I first heard about the shootings a week ago today as I was driving on the freeway en route to see the new Batman movie with a friend. The radio DJ made a reference to the “horrible act” and gave some basic information which left me with some questions and curiosity, but no alarm. At the theater, my friend filled me in, then we enjoyed the mindblowing phenomenon that is The Dark Knight Rises and went home.
I spent the next two days deeply angry. I thought about blogging then — the artist in me wants to be fully present with and free to express my most intense emotions while they’re happening — but the scientist in me wants to be prudent and gather more data before publishing any findings. The scientist won, although I did write an epically angry epic poem on Sunday.
You might assume I’m angry because of what the shooter did, killing 12 people and wounding 58. That’s not why. I became incensed because of what I saw and heard in the media, and how the event was instantly, and virally, constructed, packaged, delivered, and received. My déjà vu was intense and disturbing to me.
I have now lived long enough to see history repeat itself in my own lifetime. One of the many beauties of being young is thinking the world is new because it’s new to us. At a deep level, we often have a hard time believing older folks, because our incompletely developed neocortex thinks this time is different, I’m different than anyone before, this is all new, and history just started. In some ways this is true and at best delightfully refreshing and inspiring. At worst, it is insulting and myopic or even blind.
I was in my native Los Angeles in April of 1992 during the L.A. Riots/Uprising, which occurred after a jury acquitted the four White male police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Twenty years later, I saw a media story describing the riots as happening after King, who died this summer, was brutalized. Not true. The riots occurred when justice did not, and for an act that was caught on tape no less.
And also twenty years later, not blocks from where a White policeman pulled a gun on a group of us UCLA students protesting police brutality down the street from south central L.A. as it burned, an eminent African American surgeon is humiliated, minimized and silenced when faced with persistent discrimination and outrageously prejudiced treatment. The case of Dr. Christian Head is disturbing in itself, but that it is happening at my alma mater in the same city as the King beating and L.A. riots, is downright depressing.
Why? Why haven’t we learned?
On July 1st, citizens of my beloved Mexico went to the ballot box and the man who emerged triumphant is a man not a single one of my many mexicano friends from various walks of life and social classes voted for, nor any of their friends and family. Amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud and vote buying, Peña Nieto and his PRI party were declared winners, not 12 years after the PRI was jubilantly ousted after 70 years of de facto dictatorship.
Why haven’t we learned?
Now we have a mass shooting, 13 years after the Columbine massacre, which occurred when James Eagan Holmes was 9 years old. How is it that we allowed one more young man in our country to grow up in such a way that he saw murderous behavior as his only option — or as an option at all?
I don’t profess to know anything about Holmes’ heart or mind — the evidence points towards him being very smart, very deliberate in his planning of the attack, and an unhappy person — and in truth none of us may ever know. But where is the introspection and the conversation about how WE contributed, and how WE let this happen? Again?
I had high hopes eleven years ago when 9/11 happened. When I turned on the TV that morning and saw the destruction, one of my first thoughts was “maybe this will finally make a difference.” I hoped that more of us might be jolted awake, start to listen, start to reflect, and start to question our identity as an infallible hero nation. I hoped more of us would start to really examine what might make a person — or a people — do such a thing, and how we might see ourselves in those shoes, and then do our part to co-create a different kind of world.
Instead, we went shopping, we went to war, and we handed over our freedom and privacy to our government. We didn’t learn.
And now, once again, I see little introspection. Right after the Aurora shooting, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner separately denounced the event, and the actor, as “evil”. Obama seemed to take a more measured approach, calling for “prayer and reflection” not only for those directly affected by the shooting, but also “for all the victims of the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities on a daily basis.”
Amen Brother Barack. Preach!
But in doing more research, it seems Obama did, indeed, also use the e-word. Why is this a problem?
This is a problem because first of all, not everyone agrees on what evil is, where it comes from, or even if it exists at all. It’s simply strong, archetypal language meant to communicate that something or someone is really, really bad or wrong (in our eyes). Second, and more importantly, calling something or someone “evil” allows us to dissociate and distance ourselves from the person or event. They are evil … and we are not.
Such distancing is problematic and dangerous because it allows us to see the “evil” person as less than human, which justifies us doing violence back and treating him or her in other dehumanizing ways. It prevents us from having empathy, seeing connection, or realizing “there but for the grace of God go I”, for truly none of us is all good or all evil — we are not the archetypal characters in movies like The Dark Knight Rises.
Distancing and dissociating also serves to absolve us of any responsibility. Absolving ourselves of any responsibility for “evil” committed by other people is problematic and dangerous because it keeps us in victim mode. If we believe there are evil people who do evil things, period, then we can’t do anything about evil when it shows up — other than pre-emptively identifying and neutralizing the “evil people”, perhaps, which opens up a whole Pandora’s box of fascist possibilities.
I’m not talking about blaming the victim, but seeing the bigger picture, and the way we are all connected.
