The Aurora Massacre: Coping With the Precariouness of Human Existence

The Aurora massacre has provoked fears of life-threatening vulnerability and a desperate concern to prevent another mass slaying. Can a pragmatic solution be found? And if so, what? If not, how can we allay our existential fears?

Since the massacre, pundits have been arguing whether the government should encourage the public to detect and report to the authorities individuals exhibiting unusual changes in behavior, suggesting symptoms of mental illness, or should there be new laws passed to restrict the purchase of guns?

Most conservative pundits have decried the renewed focus on gun control, maintaining that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." They argue that even with more gun control legislation, a deranged individual intent on shooting innocent citizens, will find a way to obtain the guns. They insist that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of every American to bear arms in order to defend the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, especially to protect one's home and loved ones. One governor went so far as to say that it was unfortunate there weren't other armed citizens in the Aurora movie theater who could have shot the killer and stopped him. Others argued that in the dark theater, this might have caused more murders and mayhem.

Common sense tells us that restricting access to high-powered guns capable of firing hundreds of rounds in seconds, would diminish the potential for mass murder. Enraged, crazed individuals are often addictively compelled to express violence. Controlling access to guns would make it more difficult for them to implement their barbaric fantasies. However, Larry Elder, a libertarian radio talk-show host, pointed out that some societies, like Canada's, which have easy access to guns, have fewer incidents of mass violence than in the United States. He concluded that the culprit was cultural influence, not guns, and that ours is a more violent society.

Some pundits have focused on mental illness, rather than gun control. Unfortunately, predicting the potential for mass murder is virtually impossible. As a psychologist in clinical practice for 42 years, I have observed and treated all types of psychopathology in inpatient and outpatient settings, including psychotic patients with murderous fantasies, and none of them have murdered anyone, let alone committed mass murder. My experience is not unique. I don't know of any mental health professionals who can accurately predict the potential for mass murder in a given individual from symptoms of mental illness, unless they know that the person has acquired weapons, devised a specific plan and is extremely motivated to carry it out. If trained professionals cannot predict mass murder, how can one expect the police, family members or the public to do so? Moreover, the murder rate among schizophrenics is less than in the general population. The adoption of a nationwide mandate to report any signs of abnormal behavior to authorities would be tantamount to a witch-hunt and stigmatize the mentally ill more than they already are.

Pragmatically, the most we can do is be sensitive to explicit indications of danger in the present, such as seeing someone acting menacingly or carrying guns. This would be similar to the alertness for strange behavior in one's fellow passengers that air travelers have acquired since 9/11, for the purpose of identifying potential terrorists. However, even with such surveillance, the likelihood of preventing mass slayings, like Aurora's, is miniscule.

The sad truth is that regardless of what we do preventatively, we are virtually incapable of stopping massacres. "Shit happens!" Horrific events occur beyond our control and there is little we can do about them. These events trigger existential anxiety, pervasive fears for our survival, derived from overwhelming feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. Many of us defend against this anxiety by reverting to fantasies of omnipotent control. Ironically, we often project our desire for omnipotent control into fantasy superhero saviors, like Batman, with whom we can identify, or, at times, even God. But Batman remains a fantasy and God, as most priests, rabbis and pastors would probably say, lends support and comfort but does not prevent catastrophes. In fact, catastrophes are explained as God's will. As illustrated in the Book of Job, God helps human beings accept catastrophes as unavoidable limitations of reality. Such acceptance is a prerequisite for moving on with their lives. Thus, he castigates Job for his omnipotent belief that being a good man, God's most loyal servant, should have prevented his life from being destroyed by Satan. When Job questions how God could have forsaken him, God answers. "How dare you question my will! I created the universe and everything in it." God admonishes Job for trying to omnipotently control him by being loyal and good. Job must ultimately accept that God or reality is more powerful than him, even when reality is unpredictable and destructive.

Thus, in the face of catastrophe, our healthiest psychological response is to mourn our unbearable losses and the losses of others and to have the humility to be aware of our helplessness and vulnerability. Our greatest challenge is to accept the unpredictable, uncertain nature of human existence, in which we and our loved ones might perish at any given moment. When confronted by tragedy, like Job and hopefully the Aurora massacre victims, we need to preserve the "audacity of hope" and our motivation to live vital, fulfilling lives.

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