Although the general buzz of life with its toys and tasks and busy-ness is very good at drowning out Life’s Big Questions, from time to time that hum falls silent. Within that silence we find an opportunity to stop and think about things that matter.
The tragic night in Aurora, Colorado has given us one such time, if we don’t waste it.
We’re in the recovery stage now. Victims are figuring out how to move forward. Loved ones are mourned. Law enforcement is adapting, and learning what lessons they can to be ready next time. And of course, speculators of every stripe have shared their theories about what went wrong.
There are still many unknowns in this case; and while we try to fit the pieces together, I wonder whether the public’s reaction to tragedies follows a familiar pattern? If so, could that pattern teach us something? Reflecting upon a similar event from last year, some parallels are already evident.
Many of you will remember the mass killings in Oslo, Norway. On that day 77 people lost their lives.
After the initial outpourings of both comfort and outrage, the burning question was “Why”.
Something about these situations makes us crave answers. In seeking answers, we inevitably assign blame. Before long, scapegoats are trotted out for public denunciation.
Hasn’t this happened already in Aurora? Remember ABC’s Brian Ross and his rush to judgment? He defamed both an innocent man, and the Tea Party Movement by linking them to the slaughter. Disgraceful.
The same thing happened in Norway.
They blamed Islam. (To be fair, Abu Suleiman al-Nasser had tried to claim credit, before retracting his claim.) Predictably, the religion of peace was outraged.
The Oslo killer’s name was released and people peered into his personal life. There was a “manifesto”, with strong opinions about foreigners. With logic worthy of Monty Python’s Holy Grail (if she weighs the same as a duck…) suddenly he’s a Christian Fundamentalist whack job!
Wait–what now? Shall we just ignore the fact he explicitly “did not see himself as religious”? Well, that angle didn’t work out, and the “right-wing” tag didn’t get traction, so they kept looking.
In Oslo — like Colorado — lesser scapegoats came out to play, too. There, First-Person-Shooter video games were pulled from store shelves. Here, the question of gun ownership is championed by New York’s Nanny-in-Chief.
When the blame doesn’t stick in one place, we keep looking elsewhere. Suddenly everyone was a shrink. With one voice, and with near-perfect pitch, the Public pronounced that the Norwegian terrorist was crazy. Clearly and obviously crazy. (We’re already hearing the same language here.)
The offender from Oslo didn’t agree. Neither did the professionals pronouncing final judgment on his sanity: “Our conclusion is that he was not psychotic at the time of the actions of terrorism and he is not psychotic now.” (Although initial consultants claimed otherwise, the final ruling called him competent.)
Why should this matter? Mainly because this reaction tells us more about ourselves than about the killer. Why should so many people insist that he’s crazy?
(As an aside, let’s remember that misuse of the “insane” label demeans everyone struggling with real mental illness. My work and training is with such people and I would suggest that this slur demonstrates at best an ignorance of mental health issues, and possibly something far worse.)
Each of these reactions and labels have an intent: define our worst citizens within certain boundaries. Keep them at arm’s length; define them as somehow a different species of person to the ordinary guy on the street. If we can tell ourselves that a killer is “other,” he can be dismissed as some monster or aberration, and fundamentally different from the rest of us. He becomes a case study at a safe moral distance from us.
But something changes if he is just an ordinary guy that chose the wrong path. The gap between who he is and who we are narrows uncomfortably. And so does the gap between what we are.
Suppose the gunman in whichever city isn’t animated by a psychosis? What if he has rationally and intentionally embraced evil ideas and heinous acts? We used to know a word for evil choices. Sin.
It isn’t popular to use that word anymore, but its specific meaning makes it helpful for clarity. Sin is different than any of the other labels because — instead of deflecting blame — it puts the weight of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the person who acted wrongly.
Is it not true that our recent killer’s life might have looked just like ours, but for a few different choices? Is that unsettling? Even more so if you realize that it works both ways.
This is the moment where we can decide whether to be part of the solution or the problem.
If we recognize that some real evil exists in culture, ourselves, and others, we can identify it and confront it. By implication, we must be willing to stand for something good in its place.
The other option is to bury our heads in the sand, and be Edmund Burke’s “good man who does nothing.”