Another crazed, furious loner shocks the world. This time I'm a little too close to the edge of the chaos.
I gape at the TV in disbelief: I'm supposed to fly out of Los Angeles Airport -- Terminal 3, no less -- that afternoon, but all I see is footage of scrambling police and snarled traffic. If I'd booked an earlier flight, I could have been sitting there when the 23-year-old gunman shot the TSA agent at the foot of the escalator, then wandered through the gate area with his rifle and his grievances.
There are worse things in life than having to reschedule a flight. I postponed my return to Chicago for two days. Now that I'm back, I'm still thinking about last week's killer-rampage spectacle, which culminated in the wounding and arrest of the suspect, Paul Ciancia. Afterward came the media's smattering of sound-bite psychology.
"There were few people that kept to themselves, and he was definitely one of them," a high school classmate told ABC News.
Good enough. As the headline of the story proclaimed: He was a loner. This is the extent of our official understanding. Loner is the new race card, you could almost say -- the catch-all bin that separates bad-guys-with-high-powered-rifles from the rest of us. The important thing is their differentness. Even though mass murder has been on a wild upswing since the 1960s, having increased, by some estimates, as much as fourteenfold since then (well exceeding the rise in population), the people who do these things are different from us. They're loners. That's what matters, according to the superficial media.
We're long past the point when such know-nothingism is tolerable. Unfortunately, it remains the foundation of our criminal justice system, which is all about separating the bad guys and losers -- the "monsters" -- from normal, law-abiding, media-consuming citizens. Socio-political attitudes with labels such as "tough on crime" and "zero tolerance" have not only backfired on us, they've intensified our ignorance. The truth is that, no matter how shocking or heinous a given crime, the perpetrator is one of us, and intelligent social policy cannot begin until we acknowledge this.
A few years ago, for instance, I heard Azim Khamisa, a businessman whose college-age son was murdered by a 14-year-old boy during a robbery, describe the long, excruciating journey he was forced to embark on. As he investigated the phenomenon of gang culture, he explained, he came to understand that there were "victims at both ends of the gun." Eventually he met with the killer, who had been tried as an adult and sentenced to a long prison term.
"I didn't see the murderer in him," Khamisa said. "I saw another soul."
This begins to get at it. I wrote that Khamisa saw, at the pit of his grief, that something positive could come from this unspeakable tragedy -- if he forgave the child who killed his son. Eventually he launched a foundation in his son's name and began a new life, devoted to bringing awareness to young people that violence is a dead-end street.
It's time to step into a new relationship with our broken world. Our troubles aren't caused by socially or mentally defective loners. They're the result of unaddressed reality.
"Our most widespread and tragic mistake has been to imagine the suicidal mass murderer as someone who lives outside of society, the ultimate and perverted individualist," Peter Alexander Meyers wrote for Huffington Post last December, after the Sandy Hook tragedy. "For, no matter how isolated we make him out to be, even the loneliest loner is a social type. Adam Lanza was not an alien, not a monster, nor a machine. He was one of us. We share with him a social reality that is the common spring of both good and evil."
The reality we have avoided addressing, in a system that is interested almost exclusively in punishment and refuses to acknowledge the need for and possibility of healing, has both social and deeply personal components.
The primary social flaw that makes mass murder not only possible but inevitable is our war-oriented economic and political systems. Waging war, whether with foot soldiers, drones or nuclear weapons, means sacrificing human life for strategic and ideological reasons. "We divide and slice the human race," I wrote in the wake of Sandy Hook. "Some people become the enemy, not in a personal but merely an abstract sense -- 'them' -- and we lavish a staggering amount of our wealth and creativity on devising ways to kill them. When we call it war, it's as familiar and wholesome as apple pie. When we call it mass murder, it's not so nice."
The societal practice of inventing enemies and turning people into expendable symbols makes "unthinkable" behavior far too thinkable. At the same time, we offer people few or no outlets for dealing with deep, personal trauma. Sexual and other forms of childhood abuse are widespread, creating a legacy of violence that is passed from generation to generation, almost entirely in secret. A person's volatile, inner hell often manifests as crime, including the kind that sometimes creates shocking headlines.
And it keeps getting closer.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at email@example.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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