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.
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.