Thoughts on the Aurora Shooting by an Aurora Atheist

Ten days ago. 1:00am. I’m sitting alone in bed reading The Best American Essays of 2010 while Hobbes, my orange cat, purrs beside me.

I hear sirens outside, but that’s not unusual since I live near a major intersection in Aurora and ambulances often race to accidents on I-225. As the sirens go by, I read that Tolstoy made fun of tennis until he was given a racquet at age 68, then became an “instant tennis addict,” playing 3 hours every day. He exhausted his friends and family with his obsession. I find this amusing and plan to mention it at my next tennis game.

The sirens seem excessive. It must be a bad accident tonight.

But I don’t think much about it. I put my book down and fall asleep.

* * *

It’s 6:00am and someone is texting me. I hate them. As I fall back into unconsciousness, I make a mental note to exact revenge at a later date, preferably when they’re asleep.

I never arrive at my unconscious destination. My iPhone chimes again. “Someone better have died,” I mumble as I grab my phone.

It’s from an East Coast friend: “I just saw the news. Are you okay?”

My Macbook Air is next to my bed, so I open it to find out what the hell is going on.

Aurora Century 16 theater. Batman midnight premier. 12 people dead, 58 others injured. Lone 24-year-old gunman wearing gas mask calling himself “The Joker.” Shotgun, AR-15, handguns, tear gas, grenades, 7,000 rounds of ammunition. A fucking psychopath in my backyard.

I’m stunned. I’ve been to Century 16 many times. I’m involved with another theater just miles away that a business partner owns and a number of friends work at. My first feeling was relief it didn’t happen there… but then had immediate guilt for the thought. Maybe my friends didn’t get killed or shot, but someone else’s friends did.

* * *

A week after the shooting, I visited the Aurora Shooting Memorial. It’s across the street from the theater, only occupying a small corner of a huge field.

It seems too small for one of the worst individual mass shootings in US history. This is Colorado, where we’re still haunted by another all-too-recent massacre.

I park, get out of the car and walk on the side of the road towards the memorial. It’s a sort of pilgrimage, people coming and going at all hours, bringing flowers and lighting candles for the dead.

Along the path were large posters of handwritten farewells to the deceased.

“You’re in a better place.”
“There are 12 new angels in heaven.”
“You’re with Jesus now.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“God loves you.”

These phrases distract my mind from the horror of the incident. We need comfort, and many find it with religion. As long as they don’t overanalyze it, comfort is bestowed upon the believer. It’s comforting to think people are in a better place, that God saved lives, that Satan was behind the incident, and that there is a Master Plan behind such tragedy.

It’s an empty comfort, however. Brains must be partially shut off to partake in it. Faith must trump fact. If the foundations of the comfort are analyzed rationally, cognitive dissonance arrives and hope fades.

For instance, if God saved lives in this tragedy — as some claim — then he didn’t save other lives. With that logic, since he saved people, he could have saved others, but he did not.

Consider this: If I had the power to save everyone at the theater because I was all-powerful and all-knowing and all-loving and all-whatever, and I didn’t do it, wouldn’t I be evil — or at least greatly negligent? With great power comes great responsibility. Their God does not seem up for the task.

For the record, according to the believer’s holy book, it’s not negligence. God is very active in torturing, killing and saving people as he pleases. If the humans do not please him, he will kill them with floods, plagues or holy armies. This is why so many Christians see natural disasters as a sign of judgment for sin. They actually believe God will send hurricanes to kill people when they don’t obey him.

It’s been pointed out that according to the Bible, God directly murders about 25 million people, whereas Satan murders 10 people. Compared to God, Satan’s an angel.

But of course, it’s all nonsense. God didn’t kill anyone. God didn’t save anyone. There are only people who kill, people who save other people, and people who are lucky.

* * *

I continue walking through the memorial and see a large wooden cross that was erected on a small hill. Two well-dressed men with books in their hands talk to the pilgrims.

I see bloodsucking leeches; slimy scroungers sinking their jaws into the passing crowd.

