Can we feel compassion?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Since James Holmes walked into a Colorado movie theater and opened fire, I’ve wondered about him. The news media is dissecting his life, talking to anyone who has a connection to this young man.

His face on the news was haunting, wild dyed red hair, eyes popping open, then almost closing. Alongside images of the wild-eyed man in the courtroom were pictures of him as a student, and he looked like someone you’d pass on the street without noticing. There was no hint of the coming slide into madness, which must be what preceded his actions in the movie theater.

When I hear stories like this my immediate reaction is, “Not again.” It seems more and more people like Holmes fall over the edge and commit unthinkable acts. That, however, is not the case. I learned from a story I read that the number of mass murders hasn’t increased. Here is what I read.

“James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University and an expert on mass murder, collected data on every mass murder in the United States going back to the mid-1970s and, though we certainly see and hear about these incidents more quickly today, the numbers of such incidents have not increased over time.

“He counted 19 in 1976 and 18 in 2010, with the range going from a low of seven in 1985 to a high of 30 in 2003.”

Troubled people’s mass crimes are not increasing. What is increasing is media coverage and the speed with which we know of their actions.

Of course, arguments over gun control are also part of the coverage of this tragedy, as they are anytime there is a mass murder involving guns. While I lean toward gun control because I don’t understand people owning assault weapons, focusing on gun control alone buries a deeper issue. It focuses on the effect not the cause.

Tom Mauser, who lost his son at Columbine High School in 1999, made gun control his focus in the years following his loss. Now after looking at and studying mass murder, Mauser and others dedicated to preventing tragedies, concluded gun control is not the only solution. They say individuals have a role in stopping these kinds of crimes.

“People need to be more aware of troubled individuals who may act violently; they should talk with them, and if they remain alarmed they must reach out for help. And when they do, there must be someone to listen and act effectively,” they said.

In one of the stories about Holmes, neighbors said he was withdrawn, a loner. His life obviously took a drastic turn because he dropped out of school suddenly. Did anyone notice and ask why?

While we comfort the victims of this crime and mourn with the families who lost loved ones, we must also consider the person who caused this pain. Holmes’ crime will not go unpunished, but there has to be something in this that moves us on a deeper level than only crying out for punishment and justice.

Is there space for compassion for victims and victimizer? Is there a place in our hearts open to asking and considering that behind violent acts are humans screaming for validation and help?

When I see the victims’ pain, those questions are harder to consider. Not judging and hating the person who caused the pain becomes a challenge.

Still, all spiritual paths teach that love, compassion and forgiveness are what we are to practice in this world. Therefore, the question becomes, how much are we willing to love?

Can we love as much as the Christ loved and find compassion even for a troubled soul with dyed red hair and wild eyes? It isn’t a question the media will ask, but asking it might help to keep this kind of tragedy from happening again.