When I woke up this morning to the news of a shooter opening fire in a movie theater crowded with fans, young and old, my heart sank. My immediate thought, besides an overarching sadness for the victims and witnesses, was a profound sorrow for my country, for a nation that is immersed so deeply in violence that only the gravest of massacres are noteworthy. This kind of horrible event is an all too common occurrence.
I thought of all the people I know who like the Batman movies and who might have gone to a midnight showing of the film, including several friends who live in Denver and its suburbs. I thought of the very young children who were there, the teenagers just coming to adulthood there with friends for a fun night at the movie theater, the families who went there together for entertainment, but left with physical injuries and emotional wounds.
Throughout the day my heart ached and my thoughts came back to the event. There was a terrible irony in the fact that moviegoers thought at first that the shooting was a stunt or that the sounds of gunfire were from the film itself. I thought of the glorification of violence in movies and video games, the ease with which people can get guns in this country, and the relentless drumbeat of war that leaves us accustomed to the idea of large numbers of innocents dying for no real reason.
The one thing that I kept coming back to, though, besides the horror of the event for those who were there, was the cultural horror of living in a country that is so inured to violence that the media put this into context by comparing it to a litany of similar acts over the years: “The worst killing spree since Fort Hood,” “the most people killed in Colorado at one time since Columbine”, “the most bystanders injured since . . . “, and on and on. The UK Guardian featured an article today listing “a history of mass shootings in the US since Columbine.” There were so many listed it was stunning, and most of them had already dropped from my consciousness. The fact that we have this history of violence to draw upon at a time like this–from Columbine to the D. C. sniper to Virginia Tech, and more–is a sad indictment of where we are as a nation. The fact that there are so many that we can completely forget them is a further indictment of the violent nature of the country in which we live.
If we can so easily forget these horrendous killing sprees where multiple victims died by gunshot how easy is it to casually ignore the thousands of other murders that happen every year in this country? What kind of world do we live in where the death of our fellow citizens has so little impact? This doesn’t even take into account the armed robberies, muggings, rapes, beatings, physical and sexual abuse cases, and more. It doesn’t just happen to strangers in other faraway places. I myself have known three murder victims. I live in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, often noted as one of the nicest places to live in America, and yet there are several murders here every year. There were six in 2011.
A friend of mine who is a minister wrote to me this morning and said, “We MUST begin to know our neighbors again.” Can it be that simple? Maybe there is more to it than that, but I truly think he is on to something here. We don’t know each other any more. We congregate in large cities where we live in small boxes called apartments encased in large boxes called apartment buildings and we can live like that for years without ever knowing the name of the person next door. We don’t communicate any more. We live next door, but we are not neighbors. We ride on busses with dozens of strangers who don’t talk to each other, walk on streets where nobody dares to acknowledge anyone else. We go to work and hide ourselves in cubicles where we don’t interact in any kind of real human way for eight hours a day. We live in front of television, computer, and yes, movie screens, and lose ourselves in those stories, but don’t know the stories of the people in our own lives. And we are separated from nature, where we can refresh our spirits and find our connections with the earth and the universe and with each other.
We truly do need to reach out to each other. We need to make connections with the people around us, not just in times of tragedy, but in a daily kind of way. We need to slow down, quit rushing from one commitment to another and stressing ourselves out over ultimately meaningless minutiae. We need to take the time to know ourselves and each other.
Will this put an end to murder or to other violent acts? No, it will not, but it may help. A man shown kindness by others and who has others with whom he can talk seems to me far less likely to be an angry man with pent-up emotions that might come out in inappropriate ways. At the very least, those practicing kindness, friendliness, and love daily will themselves be happier while they are alive. I think my friend is right. I know he is right. Even in our largest cities we must become small towns again. We must make knowing our neighbors a common occurrence.