We are uncomfortable in confronting randomness in our lives. Worse, we deceive ourselves about who we are as a people. When something terrible happens we search for "explanations" in the same way that primitive people did when puzzled by the complexity of the universe. Why does one person kill another, or 12 others? The fact that murder has always been a routine phenomenon of human existence does not dispel the horror that it implies, or our desire to reassure ourselves that we are not likely to die this way if only we can understand the "motive" for such acts.
We can better grasp the idea of murder in certain contexts. We can accept that jealousy or greed or hatred drives some people to kill. Or when the killing takes place on the streets of the inner city and is perpetrated by those with long criminal records. What can be said of an alleged mass murder by a middle-class graduate student?
The events in Aurora, Colorado are not unique. We don't have to look very far to find plenty of examples of alienated loners who finally become so angry at their inability to get what they want from other human beings that they buy a gun (or several guns) and start killing those who they see as having or being what they cannot. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Ft. Hood come to mind, but they are only the most prominent among mass shootings that occur with numbing regularity in this country. Mass murder is not a uniquely American event (witness last year's killings in Norway) but this nation's long love affair with guns has allowed us to perfect it.
The fact is that we live in a murderous society. These killings are simply the worst examples. The United States has the highest homicide rate of any advanced democracy, nearly four times that of France and the United Kingdom. Still, guns are freely available and we, almost alone among the nations of the world, cling to the death penalty. Though its use is declining, since 1976 more than a thousand people have been executed. We are a society that believes in punishment. We incarcerate a larger percentage of our citizens than any nation in the world. For the last 70 years we have been in a state of continual war.
We will be disappointed in our search for a moral to this awful story, an answer to the pointless question of "Why?" that will allow us "to make sure this does not happen again." It will happen again. All manner of hatred is abroad in the land. Listen to the current political dialogue. All any of us can do in our own lives is to maintain respect and tolerance for those who disagree with us. The madmen and fanatics who populate the outer fringes of our world retain their random ability to hurt and horrify us.
We are all hanging by a thread. Any of us could be a victim of inexplicable violence perpetrated by someone with a festering grievance who loves death more than life. We know that the current outpouring of shock and grief and concern for the victims is a temporary phenomenon. They will be soon forgotten as we move on to contemplate other horrors.
We have not yet figured out how to construct a peaceful society or to disarm the angry and alienated among us. Until we do, some of them will periodically kill as many of us as they can. The remarkable thing is not that these atrocities routinely occur but how little we appear to learn from them.