Is it our responsibility as human beings living in a civilIzed society to notify the proper authorities when we believe someone is in danger of harming others or harming themselves?
When my daughter was a Junior at a Public High School in New York City she was faced with this dilemma.
She discovered that a transfer student in her class was expelled from his private school because of a provocative email he sent to a classmate. My daughter described the boy as a brooder who never smiled. “He would just stare at random students in class.” The email he sent provided a little insight into this boy’s inner world. He threatened a fellow classmate by saying, “when I blow up the school you will be the first to go down, quickly!”
I instructed my daughter to disclose this information to her advisor. She did. Thankfully, there was no incident.
In 1999, I was teaching a class in Autobiographical Theater at New York University. The class was focused on the works of Augusto Boal and Jerzy Grotwsky, the pioneers of experimental theater. Both men believed that the critical relationship between the actor and the spectator provides a profound opportunity to confront the truth.
Each week we would create vignettes based on social and political issues that were influencing the world. The students were from all over the country and two were foreign students. Towards the end of the semester, on April 20th, 1999 two senior students at Columbine High school went on a shooting spree killing 12 students and 1 teacher. It was one of the deadliest school massacres in US history. My students were deeply disturbed and wanted to do something. Their final production which they had vigorously rehearsed was canned and they rewrote their final performance piece.
Unanimously, the class agreed to create a scene with no dialogue, casting two students as the murderers who were then directed to witness their destruction as the other cast members re-enacted the horrific shooting scene and the aftermath. As the class researched the two boys responsible for the massacre, their repulsion softened when they learned that each one was bullied and terrorized in the halls of their high school. While my class explored their backgrounds they began to formulate reasons for the boy’s desperate need to violently retaliate. The vulnerability and instability of the boys was portrayed by the actors. Many questions were posed. Where were the parents when their sons were planning this tragedy? Why did the school allow the severe bullying to go on for so long?
Were there any warning signs? These questions figured into the production and the bold decision to have the victims touch the shoulder of each boy after they committed suicide.
The production was a dramatic attempt at reconciling the brutality and the senseless loss of lives while providing the space to communicate the unspeakable.
Each victim, one by one, stood before the executioners and looked straight into their eyes. The scene was thoughtfully choreographed and blocked. The audience shared how they could feel the self-loathing and despair of those damaged souls.
The audience in Aurora, Colorado involuntarily became spectators to one of the most deadly and terrifying nights as a masked mad man lobbed gas canisters into the movie theatre right before opening fire with a gun that allowed him to fire immense amount of bullets at one time. We can’t begin to imagine the depth of pain these families are feeling and the courage it will take for them to continue on with their lives. I am filled with tremendous sadness and unanswered questions similar to the ones my students had during the Columbine tragedy.
Did the owner of the pawn shop have a flash of intuition after selling those guns to a 24 year old student? Did James Holmes appear distraught, anxious or indifferent? Did his parents know how unstable he was? Did his teachers notice any red flags in his research papers or conduct in class? Did his fellow classmates realize that he was delusional, depressed or paranoid? Was he ever violent towards his friends or family? How did he afford his arsenal of weaponry?
As Holmes spiraled out of control, becoming increasingly isolated, his intentions seem to intensify. He meticulously planned a mass execution of innocent lives in his small apartment. A student who had invested years of his life studying the human brain was seemingly detached from the consequences of his own behavior.
If the court ordered Holmes to have an MRI would a Neurologist see an abnormality in the blood flow to his orbitofrontal region? If his blood flow was critically low this could effect his decision making process and prevent normal levels of flexibility when confronted with life’s challenges and disappointments. Would this cause him to plan an execution of another human being? James Holmes' impaired decision making and violent actions fit the profile of a mentally ill man, but we will have to wait for the forensic team to give us those answers.
What can we offer the survivors and the families of the 12 victims that don't want to wait? What can we promise them? We can not pretend to always understand why people do what they do. We can’t see someone’s internal scar tissue or an absence of self-worth. However, we can trust our intuition and use our voices when we sense that something isn’t right. The implications can be enormous. “Our Lives begin to end, the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Martin Luther King