Like most young adults nearing their graduation from college, we talked about the future. We talked about the great things that we would do, the families we would raise, the businesses we would start, the careers we would pursue, the failures we would endure. No doubt we also talked about whom amongst us would affect the world, whom amongst us would make an impact.
Needless to say, the senseless slaughter of masses of people in a movie theater was not what any one in UC Riverside’s graduating class of 2010, including me, had in mind. At least not anyone save James Eagan Holmes.
To be clear at the outset, I don’t recall ever meeting James Holmes, although he apparently was part of some of the same campus organizations that I was, and apparently lived, at least for a brief time, in the same apartment complex as some close friends of mine. He appears, at least according the reports that have come out thus far, to have been, unsurprisingly, a largely quiet and reclusive person, and to have mostly kept to himself.
In any case, as news of the shooting in Colorado came out throughout the morning and afternoon, and with it, the alleged shooter’s connections to UCR, my Facebook was inundated by posts remarking on the fact that this guy, for four years, had lived and gone to class amongst us. Friends and friends of friends reposted links to stories about it, adding comments bemoaning his UCR affiliation, wondering aloud about whether he’d been at this or that party or in this or that class.
It seemed astonishing to them (as it is to me, in all honesty) to find that, in the end, they could have crossed paths with a mass murderer, and that he could have been engaged in something so everyday, so mundane as going to class, or cramming for a final, or walking home to a dorm room.
In truth, though, that's part of what makes James Eagan Holmes and those like him so terrifying and aberrant to us. We find it hard to believe that they aren’t animals who grow up in the middle of the woods or who spend their lives outside of society (however much they may go out of their way to remain isolated from it). We are shocked to find out that they shop in our supermarkets, go to our schools, live in our hometowns. And when they do violence in those places, whether in our high schools or in our movie theaters, it is the everydayness of those places that jars us, that takes us aback, that makes it so easy for us to imagine ourselves and our families as victims of such acts.
Men like James Holmes are probably more numerous, more common than we care to think about. Their world, however unhinged they are, is the same as ours, and they can do violence to it with much greater ease than they can enliven or comfort or uplift it.
Whatever the motive, whatever the circumstance, then, whatever the inspiration for James Holmes to do what he did last night, he is not an especially impactful or remarkable human being, except maybe in the sense that a void is deep or that a black hole is massive or that death is important. Magnitude is not the same as value.
In the end, that business, the business of valuing, of helping and comforting and uplifting, is left to the rest of us. Even if terrorists and murders come out of our schools and colleges and communities and families, then so do doctors and teachers and architects and all sorts of other people who value their lives and the lives of others. It is those people, including those whom Mr. Holmes injured and killed last night, who go about their lives, building or thinking or trying, searching for and hopefully finding some purpose to augment and inspire, to animate and enrich, and to affect and impact themselves and those around them.