians do that every single day in this country.

Ali: Do they blow people up (unintelligible)?

Tavis: Yes. Oh, Christians, every day, people walk into post offices, they walk into schools, that's what Columbine is -- I could do this all day long. There are so many more examples of Christians -- and I happen to be a Christian. That's back to this notion of your idealizing Christianity in my mind, to my read. There are so many more examples, Ayaan, of Christians who do that than you could ever give me examples of Muslims who have done that inside this country, where you live and work.

Letter writers griped about the Columbine link in impressive numbers. Here are some examples offered by PBS ombudsman Michael Getler:

I am ashamed that PBS would sponsor the uninformed or outright lying as was perpetrated by Tavis Smiley on his recent program. In stating that Christians murder more people that fundamentalist Islamists, and that the do so on a daily basis, and attributing post office and Columbine massacres to Christianity is . . . Sinful.

Mike Ship, San Antonio, TX

Having just watched a video of Tavis Smiley's interview with Ms. Ali, I cannot believe that this so-called host has a job. He continually accused Christians of being murdering terrorists, citing the shooting at Columbine and the bombing at Oklahoma City as evidence to support his statement. These killings are not "Christian" in anyway, and for PBS to have a host claim that they are is insulting (at best). This man should be fired immediately, or at least suspended from his role as a host. His guest continually questioned the assertions that he made.

Pete Bielski, Severna Park, MD

Please ask Tavis Smiley to give examples when he makes broad statements on his show, and to please give accurate examples. He said on a show earlier this week that there were as many or more Christian terror acts in this country as there were radical Islam terror attacks. He sited the Columbine shootings. He needs to check his facts. Those boys were atheist not Christian at all. He should be able to provide one example but he could not and did not. Please have him issue an apology for his ignorance.

Ruth Wilson, Atlanta, GA

In reviewing Mr. Smiley's show from 5/25/2010 and the interview with Ms. Ali, I find that his comments are lacking in foundation and baseless. Indeed a misinformed bias was on display. The Columbine High School tragedy cited by the host was clearly perpetrated by 2 adolescent atheists, not Christian terrorists. His stance that he could site instances that occur "everyday" as terrorist acts carried out by Christians in this country, is obviously without merit and untrue. His narrative of the tea party incident again demonstrates his prejudice. I did not know that because you are white and a tea party member that you must be a Christian terrorist. While it is possible that derogatory names calling may have occurred, it was completely prejudicial and biased to assume that such language was used by a Christian. And to compare a politically charged incident with a jihad terrorist action is professionally negligent. People die! People die when a jihadist takes action. The comparison is not even close by any estimation. Mr. Smiley should at least acknowledge his statements were clearly over the top, rectify the misinformation, and perhaps issue an apology.

Ogden, UT

Getler felt Smiley went off course with his analogy, writing, "The only specific case he cited was the Columbine High School massacre outside Denver 11 years ago. But that had nothing to do with Christianity. A lengthy look back at that killing spree that took 13 lives was taken last year in USA Today. Referring to the two teenage killers, it described Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold 'as a sort of In Cold Blood criminal duo -- a deeply disturbed, suicidal pair who over more than a year psyched each other up for an Oklahoma City-style terrorist bombing, an apolitical, over-the-top revenge fantasy against years of snubs, slights and cruelties, real and imagined.'"

As for Smiley, his statement about the program excludes specific mention of Columbine, sticking mainly to generalities like, "I have faith that the American public will continue to support diversity, pluralism, and tolerance, rather than finding artificial ways to divide us."

With either words or weapons.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts