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Once again our nation faced the shock last Friday morning as we heard the news of the mass killing in Aurora, Colorado. A lone gunman who had no previous record of such violence walked into a crowded movie theater showing the new Batman film and opened fire. Twelve were left dead, and another fifty-eight wounded, making it among the worst mass killings in US history. President Obama called the shooting “horrific and tragic,” and asked the nation to come together “as one American family” as we keep the people of Aurora in our prayers. Presidential contender Mitt Romney said that he was “deeply saddened by the news of the senseless violence” that took the lives of so many and injured so many more. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained immediate national attention by calling on both presidential candidates to take a stand for gun control, but few in the nation expect that to happen anytime this election year.
One of the issues that underlies the horror and sadness of this most recent mass killing is the apparent lack of any significant ideological motivation or belief on the part of the accused killer. A former Ph. D. student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, he is described as socially isolated and perhaps even mentally ill. First reports state that he was acting out the role of a character known as the Joker in a previous Batman movie. Only this was not fantasy, it was reality, with a serious cache of weapons and an apartment that was left booby-trapped with explosives intended to kill. I wondered when I read Mitt Romney’s response if this is what he meant by “senseless violence.” Would it have been any less senseless if the killer had been motivated by political commitments such as those of the perpetrator of the mass killing last summer in the camp on the island of Utøya in Norway who was opposed to the immigration of Muslims into that nation? Was the killing of Travon Martin any less senseless because issues of race and fear might have been at play? Is there any violence in fact that is not senseless?
Violence in all forms is a symptom and an expression of a deeper brokenness in the soul. This as much the case in international affairs where war is an expression of broken relationships, as it is in civic life where violence represents a broken social covenant. The random violence we saw last week in Colorado is one expression of our brokenness as a people. Our inability as a society to respond in meaningful ways to stop such violence is another. We as a nation seem paralyzed when it comes to preventing such mass killings. We are also all in some sense implicated in the act by virtue of having allowed violence to become such an acceptable part of our wider culture. The isolated killer who acted out a fantasy could not have done so had it not been so easy to gain access to weapons of destruction. He also most likely would not have done so were such expressions of extreme violence not regarded as acceptable and even permissible within the wider culture, including in such expressions as video games and movies.
In the aftermath of the Colorado shooting, the media has picked up on stories of heroism, mostly of men who were reported to be protecting women they were with. The motif of sacrifice in the form of heroism, performed in the face of violence is an important way of finding some sense of meaning in the midst of the tragedy. Why can we not extend that practice of heroism in a preventive direction? Much as we have come to see preventive health care as an effective means of improving the overall well-being of our society, we must implement preventive strategies regarding violence, fostering a preventive mode of heroism in the form of teaching peace. Smoking was once a fairly acceptable practice in America. Over the past several decades, our society has made enormous strides in changing the cultural attitude toward smoking. One result has been a ban on smoking in many places in public. Ironically in some states you can now carry a concealed handgun into a restaurant, but not light up a cigarette. Why can’t we apply the same commitment to changing our attitudes toward violence that we applied to smoking? The Colorado tragedy can be a call to renew our efforts at teaching peace as part of the wider work of transforming society as we seek to bring it into greater conformity with the peaceable kin-dom of God.