People are inherently good.
This is a statement I make to my daughter quite frequently, even on occasions when it is a struggle internally to force the words out. The Divine Miss M has, unfortunately, caught on to some of my cynicism. Ironically, people who know me well know that my occasionally biting sarcasm is only surface deep, as is my cynicism. But, apparently, a child who is so maddeningly intuitive at times does not draw on that intuition when it would be most beneficial.
I have struggled with whether to write about the Aurora shooting, because what can I possibly say that someone else hasn’t already, probably much more eloquently. But if you’re describing your own thoughts, feelings or reactions, then, I guess, no-one else has said that.
I have lived in the shadow of mass violence before, as have most of us, by now. I grew up in Oklahoma and was attending undergrad there when the Murrah building was bombed. (I was among the fortunate who did not directly know any of the victims.) Later, after law school, I spent several years as a federal law clerk in the courthouse directly across the street from the beautifully crafted memorial.
In April 1995, as everyone reeled from that experience, stories of heroism, compassion and unparalleled generosity began to immediately emerge, one right after another. The actions of one or more people who held absolutely no goodness was quickly followed by the actions of an innumerable amount of people who, when tested in unfathomable circumstances, displayed something beyond inherent goodness.
My immediate reaction to any event of mass violence, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, 9/11, Aurora, is to be overwhelmingly disheartened and discouraged about people and the future. My otherwise surface-only cynicism threatens to completely consume my thoughts and outlook to an almost crippling degree. Almost.
Jo is not so easily swayed to despair and I have learned, over the years, that she provides a wondrous balance in that regard. But what I have also learned is that while violence may be inevitable, the acts of heroism that follow are equally as inevitable. In fact, I noticed with Aurora that immediately after learning of the events, I was consciously and impatiently waiting for the stories of heroism to emerge once again so that I could selfishly cling to them as validation that all is not lost, that we really are inherently good. It has become my coping mechanism. Though it almost sounds trite, those stories are the only thing that convince me that we are not slave to, nor defined by, the actions of madmen.
I have to admit, I do wonder whether if my daughter, partner, Mom, sister, in-laws (that’s not a joke, mine are marvelous), any member of my family or chosen tribe was a victim, would acts of heroism be enough to sustain any hope I have in humanity or the future? I can’t imagine that it would and yet, we see that repeatedly in victim’s families and friends.
And so it was that the narrative from Theatre Nine began to emerge and we, once again, learned of courage and valor, especially by the youngest among us, that brought more tears to my eyes than the violence that preceded them. Every action described here, and these are certainly not exhaustive, occurred while the shooting continued. Three men immediately threw themselves in front of their girlfriends, undoubtedly saving their girlfriend’s lives while sacrificing their own. A teenage girl held her hands to her friend’s neck to stanch the bleeding of a major artery, refusing to leave her even while the shooting continued and her wounded friend tried to tell her to run. A teenage boy stopped in the middle of trying to flee to shield a Mom and two children, none of whom he knew, as they were running out – he got shot in the leg but still stayed between them and the shooter all the way out of the theatre. One man got his daughter and his girlfriend to the door and when he realized his son’s girlfriend was still down and too wounded to move, he went back and shielded her from further bullets with his body. One man carried his wife, who was shot three times, out of the theatre, because when she told him to go without her, he refused, saying, “No, we go together.” Not surprising then when his 14-year-old son (14!) stopped to carry another wounded woman, a stranger to him, out of the theatre. One man, who was not in Theatre 9, ran into the theatre to help, as the bullets continued, and carried out a teenage girl who had been shot in the knee – and survived. People outside the theatre continued these heroics – a teenage girl put pressure on a man’s leg that was bleeding profusely, took off her belt and fastened it around his thigh - he was a stranger to her. Two men, in particular, attended to numerous victims, holding their wounds and carrying them to police cars and ambulances. A teenage girl held a shirt to a wounded man’s head while he repeatedly asked her if there was a hole in his head, and she repeatedly tried to reassure him. She didn’t know him, either. Literally, a countless number of people carried wounded victims, held their hands, stanched their wounds - almost all of them strangers to each other. Police officers were on the scene in less than 90 seconds from the first phone call. I don’t even know how that’s possible. One of them loaded six wounded people into his car and drove them to the hospital – six ambulances could not have accomplished that so quickly. Several other police officers then mirrored his actions. Of the 60 people who were taken to the hospital, doctors and nurses, most of whom had never been faced with those kinds of circumstances, responded miraculously and saved all but two.
Gone are the days we could shield the Divine Miss M from hearing about these kinds of horrific events. She is older now and this will be discussed among other kids her age. That Friday morning I told her that she could only watch the Disney channel (something I can assure you I’ve never said before) or Food Network – her two favorite channels, while we bought some time on how best to address this (i.e., I could get online and glean advice from psychologists on how to do that). She knows about the Oklahoma City bombing, but only years afterward and that was too big, I think, for her to really wrap her mind around. But midnight premieres – that she can comprehend and relate to. We have taken our Harry Potter obsessed daughter to two midnight premieres – those are among our favorite family memories. We have promised her that we would take her to the midnight premiere of the next Hunger Games movie.
We have now discussed this incident with her, following mostly what I read on how best to do this, but we were able to quickly follow with some of the stories above. So, our daughter learned of the worst of humanity, and then, thankfully, heard numerous examples of the best of it. The next midnight premiere we will attend is over a year away, will she be hesitant after that much time to attend? Will we? I’ve no idea.
The Oklahoma City Memorial has these words inscribed: “We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.” Today, I find comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity in the actions of impromptu heroes. For now, that’s enough.