Forgive the Shooter

The Peace Treaty. Summer of Peace, Milwaukee. Photo by Callen Harty.

The Peace Treaty. Summer of Peace, Milwaukee. Photo by Callen Harty.

On Sunday evening in the small Wisconsin town of Menasha a man apparently distraught over a recent breakup and argument with his former fiancée took two guns with him on his bike and went for a ride. On the middle of the Trestle Trail Bridge over Little Lake Butte Des Morts, which literally translates as “hill of death,” he pulled out two guns and started shooting. By the time it was over four people were dead, including Jonathan Stoffel and his eleven year old daughter Olivia, 31-year old Adam Bentdahl, and the shooter, Sergio Daniel Valencia del Toro, who shot himself in the head. Erin Stoffel, Jonathan’s wife and Olivia’s mother, was shot three times and managed to get two of her other children to safety off of the bridge. She is recovering in the hospital.

When senseless violence like this occurs we often react with deep sorrow at the innocent lives that are shattered for no apparent reason. We also tend to focus on the acts of heroism and selflessness that often accompany such events because we want and need to take something positive out of such a negative moment. Many of the newspapers are calling Erin Stoffel a hero because of the way she saved her two small children, and they are calling her seven-year old son a hero for running to get help, and it appears they are right to do so.

What strikes me about this horrific event is the immediate reaction of those most closely affected by it. Here are three quotes that stand out:

“I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know the motive. I feel sorry for the shooter’s family.”–Jim Campbell, Erin Stoffel’s brother

“Our prayers go out to the other family who lost their father and daughter, and mother who is struggling for life along with the man who took his own life.”–statement from the Adam Bentdahl family

“Forgive the shooter.”–Jonathan Stoffel’s last words

There were other quotes from members of the Stoffels’ church in which it was noted that people were praying for all of the victims, including the shooter and his family.

In a world where many of us, if not most, have a hard time forgiving little slights that we might receive even from those closest to us the magnanimity of the victims’ families is all the more surprising and refreshing. All of the quotes I am reading from the families and friends most affected by this crime are about compassion, love, and forgiveness. For Jonathan Stoffel’s last words to be “Forgive the shooter” is breathtaking.

All too often the first reaction is the Old Testament “eye for an eye.” Too often we think first of retribution, how much we hate the person who could commit such an act. In this case the Stoffels, who are Christian, are living their faith. The Bentdahl family, too–whatever religion they are–speaks of praying for the shooter.

This kind of empathy is not limited to those who are Christian, but I admire those who can be that confident in their faith–whatever it might be–or their belief in our shared human experience, or whatever else it might be that allows them to see the humanity in a person whom others might perceive as evil for his actions. It is an example for all of us.

If these families can try to understand the motivations of the man who killed their loved ones, if they can find forgiveness for such a horrible act, if they can see that he, too, was a living and breathing man with his own life story filled with love and loss, joy and sorrow, then who are we to hold grudges for words that wounded us or actions that hurt us? Might we not look also at the motivations or the life circumstances of those who have hurt us in some way? Might we not look for that shared humanity and leave the petty hostility and negative energy behind us?

It is not an easy path, but the path that bridges one side with the other, even when fraught with fear or danger, is a path worth taking.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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2 Responses to Forgive the Shooter

  1. V.E.G. says:

    Adam Bentdahl is of Norwegian, German, and Swiss origin.

  2. marcea0k says:

    Your humanity is breathtaking as well

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