July 23, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Aurora Shooting

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the weekend reeling from Friday morning’s massacre in Aurora.  I live in the Denver area, probably 15 miles or so from the theater, so for that reason the shooting has really affected me.  Not that I’m not affected by other tragedies.  Not that I don’t feel a sense of anger and sadness when I read, for example, of US drones murdering more people in Pakistan or Yemen.  But my proximity to the Aurora massacre has affected me on a different level.  It has served as a reminder of my own mortality. 

When I read about people being slaughtered overseas, I feel sad but I never feel a sense of personal danger, I never feel that that could happen to me.  Not so with the Aurora massacre.  I just went to a movie the previous weekend.  (My wife and I saw the other super-hero movie in theaters, Spider-Man.)  So I know that I could have easily been in that theater in Aurora.  I realize—more viscerally than I normally do—that I’m just as vulnerable as the people who were there.  I’m reminded that I could just as easily, at any moment, have my life taken from me. 

We—all of us—spend our lives in a cloud of unawareness, focusing on the minutiae of our daily lives and pushing the bigger issues from our minds.  It is only incidents like the shooting that seem capable of forcing us to remember that nothing’s certain, that this could all be taken from us in the blink of an eye. 

* * * * *

So how to respond to this death-awareness?  That, to me, seems like one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves. 

The answer, for me at least, is to confront my feelings of death as honestly as I can.  That is, to admit that I don’t know what the meaning of life is, that I don’t know what happens upon death, and that this ignorance scares the shit out of me. 

It’s much easier, on some level anyway, to tell myself that I do have it all figured out, that, for example, I know there’s an all-loving god who will ultimately right every wrong.  But when I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I don’t know the answers to any of these big questions.  And I have to admit that this uncertainty terrifies me.

Yet I’ve found that I’m much better off when I confront this terror.  Because when I repress it, the terror doesn’t go away, it simply manifests itself into different forms.  I end up with debilitating neuroses.  The terror often turns into aggression towards others.

Confronting my terror of death is not easy.  And, needless to say, it’s not completely possible: even when I spend time thinking about my own mortality, I still have difficulty believing, really believing, that I will one day die, that I will really, actually die.  Nonetheless, when I do, to some degree, confront my terror of death, I find that my awareness is heightened, I find that I'm better able to appreciate life and connect with others. 

* * * * *

Predictably, many have responded to the shootings by renewing their efforts to reinstate the ban on assault weapons.  Although I used to be against all forms of gun control, the shooting made me realize that reinstating the assault weapons ban really is—or should be—a no-brainer. 

There is absolutely no legitimate reason why such weapons are legal.  None at all.  As many columnists over the weekend have pointed out, the only reason the ban was allowed to expire is that the NRA has such a stranglehold on Congress. 

I’m actually starting to believe that banning other guns, not just assault weapons, would make us safer.  Which, coming from a former gun-toting right-winger, is saying a lot.  Anyway, I’ll save those thoughts for another day. 

* * * * *

One can’t read about such a massacre without wondering about the motives of the killer.  Clearly this man had some sort of mental breakdown.  That much seems obvious.  But that doesn’t preclude other factors, other explanations for his behavior.  Nicolas Powers at Alternet writes:

In her book The Amok Complex, [German professor Ines Geipel] analyzed five mass shootings in Europe and distilled from the gunmen a common character. They live in pricey towns, come from well-heeled families but are labeled outsiders due to their failure to achieve in the high pressure of class paranoia…

In the British paper the Independent, Dr. Keith Ashcroft wrote how the path from low self-esteem is layered with resentment which becomes paranoia. The retreat from others into a shrinking world of rage and self-pity creates the conditions for more social isolation. A fast and powerful downward spiral begins that pulls the young men into fantasies of revenge. And finally there is some triggering event, loss of a lover or a job or a home that snaps him. “Their paranoia heightens the sense that the whole world is against them, which increases their anger,” he wrote “It is very immature to want a gun in order to have a sense of power and fulfillment. But it is a way of regaining control.” (“A Long Dark Night: Gun Violence Romanticized and the New Batman Movie,” July 20, 2012).

Professor James Alan Fox writes in USA Today:

Mass killers tend to be profoundly frustrated and despondent over life's disappointments, isolated from family and friends who might be in a position to provide comfort and support, and see themselves as the victim of undeserved mistreatment and unfairness. For them, the act of murder against certain people seen as responsible for their misfortune, if not against a corrupt society in general, is justified. Successful and fulfilled people, by contrast, have little need for vengeance or reason to wreak havoc in such a dramatic and public fashion. (“Mass murder is predictably unpredictable,” July 22, 2012)

All of which makes me conclude that the best way to prevent future killings is not legislation.  As much as I think sensible gun-control is needed, I think loving others is a better, more effective solution.  As I said earlier, we—and I definitely include myself in this we—tend to live our lives in a state of unawareness, too paralyzed by our fear of death to ever really live.  If we could just deal with our own shit, if we could just wake up, so to speak, then we’d start to see, really see, those around us and be able to give them the love they deserve. 

We will never be able to conquer death.  We will never be able to completely eliminate senseless violence.  But I think we can nonetheless get better.  We can make the world, even if just slightly, a better place.

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