07/29/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2012

I Want to Believe This World Is Not Evil

Trying To Make Sense Out of the Madness of a Massacre

Last Saturday I received an email from a senior at a college in my neighborhood here in Brooklyn. He was asking me to put the tragedy that took place in Colorado into perspective for him. His email read:

John, I don't know if you've been reading about this new shooting for the last day or so, but I am looking for some perspective. Obviously we don't know much about James Holmes yet, but he didn't seem like Cho and the Columbine shooters. But why does this keep happening? He seemed like a successful, intelligent guy. He has a neuroscience degree and was a PhD candidate for Christ's sake. I truly want to believe this world is not evil. -Cody

Thirteen years ago, I found myself poring through news coverage of an eerily similar senseless act of violence, the Columbine Massacre. It was the Summer of '99 and I was 21-years-old, just like Cody is today. Back then I found myself asking the same question: Why? Why did two white teenagers from an affluent Denver suburb decide to plot a massacre at their high-school? And more importantly, what did this tell us about the state of our society? And even more importantly, what can we do to keep it from happening again?

In an attempt to make sense of Columbine, I decided to write a fictional play about a teenager, Herman Howards. Herman is a brilliant 16-year-old who feels completely alone. One day he snaps, goes into his school and kills as many of his peers and teachers as he can, before he is arrested. Herman records the killings on his video camera and emails a clip from the massacre to his media idol, Lax Morales, just before he is apprehended. The video clip is accompanied by a short note from the teenager: "I want to tell my story on your show." The journalist travels across the country, to a penitentiary in the middle of America, and interviews Herman over the course of three days, as he waits to be electrocuted, live, on national television. Lax hopes to get an answer from Herman to the question on everyone's mind: What compelled you to do this horrible thing?

Cody's email made me think to pull out the original journal I kept when I was first writing Hello Herman, and while I can't help but laugh at the naive youthful voice I owned back then, I was struck by the ways the fictional reality I had created to tell this story -- a sort of hyper-real version of the world we lived in during the last days of the 20th century -- had become terrifyingly similar to what we find ourselves living through all these years later.

The following excerpt starts off as notes, but quickly becomes a monologue delivered by the determined journalist, Lax Morales. I present it below exactly as I wrote it back then, when I was a 21-year-old who had his own theories as to why this keeps happening in our country:

The Interviewer feels split on the issue, on the one hand he feels strongly that the other kids are to blame, as well, for being so damned mean to each other and not even realizing it. But then you have to take it to the level that we are the ones who created this world society in which video games for kids and synthesized training programs for Marines are not all that different.

These kids are taught from society that life is not precious, and their parents are too busy to tell them that it is! So even the ones who don't go on to become High-school-murderers-thinking-they're-the-Terminator-and-missing-the-point-of-the-movie, still are ruthlessly mean to each other, and simply bullies to the people outside of their clique.

Life has always been like this. It's just that now, these kids in the height of their hormonal teens, when they need to be watched and nurtured, guided, but instead are being treated as if they didn't exist; these kids have access to technology that enables them to be dangerous on a grand scale, and we all know that when you're dangerous, you do exist to other people, don't we. Perhaps these kids think it's the only way left to prove they still do exist.

We have entered an age where the old Eastern proverb: "Question Reality" has become a household American phrase, introduced into our children's heads by mass-pop-media, McDonald's Media I like to call it. These kids don't know what's real and what isn't. They play video games, or are on the computer for about as much time as they're not. How could we expect them not be confused? Their mother works all day, their father works all day, when they do get home they're too damn tired to be much of an influence on the kid. Besides, they have their own On-Line business to take care of when they're home, and hey, why not a cyber chat? It's almost the same as a real one.

This is why kids don't see anything wrong with blowing each others heads off. They do it in Virtual Reality, it's probably more fun in Real Reality. I mean like, what is Real Reality anyway?

Kids... stop playing so many video games and go outside, climb a mountain, fall in love. Go to the desert and find out how small you are, stare at an ant hill for an hour and realize how big you are. There's a whole world out there, and it's a hell of a lot cooler than playing video games like Doom; it's more fun.

I'm sorry that no one told you this before, or if they did, then I'm sorry you didn't hear it.

I think I was the last generation that didn't have the idea pawned onto them from the age of two that Virtual Reality is as fun the real world. You have to trust me, it's not.

The core of the problem is that it isn't just the teenagers who are being numbed, it's all of us. It's all of us. Parents are numb to their kids and so kids are numb to their parents. If we stay on this track, eventually we'll all be zombies plugged into the internet all the time, having no real contact with real people, cause we won't need to. By that time, we'll have forgotten how to do it. People skills will be a useless business trait, computer skills will be all. At that point, blowing off the heads of several people wouldn't be that different than blowing off the heads of several cyber punks. Both are no longer really living.

But we're not there yet. We're at the cross roads. Which way we go, will decide it all.

So I don't blame Herman Howards entirely, and I don't think he should be killed. He must be punished for what he did, and punished he'll be in prison; punished for the rest of his life. Herman was looking for Aseity, (In metaphysics: The state or condition of having an independent existence.) He needed someone to remind him that he was alive and that he was unique, and that someone wasn't there. Like Luke Woodham (the perpetrator of a school shooting that took place in Mississippi in 1997) said: "No one just becomes a murderer. Something had to push them to that point." You're right, Luke. But something should have been there to keep them from getting pushed, and it's that something that is truly to blame, and that something, is the loss of our humanity.

- John Buffalo Mailer, from his Hello Herman journal

June, 30th,1999

Unlike Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine, or Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech, suspect James Holmes is still alive. But there have already been calls for his execution. The headline on the cover of the July, 21st New York Daily News read: "KILL HIM! Inmates chant for psycho's blood. 'Joker' still acts like it's a movie." On Tuesday, it read: "Put Him To Sleep... FOREVER." If James Holmes is taken out of isolation, and placed among a prison population, it is almost assured that someone will take him out. Maybe that's the fate he deserves, but I don't really care about what James Holmes deserves. What I'm concerned about is what we can learn from James Holmes that might clue us in more as to how to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again.

I certainly don't think all the answers are in those pages of that journal I wrote over a decade ago. But I do think the right questions are, and those are the questions I would like to see us asking ourselves. Questions like: How did we get here? What choices did we make that may have left a brilliant young man feeling so alienated and numb, that the idea of killing 12 real people was no different to him than killing 12 characters on the latest first person shoot 'em up video game?

In times of national fear and existential questions, we need to open up our hearts and minds and really start listening to each other about the world we want to live in, and how to make that world our reality.

Art is probably the safest place to question the issues of the day. That's why I wrote a play about how a combination of ingredients -- not one silver bullet -- leads to high-school violence. It's why we are using the play as a national theater contest to raise funds for an organization called Champions Against Bullying, an organization that is on the streets, in the classrooms, working directly with students to teach them about bullying and what it does to our culture.

I'm not as idealistic as I was when I was 21. The limits of what we can accomplish with our time here are more tangible to me then than they were one decade ago. But I still believe it's never too late. I still believe we can choose to change our course, we can remind ourselves that because we're all in this boat together, looking out for each other is the only way to keep the ship afloat and on a course for gentler waters.

My hope is that this time we can come together to elevate the dialogue on this issue and go deeper in exploring ourselves, our families, our communities, our schools, our workplaces, and our on-line fantasy worlds. My hope is that this time, we will ask ourselves the hard questions and come up with practical ways to address what we find that is less than what we know we can be.