“I notice that you haven’t been hanging out with your friends lately.” When my daughter’s social habits change it sometimes means there is something going on that we might want to talk about. I could have said it. But I didn’t. “Some other night,” I thought. It just didn’t seem like the right time.
Later my daughter told me that she had been texting to a group of friends about going out that night…to the midnight showing of the new Batman movie…at the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado…Thursday night, July 19, 2012. For a variety of reasons my daughter and her friends decided not to go. She also told me that if I had made that comment she probably would have gone, thinking I was hinting about needing some time to myself.
But other people did say things to friends and acquaintances and many made the decision to go. “What do you want to do for your birthday?” “Let’s go see it. We can take the kids with us.” “Let’s go to the Batman premeir after our shift ends.”
Batman character costumes everywhere…the lights dim…previews go on forever as usual, but people are too excited to mind. Finally, it starts.
I turn out my bedroom light and the cat jumps up to get chin scratches and give purr therapy. My daughter is still on her computer. My dreams start. My daughter’s game goes on.
Now the excitement on the screen begins. It’s a Batman movie—it has to be exciting. Then the excitement moves off the screen, down to the front of the theater. It’s a premier, special effects aren’t too surprising. Then the growing realization that this is different. At a celebration of imagination, the unimaginable is taking place. It is impossible to grasp, but people begin to move. Men throw themselves on top of loved ones and strangers, protecting them from the crazed fireworks.
My daughter puts her computer to sleep and goes to bed. The cat changes rooms to get more attention and purr a lullaby. My daughter falls asleep.
Some people scramble for the exits, others duck or play dead. “Do I look dead enough?” Maybe some were considering heading to the front of the theater to try to take out the source of the terror. Some of the heroes survive. Some are lost. People lose friends and loved ones in the crowd. “My baby! Where is my baby?” Some find each other again outside.
At 6:00 a.m. my radio switches on. “Mass shooting…movie theater…suburb of Denver…Aurora, Colorado.” Now I am awake. Thank goodness my daughter isn’t a Batman fan. I go check her room anyway. She is sound asleep. I turn on the TV for awhile before heading out for my day, which will go on as planned.
Some people’s plans for the day have become completely irrelevant. On my morning walk I pass a man talking on his cell phone. “I’ve called all of them, but they aren’t answering. I just want one of them to answer the phone!”
I realize what this might mean, and every step of my walk becomes a prayer for him, for everyone frantically calling hospitals and hotlines.
Hundreds of people who were in the theater need to be questioned by the police, and cell phones are either in their cars in the theater parking lot or have been taken by the police in case they hold any clues. Many families wait agonizing hours before hearing from their loved ones. And some wait through two days longer than all the previous days of their lives put together to hear the official word that there will be no reunion for them.
As I watch the news on Friday I remember watching that last bus full of students come from Columbine High School, the last few tearful reunions, and the last few dazed parents who finally knew that their last chance for a miracle was gone.
In the aftermath of an act of violence like this questions beginning with “Why…?” swarm through our minds, desperately seeking answers. There is no answer to why hundreds of ordinary decisions made that night led to safety, to injury, or to loss and death. Why did one family decide to go and another stay home? Why did one person end up in theater 9 and another in theater 8? My decision to keep quiet was not a better decision than that of my daughter’s friend who decided to participate in the excitement of a movie premier, but one led to safety and the other to five bullet wounds and a hospital stay.
People who study random events use probability as a tool. “Wearing a seatbelt can increase your chance of surviving a crash by 45%.” Yet probability doesn’t determine the fate of an individual in these events. Unless an event about which we are making a decision is 100% or 0% likely, someone lands on each side of the outcome divide. Few events about which we make decisions have a guaranteed outcome. For instance, the probability of surviving if a semi-truck falls off of an overpass onto your vehicle and bursts into a fireball would seem to be 0%. Yet explain on May 13 that is exactly what happened to a young couple as they drove under an I-70 overpass in Avon, Colorado. They walked away with a few scratches. We can call it good luck, bad luck, or fate. It doesn’t matter to the person hit by lightning if he is one out of ten or one out of 5000. He hurts.
A wise man once taught me that if you can’t find the answer to a big life question, it may be that you are asking the wrong question. “Why him?” “Why not her?” “What if I had…” “What if they hadn’t…” are questions that have no meaningful answers. The questions that we can begin to explore, that can help us move forward, are questions about things we can control. That terrible night we all came to a new understanding of the nature of evil and destruction. Maybe the most important question we can ask ourselves and act on is “What values do I want to be clearly visible in the way I live my life?” Reclaiming our lives from the paralysis of fear will mean accepting the randomness of life and making ordinary decisions every day based not on that fear but on the values by which we want to be remembered.