Yesterday 12 people died and many more were injured when a gunman fired on a crowd at a movie theater.
The grisly moment raises fundamental questions about our society -- why are we the only Western nation with such easy access to guns? Did the Founding Fathers really think that anyone needs two Glock pistols, an AR-15 assault rifle with a high-capacity ammunition magazine and a shotgun in order to defend oneself? Have we allowed our mental health infrastructure to erode to the point that people are not getting the care they need?
These were debated throughout the day yesterday, yes, but so was another question that thousands apparently found equally important: Why did those parents take their little kids to a violent midnight movie?
As news reports included the fact that there were at least two infants and several young children in the theater, many of you became angry:
"What sort of parent lets 12-year-olds go to a movie that lets out at 2:30 AM in the morning?" JB Dean asked in the comments to my essay here in Parentry yesterday.
"My question is why did somebody think it would be a good idea to bring their THREE MONTH OLD infant to a midnight showing of batman?" gain22 echoed.
From Metropolan: "Can someone tell me what a 3-year old and a 6-year old are doing at a Batman movie? We've all lost our moorings."
US 395: "Sorry Lisa, my son would not be at a movie at midnight. We're old fashioned. our son is home and in bed."
Massana was one of many to suggest that anyone whose children weren't home in bed Thursday night deserves whatever they got: "My kids are all grown now, some have children of their own, but my kids would NEVER have been at a midnight movie premiere of a violent film. It only stands to reason that an event of that nature would attract what we refer to as nut cases. Not that my heart doesn't go out to his mother but come on people. A movie is so important that you let your kid stay out until 4am."
Orcinous blamed the victims, too, writing: "No child of mine would be at the movies after midnight. I went to a few movies that I had to wait hours in line to see them. No more. If I want to see a movie I'll go after a couple of weeks when the crowds die down and I do not have to wait to buy a ticket or wait to get my seat, ridiculus! America needs to get out of their need for instant gratification. A little patience and reflection and the nut that shot those people might have changed his mind."
GingerMarie apologized briefly before criticizing: "I dont want to offend anyone, but no not everybody would have their children attend a Batman movie at midnite on a Thursday...this is a problem! whatever happened to taking the kids to a disney flick at a decent hour???
CB55 begged pardon too: I really, really try not to be judgemental. But today, I'm giving in to that impulse. Who would bring a 3 month old to a 12:30 am movie? Or a nine year old? Especially a movie that has been touted as being gratuitously violent. What kinds of decisions are these parents making?"
Yes, that was judgmental, CB55. And scrolling through the comments I was struck by all that judgment. What is it that led so many people to dwell on a question of parenting when so many more sweeping questions loomed?
It's almost impossible to write about how we shouldn't be debating bedtimes in the face of a mass killing without devolving into exactly the debate I am lamenting, so let me try and get this part out of the way first:
I myself have brought a months old infant to a movie (though not at midnight) because I knew he would sleep. I only did it once, because I found it stressful.
I would not have brought a 6-year-old to see Batman at midnight or otherwise, but I did take a fourth-grader to see the "Lord of the Rings." He was fine. His friend, the same age, was terrified and we all left.
My own 18-year-old son was at a midnight showing in our neighborhood, and when he was much younger I took him and his brother more than once to the midnight release of Harry Potter books as special treats. I also let them stay up until midnight when they were very young to ring in New Year's Eve.
Most of the comments were directed at one parent in particular -- 25-year-old Jamie Rohrs, who lost hold of his 4-month-old son Ethan, and lost sight of his fiancee, Patricia Legarreta and her 4-year-old daughter, Azariah in the melee following the shooting.
He spoke to the press earlier today, to say the whole family was safe (though Legarreta is still suffering the effects of being shot in the leg) and to explain why they were there in the first place.
Their answer won't satisfy their critics, but here it is: They had recently moved to town and apparently knew few people who could babysit; Rohrs had just gotten over being sick, and this sounded like a chance to go out for the first time in awhile; they weren't exactly sure it was the right thing to do, and, as the Denver Post reports, "Legarreta scanned the theater, looking for the faces of other young children, hoping they were not alone in bringing theirs to a midnight movie, mindful that some people might think them 'horrible parents.' A few minutes before the lights went down, she nudged Rohrs: 'Look', she said, 'another infant. A 3-month-old in a carseat.' "
Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, back to the larger question. Why do so many care? Or, more specifically, why do so many care so much that this is what they focus on before the bodies of the victims are even buried? And why do they feel so strongly that they actually suggest those who died might have brought this on themselves for giving in to a lax society that allows things like children in a PG-13 movie in the first place?
