In the hours immediately following the July 20 shooting spree in Aurora, Colo., it felt like Sept. 12, 2001 all over again. The horrific murder of 12 innocents and the injury of more than 50 others brought a nation together—united in our shock, outrage and grief at the senseless loss of life and our compassion for the victims and survivors and their loved ones.
And as has so often been the case in our recent history, that unity was short-lived.
Whenever we’re confronted with a terrible tragedy, from the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School to the multiple attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we come together long enough to mourn, to shake our heads at the scale of the catastrophe. And then, inevitably, we begin to conscript it for our own ends.
Less than 24 hours after the slaughter at a Colorado screening of The Dark Knight Rises, it was business as usual on the Internet, with gun-control proponents and big-government opponents alike attempting to fit the heart-wrenching events of that night into their own political narratives. And, predictably, this cynical co-opting of the dead and the wounded has had little effect: a new national poll shows that public opinion on gun control remains unchanged following the killings in Aurora.
Nor have too many minds likely been changed in the current uproar over remarks made by Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy. Those who flocked to the chain’s locations on Aug. 1 to show their support for Cathy’s First Amendment rights are conditioned to react a certain way when wealthy, powerful figures with conservative political and religious views are criticized, and no arguments about the “rights” of the aggrieved party are ever going to sway them. If the Chick-fil-A brouhaha has managed to accomplish anything, it’s been to wipe the Aurora killings out of the public consciousness.
The people who entered that movie theater two weeks ago, with no greater desire than to enjoy a few hours of entertainment, deserve better than to become pawns in an ongoing game of political one-upmanship. And they certainly deserve a hell of a lot better than to be forgotten in the rush to the next battle on the ever-shifting front lines of a culture war. They deserve a real effort to try to prevent such a senseless thing from happening again—not just from our elected leaders, but from all of us.
Does there need to be a rational, intelligent conversation about gun legislation? No doubt. How much of a difference would such a dialogue make? It’s impossible to say. No matter how many laws we write, how many guns we confiscate or how many metal detectors we erect outside of movie theaters, we will never be able to stop madmen from attaining weapons and using them to inflict violence on others. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to take reasonable steps to mitigate the odds of such an occurrence.
The same holds true for the sickness inside James Holmes, the alleged shooter. As of this writing, we’re no closer to understanding what drove him to act as he did. We don’t know what form of mental illness got him in its grip and refused to let go. We’ll never know whether therapy or even a measure of sympathy could have prevented his actions. We can (and should) have a serious discussion about mental health care, and whether mental or emotional issues should be part of the background check run on those who buy guns.
But policy discussions, however necessary, take time, and the issues at hand are ultimately decided in arenas removed from our everyday lives. So what can we do?
We can’t go back and stop Holmes from committing such a heinous act. But we can exert some control over the way we treat others, and ourselves.
So many of our daily interactions are driven by our fight-or-flight reflexes that we barely even register the effects of our behavior. The smallest, most insignificant encounter becomes part of a protracted us-vs.-them struggle. We honk our horns at drivers who take an extra couple of seconds to hit the gas when the light turns green. We hurl insults at those who subscribe to different political beliefs. We castigate strangers who had the audacity to be born with a different skin color. We question the morality of those whose unpardonable “sin” is to fall in love with someone of the “wrong” gender.
We latch onto the things that separate us. But we can choose to act differently.
That choice can be as simple as electing not to shout obscenities at the cyclist whose perfectly legal right to occupy the same road as you poses a temporary impediment to your need to speed. We can choose to show empathy and mercy and forgiveness. We can choose to forge more links between human beings, rather than to sever them.
And we can decide to show that same compassion to ourselves. All of us have felt the grip of envy, resentment or hatred like a vise upon our hearts. That behavior can also be changed by conscious choice. Bury a hatchet. Let go of a grudge. Forgive a slight. Make peace with someone who’s wronged you. Or even better, ask for the forgiveness of someone who has reason to believe you have wronged them.
Believe me, I’m acutely aware of how sappy and naïve this must sound. I’ve spent much of my life scoffing at such simplistic creeds as “All you need is love” and bumper-sticker sentiments like “Commit random acts of kindness.” I’m not suggesting we all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” and all negativity and evil will be banished from the world forever.
But I am saying that somewhere along the way, James Holmes fell victim to a cancer in his soul that convinced him that the lives of others have no worth. Maybe it’s been a part of him since birth, and maybe it’s the culmination of a series of setbacks and frustrations that pushed him over the edge.
Either way, the darkness won out. And the best way I know to honor Holmes’ victims, to give their deaths some small sliver of meaning, is to fight against that darkness, in ourselves and in others. To take a step back instead of forming a fist.
Maybe, in that small way, we can continue to stand united.