I am among the Coloradans who woke up Friday morning and faced the news of the shootings at the Aurora theater. We sat there stunned as we heard radio reports, or saw the first videos, or scanned the Internet accounts on DenverPost.com and other venues. We ached. We wondered why. We hurt. We wondered why some more. We worried about those still in critical condition. We prayed for families who lost someone in the shootings. We prayed for ... what? ... a hand of guidance so things like this won't happen again, knowing fully that they will.
Why does it take something like this to shake us awake? Why do we need multiple deaths to make us feel the heartbreak of loss?
I don't want to sound like some morose thinker, but I have wondered about these questions. I put some of those into a small part of my first novel. My protagonist, Sean McNabb, is dogged by those questions. He says we see evidence of death every day, from obituaries to stories about murders, suicides and fatal accidents. We read those stories but we don't feel a thing. He says we are numb to death unless it happens to someone close to us, and then we are ripped open to our core. I will now add one other thing that opens us to our core: something of the magnitude of the Aurora shootings, or 9/11, or the JFK assassination, etc. Those give us a wake-up call.
Death shows no favorites. It doesn't care about us. We don't care about it unless it finally makes us hurt deep inside.
Why? Maybe I'm remembering back to childhood days and putting a nice sheen on them, but I can't remember being so blase about death back then. Maybe it was because I grew up in a small town of about 10,000 -- The Dalles, Oregon -- and every name in the obituaries struck a chord because it involved someone I knew or at least knew of them. I had two school friends who were murdered, both of them after they moved away. I can remember two murders in my 18 years in The Dalles, one involving a transient in a downtown hotel and the other of a classmate in high school.
Now things are different. Incidents of tremendous violence hit the pages of my newspaper almost every day. There was a story of the shootings of two men on East Colfax in Denver about two months ago, and I didn't hear a murmur of shock or outrage about that. There are stories about the deaths of children who are shaken, stomped, burned or forced to go through unimaginable acts. We don't shed a tear. People react more to news about the Kardashians or Justin Bieber than they do about the deaths of innocents.
Why? Why? Why?
I have only theories. Here are some of them.
We Americans have been at war almost constantly since the 1940s. We had World War II, Korea, tensions along the Iron Curtain, the threat of nuclear war, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan. In between we have had smaller skirmishes such as Grenada or the former Yugoslavia. The most cynical part of me wonders whether the U.S. has done that because war is good business, and a good spur to economic prosperity. WWII helped lift the world out of the Great Depression. It also shook off the terror of a Nazi regime and blunted Japanese hopes for expansion, but the economic lessons were learned. So we throw more young men and women into battle, arm them with pride in nation, and mourn them by flying flags at half staff when they die. We don't feel the shock of an individual death unless we have a friend come home in a body bag.
We also have welcomed more violence in our homes and our lives. Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" was a jarring movie in the 1960s because of the violence of Norman Bates that was portrayed. That movie wouldn't even make the top 500 for graphic content today. The games we play on our TV screens add another layer. A small portion of those games involve sports, and the level of violence is rather small. But most video games involve heavy doses of death, and especially dealing death to "video foes." We see blood spurt out of bodies, and heads roll to the ground, and hearts ripped out of chests. And players "win" when they pile up that much carnage. All that "fictional" violence provides a thick layer of insulation toward the impact of death. We become numb.
We have changed as a society. Maybe the biggest putdown you could deliver to someone when I was young was that they were self-centered. We lived in a time when JFK could talk about "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" and have it resonate with the listeners. There was a cultural foundation, partly from religion and partly from the prevailing culture, that you should think about the plight of others first. We were the altruistic generation. We saw that hit multiple obstacles. I know that prevailing altruism has been lost. That self-centered thing? It is the basis of the new American culture. You worry about your rights. You worry about your business. You worry about your money. You worry only about your family and your closest friends. The rest of the world? Why worry about that? Other competing ideas? Forget them. That new society adds another layer of insulation against being compassionate humans.
We also have become a culture that accepts death as advantageous. Abortion is a subject that pulls me in two directions. I fully understand the fears of a woman who is pregnant but didn't intend for it to happen. Hell, I'll be honest here: I was one of those unplanned kids. Thank God my mom opted to have me even after she was warned that another pregnancy could permanently harm her or lead to her death. As a college student, I had a woman I loved get pregnant, and she opted to have an abortion. I was an enthusiastic champion of abortion at the time. I drove her to her appointment. When she came out of the office, she was silent. She stayed silent for a couple of days. She finally told me that she glanced over the edge of the table during the procedure, and she watched little red clots going up a tube. "That was my baby," she told me. Then it hit me. That was my baby, too. I went from being strongly pro-abortion to strongly anti-abortion in an instant. I haven't swerved from that change of heart. I dearly wish that child could sit down with me and enjoy a good movie, or maybe a good mocha, or show me his or her children -- my grandchildren -- and tell me about the wonders they have brought into his or her life. I can't reverse the irreversible.
Many people who back abortion so vehemently are good folks (and friends) who believe that every human being deserves respect, and that respect is there from birth. I take the value of life a little farther. Every child in the womb has every genetic marker and developing system of a human being. But those same backers of abortion who tout respect for all humans also have to accept the notion that if someone sees no need for respect for the child in the womb, then we are to meet that decision with a shrug of the shoulders. I'm not one for shrugging my shoulders. And that acceptance of death as a good thing adds another layer of insulation.
We are numb to death except for instances of family and friends, or great magnitude? I'm not surprised. I am sorry it takes a violent wake-up call to bring out the best of humanity. Maybe we just need to learn to shrug our shoulders less often, and push the acceptance of violence farther away from ourselves. After all, there is no such thing as a meaningless death. It matters to someone who is still living.