As with other recent mass shootings in America – Columbine, Amish girls, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Gabby Giffords – Friday’s killings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., has evoked a desire to prevent another senseless tragedy.
People try to discern the motive of the killers, the means used, the lapses in security. And simply bringing justice, such as a long prison sentence, isn’t enough for many.
The ultimate goal is reliable protection.
The most popular demands for ensuring public safety from mass murder will likely be calls to better screen public places, tighten controls on guns, and demand less violence in media – assuming that action flicks like "Batman" movies actually provoke someone to open fire in the theater.
Such solutions can change society on a large scale for the better. Gun laws do often work. Young children do now watch less fictional violence. Law enforcement has become better at detecting potential killers.
But the best protection lies within each individual, not only in improving one’s physical safety but in the mental, emotional, and even spiritual ways we react to horrific events.
Killers often seek to evoke anger and fear in crowd shootings, perhaps out of a perverse need to deal with those same emotions within themselves. Simply reacting to such murders with anger and fear – while certainly understandable – may only reinforce such behavior.
The best antidotes are the opposites of those emotions. They include openness, empathy, a respect for individual rights, and even forgiveness. These undermine the emotions that lead to violence because they have a long-lasting reality, as seen in how human civilization has advanced to embrace them as the core foundations for governance and daily life.
An open trial for the alleged shooter in a public courtroom will include many of these defining qualities, such as a fair treatment of the facts and an adherence to the rule of law. Such traits may take a long time to have their effect on violence-prone people. But history shows that violence has declined as more societies adopt the humane ideals of justice.
Ultimately, those touched by the Colorado shooting – the survivors, the families of those killed, and even the public at large – may be asked if they can forgive the killer.
The best example of this difficult but bold act was seen in 2006 after a gunman killed five Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa. The Amish families of those killed immediately went to the home of the gunman’s widow and humbled themselves in Christian faith to forgive the killer and his family.
“Our forgiveness was not our words, it was what we did,” said the father of one slain girl. The families brought gifts of flowers, food – and hugs. Dozens of Amish attended the gunman’s funeral.
The Amish faith compels such action. It sees forgiveness as essential to reflecting God’s qualities of love for mankind and a necessary part of one’s own salvation.
For the nonreligious, modern psychology also embraces forgiveness as a part of personal healing and as an antidote to revenge and hatred in society. Such good qualities are seen as both necessary and natural.
That doesn’t mean killers shouldn’t be locked up, often for a long time. Society must be protected until the convicted comes to demonstrate those qualities that encourage nonviolence in individuals and thus society. They must find their own forgiveness for their acts, a process helped along if they feel forgiveness from others.
After the Aurora shootings, the media, law enforcement, and others should watch to see if Americans have better learned how best to react to such tragedies. All the better to prevent them.