I came here to honor the dead, but now I’m angry. I watch the evangelists evangelize, preying on the emotions of the tragedy to win converts for their precious Jesus, the all-loving and all-powerful Savior who didn’t save or warn the victims. I try to push these thoughts out of my mind, try to focus on my purpose in coming here… when a man catches my eye and says, “Hi.” He has a big Christian smile, and I notice his bright blue shirt with a church’s logo.

I consider starting a conversation with him to try to shame him for abusing this tragedy to further his religious fanaticism. But I’m at a memorial. There are people crying around me. Even though we’re on the side of a busy street with cars flying by, there’s something sacred about this place. It isn’t the time for such discussions. I won’t sink to his level. So instead I turn away from him, and continue to mourn the dead.

* * *

When the shooting happened on July 20, 2012, everyone across the world was asking “why?” How could such a smart, educated kid do such a thing? He had a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and was studying for his Ph. D. He seemed normal enough and no one suspected he was capable of mass murder.

Some speculated he was influenced by violent video games, drugs, over-education or even demon possession. Most of us — correctly — assumed he was mentally ill.

Soon after the shooting we learned that James Eagan Holmes, the shooter, was a psychiatric patient. Since no sane person would walk into a theater and randomly kill others for fun, the world was not shocked by this revelation.

And yet Holmes, as a psychiatric patient, was able to legally purchase a shotgun, a semi-automatic AR-15, 2 handguns, nearly 7,000 rounds of ammunition, and chemicals and equipment to manufacturer homemade tear gas and grenades.

Welcome to America.

I don’t know what the solution to America’s gun issues are, but I do know this: The answer isn’t giving psychiatric patients military-grade weaponry designed for mass killing.

* * *

I am back in the car, my pilgrimage behind me. I close my eyes, grateful to have been spared, so far, such tragedies in my life.

As we drive past the Century 16, still surrounded by police tape and containment barriers, I can’t help but think that, in a way, we are all attending our final movie showing.

Life is a theater where we never know when the movie will end. All we can do is, with our friends and family, enjoy it the best we can, until the show is over and the screen fades to black.

All Cycles Come to an End
We’re Running Out of Enemies
Being Agent Scully
The Problem of Absolutist Language
  • mikespeir

    So eloquent!

    • maxioso7

      Very well written indeed!

  • A Reader

    Powerfully moving. Thank you.

  • vasaroti

    We sure need a better way to express grief and commemorate the lives of the dead. These mounds of dead flowers, stuffed animals and candles are pointless and appalling. In a few days all this stuff will go into a dumpster while Aurora sleeps. If I were a relative of a shooting victim, I’d put up a sign that read: “The dead and wounded do not want your gifts. Go do something nice for someone who could use some help.”

    • rebekah

      I’ve had similar thoughts about the current funeral process. The dead don’t care; it’s our need to remember them and we can do better.

  • andre

    Very moving and very well written. The way you acted at the memorial in the face of those using the tragedy to further their agenda was commendable. I doubt that I would have been able to act so calmly.

    However, it is a little saddening to read your thoughts on those in psychiatric care. That someone would be seeking treatment for a mental disorder does not necessarily make them dangerous. As such, I cannot see a line directly between someone getting treatment and preventing that person from doing something that is legal for anyone in the general public to do. If the person was a clear danger to himself or others, then I can see preventing him from buying a gun. Just seeing a psychiatrist does not indicate this. Claiming such things creates a stigma about those with mental disorders and can lead to de facto discrimination. Such stigmas can also prevent people from seeking needed treatment.

    That being said, if a person is in psychiatric care and has previous violent indications or records, I do feel that this person can and should be legally prevented from doing or acquiring certain things. FYI, I have no knowledge of the past record of the Aurora shooter, but the way the post is written generalizes dangers to a broad, diverse community of people.

