Saturday, July 21, 2012

On the Aurora Movie Massacre and What We Can Do

The first thing I heard about when I awoke on Friday morning was the horrific tragedy that had taken place just hours before at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

I instantly wanted to put my head back under the covers and hope that this was just something I had misheard, but sadly there was nothing fictional about this nightmare.

During a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a heavily armed man--subsequently identified as James Holmes--entered the theater and, as gunfire took place on screen, he began shooting helpless victims. 12 people died and 58 were reported injured, some of whom remain in critical condition.

Along with being horrified and shocked by this incident--which I guess somehow speaks to the fact that such episodes are still relatively rare--I couldn't help but feel a certain degree of helplessness.

Not that there's ever a good time, place or way for anyone to die, but it feels so incongruous that so many people could lose their lives, be grievously injured or forever be traumatized simply because they chose to attend a movie in suburban Denver.

With other mass killings and/or acts of terrorism--I'm not so sure of the distinction nor the importance of it--having taken place in high schools, colleges, shopping malls, business offices, post offices, clothing stores, restaurants, Army bases, children's camps, airplanes and other seemingly innocuous locations, we have once again been brutally reminded that the assumption of safety is but a hope we like to believe.

Especially as the alleged perpetrator in this instance--based on information yet reported--was seemingly a quiet, intelligent 23-year-old who had been enrolled (until recently) in a doctorate program at the  University of Colorado School of Medicine. That Holmes doesn't seemingly have known--or publicly shared--connections to hate groups or terror cells, nor was obviously shunned by society, kicked out of school (he supposedly withdrew voluntarily) or thought to be specifically targeting anyone (such as an ex-girlfriend), makes the randomness of his act all the more chilling.

People can conceivably think, "I'm not going to such and such area at such and such time because there has been an unfortunate amount of gang violence," but how would anyone ever surmise "I'm not going to a crowded midnight movie because a Ph.D. candidate might come in and blast away with four guns?"

In addition to providing whatever solace is possible to the families of the victims, the focus for many going forward will be in understanding why Holmes did what he did and how such a horrific act may be prevented from happening again.
This is obviously important for law enforcement officials, but the likely reality is that such depraved acts can't entirely be prevented.
With due respect and great appreciation & admiration to everyone who dedicates themselves to trying to ensure the public safety, I have long felt--perhaps since 9/11 or possibly dating back to Columbine and Oklahoma City--that "security measures" largely mean keeping one's fingers crossed and hoping nothing bad happens.

For while I am certain--and certainly grateful--that the police, FBI, CIA, TSA, Bureau of Homeland Security and other bodies have thwarted and deterred numerous acts of destruction that the public has never heard about, it also seems that security procedures often focus--at least at face value--on stopping incidents of the type that have already happened.

But anyone evil enough to want to kill other human beings, especially in mass numbers, is likely to devote undue time and energy to figuring out how to beat the system that's in place. Heck, if they watch a couple episodes of Burn Notice, they'd likely discover a few deadly schemes that don't involve metal devices and seem quite plausible to me.

This article on by Larry Barton, an FBI threat management expert, poses the daunting question about if people will ever feel safe in crowds again. He gives a few tips about heightened awareness, but doesn't say much to disavow the possibility that something terrible could, fairly easily, happen in an arena, ballpark, festival, etc.

As someone who goes to many highly-populated events this scares me. But not enough to not go, and not enough to want airport-style security screening to be instituted at stadiums and theaters.

I am very tolerant of any inconvenience I may endure at the airport, including long lines and body scans. If it's going to keep us all safe, arriving a few minutes earlier is a fair price to pay (and personally, I'd be in favor of banning all carry-on luggage bigger than a purse or laptop case).

Within reason, I'd be open to sensible security measures that experts might deem prudent elsewhere. No bags or backpacks and having to endure pat downs and metal detectors (more so at concerts/sports events than at movies) aren't such awful inconveniences if they deter the nutjobs.

Though I understand it adds to some patrons' fun, steps now taken by theaters to ban masks, costumes and fake weapons also seem sensible, even if unlikely to really stop "the bad guys."

But if I have to undergo a full-body cavity search just to see a movie, well, I think I'll read the book instead. But then, how much security protection is there in the library? Seems there's always somewhere I could potentially be at risk. Yet I can live with that (at least I hope I can).

While I want to be as safe as the next person--and do support discussions about gun control, mental health services, a more equitable society and other topics that may address both root causes and acute motives of mass killings--at a certain point I think you might have to say that along with the great upsides of living in a free society are the downsides that come with such freedoms. Such as potentially being slaughtered in a supermarket. While I obviously don't want this to happen to anyone, I also wouldn't want to wait in a 30-minute security queue just to buy some strawberries.

As I thought about the Aurora tragedy Friday morning, I wondered if perhaps Warner Bros. would or should postpone the movie's opening until next weekend, or that moviegoers might abstain from going out of respect for the dead, a sense of sorrow or even trepidation about copycat acts.

But I quickly decided the best thing we could do is not to alter the course of our lives due to the still relatively slight chance of being killed by a deranged gunman, terrorist act or even just a freak accident, like a concert stage collapsing.

Sadly, due to terrible people or tragic accidents, some of us won't get to live full lives. But if we compromise our sense of freedom and stifle our pursuit of happiness, none of us will.

As trite as it may sound, especially to anyone who has lost a loved one or friend to senseless violence, the only real way to fight back against bad things is to do as many good things as you can.

Treat others, and yourself, well. Tell people you love that you do. Enjoy each day as best you can. Read more books, watch more sunsets or spend more time doing the things that make you happy.

Live, Love, Seek, Find, and hope for the best.

Or, as Walter Payton supposedly said toward the end of his life from illness (I don't think he originated the quote):

"Never take life for granted, because tomorrow isn't promised to anyone."

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