Reflections From Colorado

(Photo credit: Denver Post)

(Originally aired on on August 2, 2012)

It’s Sunday morning. It’s been more than two days since 24-year-old James Holmes opened fire in a Colorado movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 58 more in one of the most deadly public shootings in recent history.

As I sit in my fuzzy pink robe and peruse today’s headlines on the various cable news networks, my mood is much like many other Coloradans’ right now – somber. Reflective. And just a little bit sad. Not because I was directly impacted by the shooting Friday – thankfully, to my knowledge, nobody I loved was hurt or killed in the incident. But sad because this isn’t the first time we have seen this sort of frightening outburst here in Colorado, and it likely won’t be the last.

Today, President Obama is making a stop in Colorado to “visit” with victims and families of the shooting. What a guy. Sure, it’s a step up from President Bush flying over the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But it isn’t much. And aside from providing himself with campaign-friendly photo-ops, it does nothing to bring retribution to the innocent lives impacted by Friday’s senseless violence. Early Friday morning, after four or five good “snoozes” on my alarm clock, my boyfriend called to me from the living room as he ate his toast and drank his much-too-grainy black coffee, “Oh my god! There was a mass shooting in Aurora last night!” I wasn’t surprised. “Of course there was,” I thought, as I rolled over and hit snooze just one more time on the alarm.

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the details of the shooting – gun violence in Colorado spiked at the beginning of the summer, including the shooting death of an off-duty police officer at a beloved community jazz event in City Park. Not to mention half the state was burning down for the month of June and part of July. Colorado has been in the headlines a lot lately. I’ve come to expect disaster here – both natural and man-made.

I’ve lived in Colorado all my life. I was finishing up eighth grade when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold strode into Columbine High School – located a mere 4 miles from the house I grew up in – and slaughtered 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves in one of the most infamous acts of violence in our nation’s history. Sure, there have been others like it since. But Columbine High School was a poignant reminder that we as a society are not safe in seemingly innocent, public places, like classrooms. Or post offices. Or movie theaters.

I’m entirely cognizant of the fact that 12 American lives lost in a movie theater in a Colorado suburb is merely a whisper against the white noise of global conflict and violence. It’s hard to justify the media frenzy over 12 lives lost in an American movie theater, when each day thousands of people lose their lives to infectious disease, poverty, and war. A loss of a human life anywhere is tragic, and everyone, everywhere deserves the basic feeling of safety. Cold, calculated acts of violence by seemingly normal members of society in the developed world are cerebrally disturbing. We are all left wondering why, in a place where we have government and infrastructure devoted to keeping us safe, are we not?

We all know what’s next. Friday morning, we could almost smell the Facebook photo posts of “memorial ribbons” superimposed onto to Batman’s silhouette. We are desensitized to this kind of violence; it’s all so predictable at this point – a message from the President, a candlelight vigil, maybe even colored ribbons to pin on our shirts, as an externalization of our internal grief and pain. We have been here before. Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech; they all share similarities, but there is a distinct difference as time goes on, and new acts of violence occur – the shock, anger, and chaos once imposed by events like this has practically disappeared. Law enforcement officials have plans in place to respond during crises like this, and their responses during interviews shortly after the violence subsides are achingly flat, to the point they almost seem scripted. We have lost our innocence in a sense, and have almost come to expect incidents like this.

On Friday, both presidential candidates interrupted campaigning to make statements in response to the horror in Aurora. Even so, neither has directly addressed the issue of gun control while on the campaign trail. Sure, Mitt has promised to uphold the second amendment, and reinforced unsubstantiated fears that Obama is somehow pro-gun-control. If you ask Mitt or the NRA, Obama himself will be knocking on your door any day to confiscate your weapons (best not to register them for this reason!).  But when you look at the facts, Obama has largely avoided anything to do with the debate over gun control. Sure, his Supreme Court justice nominations were not exactly gun-friendly, and he even wrote a strategic op-ed after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot in Tuscon, Arizona last year. Gun-control advocates criticize Obama for failing to fight for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

But even if he had, would it have made a difference in that Aurora movie theater early Friday morning?

It’s hard to say. Holmes is obviously a deeply disturbed individual, and likely would have come into the possession of weapons and ammunition despite any legal barriers he might have encountered. He was, like other gunmen we have seen in recent past, determined to carry out his master plan of destruction and devastation through the slaughter of innocent people. And we know that not only lackadaisical gun control policies are to blame for unfit individuals like Holmes flying under the radar as they stockpile alarming numbers of weapons, ammunition, and bulletproof vests. Under-funded community mental health centers are simply ill-equipped to deal with the needs of individuals experiencing mental illness. Instead of receiving the help that he needed, Holmes continued to go unnoticed, as he orchestrated one of the deadliest shootings to date.

The questions will continue to swirl around, and details will continue to emerge about Holmes. The community will mourn the loss of life, and we will move on. One thing that will not resolve, however, is the feeling of powerlessness we all have to prevent this kind of violence from occurring again. If I were one of the “lucky” few to shake President Obama’s hand this morning, I would ask him directly, “Mr. President, what do you plan on doing to keep this from happening again?” He’d likely continue to avoid the question, especially with the cameras rolling. It’s a hot topic, and Obama has a tough fight in the months ahead. He can’t afford to say the wrong thing. But we, as a society, can’t afford to ignore the question much longer.


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