  • schnauzermom

    You showed great fortitude and self- control when faced with religious opportunists feeding on public grief. I applaud you. It makes me crazy when I hear, after incidents like this shooting, “God saved me.” Or “God saved my loved one.” How must that sound to the loved ones of the dead? Did the deceaseed just not “love jesus” enough? Did they do something to piss god off? Or did god just “love” them so much that he (who supposedly is everywhere) “wanted” them to be with him, and iced that cake with some final moments of terror and agony? I will try and be charitable and chalk it up to people speaking without thinking, in the high emotion of the moment. What I suspect it boils down to, really, is the arrogance of the religious mind.

  • Nicole Youngman

    I had a similar response after the tornado in Tuscaloosa AL a little over a year ago (very different sort of event, of course). My hubby and I lived there for a few years in the early 90s and drove up a week after the twister to check on an old friend who had a tree through her house (she later named the twister “Melvin”). We had the radio on, listening to the talk radio channels, people calling in asking for help, giving directions where to send help, coordinating an off-the-cuff relief effort that was just amazing. Church people were coming out of the woodwork (and going into what was left of it) to help and I was SO impressed. But there was also this constant radio chatter of “we are the hands and feet of Jesus, God is so good helping people right now, praise God it wasn’t worse, God was watching over so-and-so” etc. and it made me SO mad. It’s like the basic questions you’ve raised here are ones that are just not allowed to be thought, much less asked out loud.

  • Brad Rhoads

    I used to make a similar argument: If I see someone drowning and at no risk to myself, do nothing to help that person, then I am at least partly responsible for their death. So if God is omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. then isn’t He responsible for all sin, suffering and suicide?

    From just a human perspective, the answer is of course yes. But the way I resolve this problem as a Christian, is to realize that the argument above- and the argument made in the article – is the ultimate example of conflation (e.g. comparing apples to organes). It’s a logical fallacy to compare ourselves (part of the creation) with God (the Creator).

    If we allow that God exists, just for the sake of argument, then how can we expect that we’d be able to fully understand Him or His (in)actions. Can an infant understand the actions of her loving parents?

    • Nicole Youngman

      Brad, in all seriousness, if I believed in the god described in the Bible I wouldn’t even give him the time of day, much less any form of worship. He’s a genocidal maniac who goes around slaughtering tribes of people for being the wrong religion on his worst days, and on his good days he’s a sexist homophobic prick–in fact, he has all the characteristics of an *abusive* parent: “I only hurt you because I love you and you have no right to question me no matter what I do. Obey obey obey or I will torture you eternally.” Sorry, but f*ck that.

    • Jabster

      If your god can create the Universe and us then how can allowing us to fully understand it but so difficult?

    • wright1

      Brad, how is it you can compare your god to a loving parent? What kind of parent who was not mentally ill to the same degree Holmes was would knowingly expose their children to his bullets?

      You and your fellow believers who make this argument do not get to have it both ways. If you claim we cannot know the mind of god, then you have no basis for claiming you know ANYTHING about god. Period. Can you seriously not see how convenient that rationalization is? How blatantly contradictory?

    • Nox

      Theodicy is the ultimate example of special pleading.

    • Schaden Freud

      So god has a different morality from ours, but our morality comes from god. We are made in the image of god, yet we are nothing like god. You don’t find that contradictory at all?

    • trj

      Is it normal for loving parents to lock up their children in the basement to be tortured?

      • Jabster

        Well it never did me any harm – a spell in the army that will sort them out!

    • Azel

      We expect to be able to understand its morality per your own holy book: And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22, NIV). I have no reason to assume that we know a different good or evil than God (and in fact, every reason to assume it’s the same: we became like one of them. Them might describe gods or God and its servants but God is definitely included), thus I expect to at least be able to evaluate the morality of its actions.

  • Paul

    My father died almost 2 years ago. 11 years before his death he quit smoking. Four years after he quit they found a tumor in the lower lobe of his right lung. He survived cancer but then emphesema beat at him for 7 years until it finally took him. There were four of us left behind, me, my mother, my younger brother and my older sister. Mom and my sister are baptists, my brother and I are atheists. I have suffered with depression for most of my life and I was in therapy throughout the years and was in a grief and loss group for the last few years of dad’s life. I found it incredibly helpful. My brother did nothing but the typical male reaction of stuffing his feelings down, not letting anyone in. Mom and my sister turned to religion. The hospice where dad died had a grief group and I tried to talk my mom into going. She declined but returned to the church she had belonged to since I was in 3rd grade (I’m 55 now). The members of the class were people she had been close to for years and years. I won’t necessarily credit the church with helping mom, but the group of friends in that sunday school class did for mom what the therapy groups had done for me.