Heather Spohr started noticing this tendency on Twitter in the first hours after the shooting. On her blog, More Spohr, on Babble, she reposted many critical tweets and lashed out at those who wrote them:
Look. By putting this out into the world, you are basically implying that it's the fault of the parents that their children were injured. The parents of the three-month-old were probably so happy to be out of the house. The parents of the six-year-old were probably doing something special for their child, who didn't have school today because it's the summer. I'm sure ALL the parents were prepared for the only realistic consequence of taking a kid to a midnight movie: next-day crankiness. No one thinks, "I shouldn't take my kid to this movie because they might get shot."
I'm going to say this as "loudly" as I possibly can: Stop shaming the victims. You don't think a child or baby should go to a midnight showing of a comic book movie? Don't take your child to the midnight showing of a comic book movie. It's that simple. But don't you DARE heap your judgement onto these parents suffering the kind of horror and loss few people can comprehend.
Later in the day, Kristen Howerton got a step more philosophical, remarking on how often we give in to what she calls "the impulse to assign blame in the midst of tragedy." On her Babble blog "Roadside Assistance" she notes this is hardly the only time we have turned a tragedy into a question, direct or tangential, about parenting:
It reminded me of the Trayvon Martin case, and how many people suggested that perhaps Trayvon could have been spared had he not been dressed like a "thug". It reminded me of the time that a well-known blogger discovered that her son had drowned in their family pool, and how quickly people jumped in to make assumptions about her negligent supervision (which was not the case). It also reminded me of my friend Katie, who lost her teenage son to a tragic drug overdose. Katie is a well-known blogger and there is a website that seems to make a sport of speculating on Katie's son and their relationship. It's disgusting
Why do we do this? To pretend we are safe. The first thing we do in the face of the uncontrollable and random is figure out why it could never happen to us. If WE would never allow our child out of the house in a hoodie, then a stranger would never shoot them in "self-defense." If WE would never take our eyes off our children near a pool, or miss the "obvious" warning signs that our child was experimenting with drugs, then they would not drown in the family pool or of an overdose. And if OUR children would never go to a midnight showing of Batman, then they won't die in a fusillade of bullets.
We know this is a fantasy. But it is instinct, not rationality. As Howerton writes:
I will admit here that I'm not immune to this impulse. When something horrific happens to another child, I find myself quickly cataloging the details, trying to find something that would make the tragedy exceptional . . . some slip-up that the grieving parent made along the way that would comfort me from a concern that it could happen to me. I've done it when I've heard about infant death . . . I've scrambled to figure out if the parent was doing something wrong. Was there some rule they failed to follow that would assuage my anxiety about my own child's mortality? What a disgusting response, but I've done it. I found myself doing this as I watched the Sandusky trial as well - quickly casting aspersions on the judgement of the parents of the victims for their lack of discernment. I'm not proud of this, but it was my way of rationalizing that with enough supervision, my kids could not be susceptible to that kind of abuse.
But there is a danger to our retreat to the land of finger-pointing and make-believe. It means we aren't taking this heinous act personally -- which we should -- and demanding laws that at least reduce the risk of it happening again and happening to any one of us -- which we must. And it causes pain where what is needed right now is compassion.
In the comments to Spohr's post, a reader named Laura wrote: "I am going to give those questioning the little ones being at the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn't mean to shame the victims and that they are just trying to make themselves feel better/ less vulnerable... But, intentional or not, you are right. They are making the worst day of these parents' lives even more terrible (if that's possible) and the judgement and questioning of other people's parenting choices needs to stop."
How to stop? Howerton has a suggestion we should all embrace for the next foreseeable while: "For me, today, I'm going to choose another impulse: empathy. My heart goes out to the families who have lost lives in the horrible shooting. Let's focus our energy there."
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin