Last week, a lone gunman killed over 50 people and injured hundreds more at a music festival in Las Vegas. Last year, 49 lives were taken in a shooting at an Orlando night club. In 2012, a shooter attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School, murdering children, teachers, and staff. These are but few of the recent mass shootings that shook our country to its core. The list, unfortunately, could go on.
When these tragedies take place, they impact us on a very deep level. It’s difficult to know how to respond in the face of such horror. But there are some common responses that I’ve observed after such events, and they usually manifest in the form of questions. Questions that we ask ourselves. Questions that we ask each other. Questions that we ask our leaders. Even questions that we ask God. Below are a few of the questions we tend to ask after events like the Las Vegas shooting and some ideas for what I believe to be helpful responses to them.
I think it’s important to note that I’ve never personally been a victim of a mass shooting, nor have I known someone who has lost their life to gun violence. Because of this, I understand that my perspective is limited and potentially less grounded in reality than that of someone who has tragically found themselves closer to these situations. Giving a voice to victims and their loved ones is one of the most important things we can do in the wake of these kinds of events. However, these things do affect the nation and the world as a whole in important ways; in a sense, we are all victims of these acts of violence. Shootings like the one in Las Vegas affect me personally, especially on a psychological level. And so, I feel that my thoughts are founded and have the potential to add value to the conversation, though I acknowledge that my experience is not firsthand.
These are the questions we ask ourselves in the wake of a tragedy.
Who did this?
This begins as a practical question: In order to stop the violence, police must know who is committing it. But once the event is over, this question of who perpetrated it still persists. It almost becomes a public obsession. Often, the name of the shooter isn’t released until officials can gather more information, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating. After last week’s shooting, many people used Google to search for the shooter’s identity, only to find misinformation from a forum that was pointing the finger at the wrong man. This urgent search for someone to blame can be dangerous.
Ultimately, the perpetrator’s identity isn’t the most important question. Yes, it’s natural to wonder who committed the crime and to yearn for justice to be served, but when we focus too much on the question of who did it, we can accidentally give off the message that acts of violence are a means of becoming famous, getting attention, and potentially inspiring others to act in the same way. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. And we want to de-incentivize the carrying out of these atrocities in any way that we can.
Rather than focusing on the offender, we might do well to instead give our attention to the victims, the ones who did no wrong but have been forced to suffer the consequences of another’s actions anyway. These are the people who belong at the front of our minds and on the front of our newspapers. They deserve to be honored; they deserve to be remembered. And in saying their names, we can push back against the violence that took them away from us in the first place.
How could someone do something like this?
Once we know who committed the heinous act, we inevitably try to rationalize it. We want to look into the person’s history to understand what it is about them that led them to do this. We start by looking for the typical narratives: mental illness, radicalization by a terrorist group, a personal vendetta. We think that if we can find some explanation for what happened, then maybe things will make sense. Maybe things things will be OK.
But the truth is that there is no explanation for these tragedies. There is no rationality. Sure, there are influences that might push a person in a certain direction. But the act of taking a human life, much less the lives of many people, is by its very nature senseless. There’s no sense to it, and thus, our search for an explanation is ultimately futile.
And yet, we’ve all done senseless things before, haven’t we (though certainly on a much smaller, less destructive scale)? As much as we hate to think about it, we are each only a certain number of misfortunate steps away from doing something completely irrational. Maybe a better question to ask is, “What stands between me and doing something like this?” Because the truth is that these things do happen. And they are carried out by people, like us.
How could someone do something like this? I don’t know. It makes no sense. But the potential do something terrible is within me, too. And I never want to fail to recognize that fact lest I start down the path to senseless action myself.
What can we do to stop this?
This is the question we spend the most time on, and it feels like every time tragedy strikes, we have to start this conversation over from the beginning. It’s become so tied up with politics and money that we’ve lost sight of the real point of asking this question in the first place. It’s not about figuring out who’s on what team or villainizing those whose approaches are different from our own. It’s not even about personal rights. It’s about putting an end to violence. If that isn’t the purpose of asking this question, then why ask it in the first place?
We have to de-politicize the issue of ending these events. It’s clear from their recurrence and their brutality that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. Something has to change. And yes, at some point that has to play out on a policy level. But if we start the conversation by drawing a line between opposing sides, then we’re never going to make any significant change, and these things are simply going to keep happening while we stand by and twiddle our thumbs. Everyone, from every part of the political spectrum, can agree that we want these acts of violence stop. So let’s start there and work towards making impactful changes that work. We have the same goal; so let’s start accomplishing it today.
