Friday, July 20, 2012

The Tragedy in Colorado

It is still Friday, July 20, 2012.

The smoke (please excuse the pun) is still clearing in Colorado following the shooting at the midnight showing of the new Batman movie.

In the coming days, I am sure, more will be known about the gunman, what led him to his heinous act and the eventual death toll than is known now. Please keep that in mind as you read this because, if you are reading this sometime in the future, some of the facts are sure to have changed.

There are bound to be things that are thought to be true as I write that will be proven to be false. Already today, the death toll has fluctuated downward, but it may well go upward in the coming days. There are still people fighting for their lives, and some may lose that fight. The police are trying to figure out how to get into the shooting suspect's apartment and disarm booby trap[s] the suspect left behind, and I've heard some people say that process could take days or weeks.

But something that will not change is the fact that, once again, the relative peace of daily life for most Americans was shattered.

This morning, after I had first heard of the shootings, I went on Facebook, where I found that one of my former journalism students — now the executive editor of his hometown newspaper — had shared his paper's Associated Press account of what had happened in those early morning hours when most of us were sleeping in blissful ignorance.

And, in the comments section that accompanies just about every article that is published online these days, a young person identified as a student at the local high school, commented, "I don't understand why the world has to be like this sometimes."

And I was reminded of when that editor and I were on a college campus together two decades ago, and one of his classmates asked me, after observing the number of religious leaders who had taken exception to various accounts of Bill Clinton's ethics and aligned themselves with the likes of Patrick Buchanan, who had delivered a speech that was extremely long on intolerance at that summer's Republican convention, about the logic behind their position.

"I thought ministers were supposed to be about love and forgiveness," he said to me.

The same thought that crossed my mind on that occasion crossed my mind this morning when I read that young man's comment — the naivete of youth.

I guess we all start out that way. It reminds me of a conversation Daphne had with her father on the TV show Frasier. Her father told her that he was splitting up with Daphne's mother for good, and Daphne, disillusioned and disappointed, said she had always believed that love conquered all.

"We all believe that when we're young," her father replied, "but then life beats us around a bit, and you learn to dream a little smaller."

There may be a lot of truth in that statement, but July 20 has always struck me as a date when the stakes have been even greater than usual — and, consequently, the hopes have been a bit grander, too.

July 20 often seems to bring memorable events. When I was a child, men walked on the moon for the first time on a July 20. When my parents were still young, a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler failed on this date — an event that wasn't nearly as positive as but, in some ways, was more significant than the moon walk.

(Hitler would be dead within a year, anyway, but, if he had been killed on this date in 1944, it is probable that many lives would have been spared. How many? No one can say.)

When my grandparents were children, the Ford Motor Company shipped its first car on this date. Henry Ford's assembly line concept radically transformed the 20th century.

There are other dates like that on the calendar, dates when great strides were made in medicine, manufacturing, agriculture, whatever.

But sprinkled among them — and sometimes, as is the case today, coinciding with them — are days of unspeakable and unexpected terror and anguish.

Such occasions do not always feature a lone gunman. Sometimes it is other things.

But no generation is immune to shocking reminders that life is not fair.

It hasn't been fair when young people have died in what should be one of the safest settings outside their homes — their schools.

It wasn't fair that a crew of astronauts that included the woman who was slated to be the first teacher in space died in a fiery explosion less than two minutes after liftoff.

Nor was life fair when prominent people were being gunned down and race riots were breaking out in the 1960s.

I have often pondered why it is that some people die so young and others live into their 80s or 90s. There must be more to it than the cliche "the good die young."

The more religious among us will tell you that it is all part of God's plan and that we are not intended to understand God's reasoning.

That's just as well, I suppose, because I used to get headaches trying to figure out God's reason for allowing babies to perish in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The only reason I can think of is sheer randomness. I'm sure there were people at that movie who were there only at the request of others; maybe some of those people were hurt or killed — perhaps only because they were being polite to someone else.

I've heard of unaccounted–for servicemen who were undoubtedly prepared for the possibility of dying in a foreign land but more than likely never gave it a thought while standing in line at a movie theater.

The fact that this kind of thing has the power to paralyze virtually the entire country with fear tells you how rare — comparatively — such a thing really is here.

This summer, I've been re–reading Truman Capote's brilliant nonfiction novel "In Cold Blood" about the massacre of a Kansas farm family in 1959. "[D]rama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there," Capote wrote.

(Aurora, Colo., is considerably larger than Holcomb, Kan., was in 1959, but I suspect that the same thing could be said of Aurora.)

At one point, Capote observed that visitors to Holcomb noticed that almost all the lights in town were on late into the evening.

Capote asked, "Of what were they frightened?" and supplied the answer he had received over and over: "It might happen again."

That is an irrational fear, of course, but it's one that some people do have in these situations. I saw an online poll this morning asking people if they were more or less likely to patronize a movie theater this weekend. Thousands of people responded that they were less likely.

People living in Israel have long been accustomed to the idea that the store where they were shopping or the restaurant in which they were eating or even the road upon which they were traveling could erupt in violence at any minute.

When that happens, they mourn their dead, too, but they move on much faster than we do.

Here in America, I expect our national conversation to focus on Aurora for weeks — in spite of the Olympics and, perhaps, in spite of the conventions.

That will be a good thing if it leads to constructive conversations about what can be done to minimize the risk of such a thing happening again without trampling on constitutional rights.

But already today I have heard people, on both sides of the divide, arguing that the gunman had a political agenda.

Such talk can have no purpose except to contribute to what is already shaping up to be the dirtiest presidential campaign in my memory.

And that we do not need.

What we need is a discussion about how to reduce the possibility of violence intruding on our daily lives.

It probably cannot be eliminated.

But maybe it can be curtailed.

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