    Your words are powerful and I too would have turned away from the ministers but I saw that there is more to a church than the bible. Sometimes the most important part of the church is not scripture, ministers, promise of heaven, threat of hell but rather it is the people there who support one another. Yesterday one of that group died and her class went to the funeral then went to lunch where they remembered their friend.

  • Elise

    Very eloquently written. However, as a person who has been seeing a psychiatrist for four years to deal with debilitating anxiety, I highly resent you implication that those with mental illness should not be allowed to purchase weapons. Mental health is no different from physical health in that a patients records are private. To suggest that all mental patients should have to declare themselves as such when buying weapons just to catch the one out of thousands who is dangerous is an abomination. In addition, mental diseases are just like diseases that affect the rest of the body; they come in all forms. It is the persisting notion among the general public that mental illness automaticity equals crazy or unstable that makes so many depressed or anxious people neglect to seek help.. Yes, there is something seriously wrong on a mental level with Holmes, but that does not mean that every person who seeks psychiatric help is a monster: far from it. There are millions of us; we do our best to go about our lives acting normal despite our suffering, and we only let our closest friends in on our dirty little psychiatric secret because we know the assumptions that people would make about us were our conditions generally known. I find it odd that you as an atheist (I am one as well, by they way), and therefore a member of an often marginalized and hated group of society, would so casually throw off such a horrible comment about another marginalized and misunderstood group.

    • Sunny Day

      Mentally ill people have a higher incidence rate for violence.
      The embarrassment someone suffers is inconsequential compared to the safety of others.

      • Elise

        What a horrible way of thinking.

      • Elise

        What’s more , it is far more than a “few”. It is millions who suffer in silence because of people like you. AND any law requiring mental patients to identify themselves as such would be illegal in multiple ways. Also, I would love to see your statistics about the mentally ill having higher incedence of violence. In high profile cases and in the media,perhaps, but in general I doubt it. Humans are a pretty violent lot, and it sounds to me like you are making things up to justify your own prejudices. The average person who sees a psychiatrist is doing so for depression or anxiety; there are far fewer people out there like Holmes than you seem to want to think.

      • Elise

        Finally thought of the best way to say it, using your own misguided words, even. The embarrassment someone would suffer would be inconsequential TO the safety of others, because what defines people like Holmes is not their mental state, but the fact that they have committed a crime. A person who is determined to commit a CRIME is not going to pay any regard to any laws standing in his or her way. If Holmes could not legally have purchased guns, he would have found another way; there is still plenty of murder in counties where civilians cannot purchase firearms. Embarrassing millions of people (I would actually say persecuting, rather than embarrassing) would not only violate their rights, but in the end serve very little purpose.

  • Giorgio

    WHO are you grateful to? :)

    “I close my eyes, grateful to have been spared, so far, such tragedies in my life.”

    • NotAChristian

      Not everybody needs a “Who” in order to say “Whew”

    • Don

      We don’t all need to be talking to an imaginary sky faerie every time we have internal dialogue. I’ve said to myself “I’m so thankful I don’t life in Texas”. I’m not thanking YHWH or any other deity. It’s a way of expressing opinions or idea without speaking. You might not realize this, but your post is insulting and condescending. He’s already expressed that he doesn’t subscribe the God superstition.

      As for the article, very well written. This is a perspective that needs to be told. I too get angry when something like this happens and people say “She/He/They are in a better place. They are not in a better place. I’m angry, and I should be, and so should you. You don’t get to feel better about this tragedy by spewing nonsense about heaven because you don’t have the metal fortitude to accept that these people are dead. Forever.

      Maybe if people spent more time living in the here and now, and less time trying to live the clouds, the world would be a better place.