Ultimately, absolving ourselves of any responsibility prevents us from actually solving the problem. Peter Finocchiaro wrote in the Huffington Post that the “evil” position is “fatalistic, counterproductive”, and “intellectually lazy”. As Gawker’s Max Read put it: “James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora … free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country.” These events take place in a context. We all contribute to, and participate in, that context. We breathe it into being and keep it alive. But because we do, each of us therefore has the power to change it, by shaping the behaviors, values, conversations and decisions that create that context by making new choices about our own.
One of my favorite new quotes is from Boston College professor Bill Tolbert (as quoted by international organizer/facilitator Adam Kahane): “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” To me this is the core of so many matters — we need to figure out how we are part of the problem, and work on changing that, instead of distancing and dictating.
We contribute and we co-create, we are rarely innocent victims in The Big Picture. It’s ludicrous to describe something like the Aurora shootings, or 9/11 for that matter, as “senseless”, “”unthinkable”, “unimaginable” and “inexplicable” (some of the words used by politicians in the media). It’s precisely because they are thinkable and imaginable, that Holmes was able to do them, and why such incidents occur with some regularity — 14 times in the past 5 years, in fact (take a look at this analysis by the Pew Research Center on what has captured our attention to media). Just look at the scenes in any of The Dark Knight movies Holmes seems to have been reenacting as a case in point of the imaginability of such scenarios in real life. Dismissing them as senseless and inexplicable keeps us from taking responsibility, getting at the root cause, identifying the contributing factors, and making new decisions and taking new actions to reduce the possibility of them ever happening again.
But apparently we aren’t learning. Or perhaps some interest is served by us not learning?
This brings me to another reason I was angry (and am again, now that I write). Out of the many horrors we humans perpetrate on each other, or willfully ignore, why is THIS type of incident the one that gets all the attention?
Let me give you some examples of other horrors deserving of attention and outrage, off the top of my head:
- 46,800 people die each year in the U.S. from traffic accidents (by comparison, 18,300 from homicide)
- Sleepy (often overworked and stressed out) drivers kill 1,500 people and injure 40,000 in the U.S. each year
- Drunk drivers kill 10,300 people per year in the U.S.
- One of my favorites: 90,000 people are killed each year in hospitals either through preventable medical error or hospital-acquired infections. That’s the conservative estimate (I’ve seen numbers up to 178,000). This is the equivalent of 9/11 happening 32 times each year!
- 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006 in the drug wars there, largely fueled by U.S. Americans’ demand for drugs.
- 5-15 million children die of starvation each year on Earth, a planet fully capable of feeding everyone, but whose human inhabitants create tremendous disparities in the distribution of its resources (we’d need 5-6 more Earths to support every human living like a U.S. American, for instance).
Evil you say? I think some of these qualify. So why isn’t anyone clamoring to get rid of cars, or to redistribute wealth so not one more child starves? What about a real uprising about the immorality of our healthcare system, or widespread alarm about all the Mexicans we are murdering and torturing with our drug use (not to mention the damage we are doing to ourselves)?
And hey while we’re at it, what about a media firestorm, personal presidential visits, and demands for justice about Enron’s implosion, Bernie Madoff’s crimes, or the subprime loan fiasco? These kinds of “white collar crimes” have affected millions of people in ways their descendants will feel for generations, and defunded incredible, creative, world changing projects.
Or how about about some outrage over the multiple U.S. citizens whose lives and families have been destroyed by them being targeted by our government, imprisoned in a secret location, abused, and finally released with no charges filed? Or the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater? That’s more people than James Holmes took out, and far more sinister.
We still need to be introspective and take responsibility for these situations too, but at the risk of sounding heartless, any of these examples strike me as far more evil and destructive to humanity than 12 folks shot dead in a movie theater by one unhappy, damaged man. Sure, events like Aurora traumatize us, and a movie premier shooting might feel more personal and more visceral than the other examples, but I believe that in The Big Picture such things actually affect us less in the long run.
In doing my own introspection, I have been looking at my anger. I am learning from my reflection and research (the scientist again) that anger is a secondary emotion that can serve to camouflage or control another emotion, particularly fear. It can serve a coping, self-soothing, analgesic function which numbs pain and allows vulnerable people to survive destructive or dangerous situations. Anger can alert us to attack, which I already knew, but what I didn’t know is that it can also alert us to a “something is terribly wrong” situation.
Perhaps I’m angry because I believe there are many things terribly wrong in the world, and since I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to turn things around in time, I numb myself and maintain some sense of control by getting angry.
I still hope and believe we can solve the problem — if enough of us get crackin’ quickly enough. Interestingly, the “defeat the enemy” neural pathway and the “solve the problem” pathway are close together in the brain, but “defeat the enemy” actually neutralizes our problem solving ability. Maybe this is the subtle, and profound shift that we all need to focus on.
So why haven’t we learned yet? Maybe that is also a key to the shift. And is it that we haven’t learned … or are there interests being served in keeping us from learning? Are there interests served in the way events like Aurora are framed? And in the way our attention and outrage is focused?
Answering these questions might get us closer to a more important question: Will we learn? And if so, how do we make different choices and take different actions based on our learning?
Answers and hope continue to be my quest. What about you?
In Lak Ech,