Perhaps a complete re-framing of the question is in order. Instead of asking, “How can we stop these things from happening again?” maybe we should be asking, “What have we done that has made these atrocities possible in the first place?” We are responsible for creating a world in which these things can happen, and we are responsible for making the world a place where they don’t happen anymore. How have our views, our rhetoric, and our actions contributed to the mental health crisis, to the rise of radical terrorist organizations, and to the use of deadly weapons against innocents? What are we as individuals and as a society doing to create and worsen these problems, and how can we stop?
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, “How can we foster a greater understanding of the sanctity of life in our world today?” The truth is that we have all—regardless of our political leanings or the labels we choose to apply to ourselves—failed on this front. We as a society do not value human life the way that we should, and that is the single biggest contributor to these acts of violence. What if we chose to intentionally treat life as the sacred thing that it is? What if we chose to teach our children to do as well? What if we held each other accountable for treating each and every human being—no matter their race, sex, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation, country of origin, political party, or any other way we categorize one another—as precious, as infinitely valuable, as a sacred living person worthy of respect? Call me an idealist, but I think that the world would be a much less violent place.
How can I help?
These events leave us feeling helpless and alone. But one of the few glimpses of light in the darkness of these tragedies is the way that people find a way to overcome the despair, come together, and work to help those who have been affected. Like Mr. Rogers used to say, when things are bad, look for the helpers. And you have the opportunity to be one of them.
The act of asking, “How can I help?” is brave in and of itself. It’s expression of your willingness to take your focus off of yourself and onto others. It’s a way of saying, “I’m scared, I’m messed up, and I need some help. But I know that there are others who need help more than I do, and I want to be there for them.” The fact that anyone is able to look away from the unbelievable horror in front of them and pay attention to those in need is a true testament to how good people can be.
There are a million different ways any individual can help. Usually, in the immediate vicinity of the attack, medical professionals need donations of blood. So if you’re there or nearby, you have an opportunity to make a huge difference by giving up something you already have more than enough of. Victims and their loved ones may need someone to talk to, or just someone to sit with. Or someone to speak out on their behalf. Or to say their names. Or simply to remember them. And of course, money always goes a long way in these situations when given to the right organization. You can help. You can make a difference. All of you have to do is ask yourself the question, then look around and find some way to get involved.
Why did this happen?
This is the big one, and it’s the one that lingers the longest. It’s the one that keeps you up at night and comes back years later bringing just a twinge of the pain you felt to remind you that you don’t have your answer. It’s the most natural question for someone to ask, and it’s the most difficult one to answer: Why? Why did this terrible thing happen? What is the reason for it all?
When we ask this question, we’re not seeking so much to understand as to find meaning in the tragedy. We don’t want things, especially bad things, to happen without meaning anything. There has to be an ultimate purpose for what happened. Otherwise, it was pointless.
But the truth is that senseless acts of violence don’t have explanations or ultimate purpose behind them. And they don’t have any meaning on their own. They’re simply horrific acts carried out by broken people under the wrong set of circumstances. It’s hard to admit, but all of those deaths and injuries didn’t happen for some greater, cosmic reason.
Still, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find meaning in them. We humans have an incredible capacity for meaning-making. We want things to matter, and so we make them matter by injecting them with purpose in ways that change the way we perceive them and ultimately form us into who we are. This is absolutely incredible, and it‘s what gives us the resilience to press on through tragedy after horrific tragedy.
And so that is what we do. We make meaning out of the most meaningless of acts. In the wake of these events, we find community in the coming together of those we may never have interacted with otherwise. We find inspiration in the stories of the survivors and those who put themselves at risk to rescue others. We find solidarity in mourning with those who have lost loved ones. We find hope when we affirm that the world can be a better place and we commit ourselves to making it so. And we find so much more. These awful circumstances do not give that meaning to us. Instead, we make that meaning despite the circumstances. We make meaning where there is none, and in this way, we bring light to darkest of times.
When awful things happen, they leave us with a lot of questions. Sometimes, we find answers, but more often than not, we find that the answers we seek simply are not out there to be found. Asking these questions and seeking these answers is natural; it’s something we all do. But in the end, it’s not the answers that matter. It’s not even the questions. In the process of the asking and the seeking, we are given the opportunity to honor the victims, to be honest with ourselves, to value life, to give of ourselves to others, and to create meaning where there is none. And I can’t think of a better response to a tragedy—or the inevitable questions that come with it—than that.