  • Julie

    I find it appalling that the whole “not guilty until proven so” thing has gone out the window. Um, no one saw who the shooter was bc he was covered head to toe. Smells much more sinister than lone shooter theory.

    • trj

      The police arrested him outside the cinema wearing his combat regalia. I would think it rather unlikely another person carrying an assault rifle, gas mask, bulletproof vest, etc just happened to be in the vicinity.

  • Dan

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. When faced with tragedy, I often find myself speechless, with very little reaction beyond an overwhelming urge to give people a hug and a shoulder to cry on. I’m a Christian, and I find the opportunism of people at tragedies simply horrifying and offensive. I also find the statements of being in a better place, this is all god’s plan, etc. to be trite nonsense, and actually more harmful to the people towards which they are focused. In the face of tragedy, I believe that god weeps alongside of us. No-one is specially saved from tragedy by god, and for very good reason. Tragedy, sadness, death: these are all necessary aspects of life, for with life, comes death. With happiness, there comes sadness. If no-one ever died, then life would stagnate, and never change. I can understand the sheer joy of watching my daughter laugh because I can see how incredible a gift it is TO laugh, knowing that I have seen her cry. God creates life (I believe), but doesn’t dictate exactly how it’s going to go. We have the choice to respect the gift of life, or to destroy it. When we are faced with such destruction, we have the choice to allow it to infect us, or to keep fighting for life, for goodness, and thus overcome tragedy, death, and evilness. When I read the Bible, I see these cycles. More importantly, though, is the fact that I see these cycles in life, playing out all around me. I see god not in the fact that the ‘good’ people were saved, or in that there’s a grand plan, but in the fact that life always returns after death, and that we have the capacity to look tragedy straight in the eye and keep living, and striving for joy.

    • JohnMWhite

      I have to respectfully disagree, and I’m going to be honest here, there’s an impulse within me to not be particularly respectful at all, because while you likely don’t realise it, you’re giving cover to a being that’s either a coward or a monster. The idea that anything like tragedy is *necessary* in a world governed by an all-powerful god just does not follow. The idea that this god weeps when sitting by and doing nothing to stop tragedy does not fit with an all-loving god. That’s not love, that’s spite, that’s letting bad things happen because of his own ego that has determined the universe will run a certain way, in this case it will run without his very easy to apply assistance. This god becomes, frankly, useless. Also, the people in that theatre didn’t have a choice about whether or not to keep fighting for life. They got hit with bullets for no reason they could possibly have controlled, whatever their attitude, and doubtless many of those left behind will be traumatised and grief-stricken to the point that they can’t strive for joy anymore. I get what you’re trying to say, it’s the common approach to the mystery of god letting bad things happen, the problem of evil. But I’m afraid it doesn’t wash, and it is just as trite as the “better place, god’s plan” platitudes that you dislike yourself.

      • Kodie

        Well said, John.

  • Elizabeth

    I appreciate your writing. It makes me feel hope that there is someone else out there who shares my view of these things. I wanted to scream when someone claimed that a cloud formation in a picture was “an angel” over the theatre…. !!! Where was that bitch angel days before?? Was she late to work that night???? Ridiculous! The shooters family was said to “be receiving support from their church” so… the shooter was raised as a Christian? Notice headlines did NOT read “Christian kills 14 in Aurora” I bet nobody will protest a new Christian church being built near the theatre! Now I am following the shooting in Wisconsin this morning… just waiting for the motive, I already have a pretty good guess but I bet it gets greatly downplayed when it comes out.

  • Barbara Gant

    Thank you for your heartfelt article.

  • Nely

    God does not punish nor kill anyone we live in a world dominated by Satan! Hes the cause of the deaths, natural disasters, and killings.
    God has a promise to us that soon a great tribulation will come and afterwards paradise were nothin of this will ever happen.

    Jehovah Witness

  • Jennifer Lakewood

    Good post, but I don’t like the title. It makes it sound like the shooter was an atheist. I have no clue what faith he had or if he didn’t have one, but the title of your story is confusing, unless you read it more than one time.