Their names are Robert and Arlene and they are living a parent’s worst nightmare.
Their 24-year-old son, dressed in black and armed with automatic weapons, entered a darkened movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., last week and systematically shot and killed 12 strangers and wounded 58 others.
Once again, the images on the news were horrible. The faces of the survivors. The grieving family members. A community in shock.
The smiling picture of the alleged gunman is disturbing. A bright young man who played soccer in high school and who graduated at the top of his class at a prestigious university. A graduate student who was studying neuroscience. A young man who in the past weeks and months had amassed weapons and ammunition, spent hours rigging his apartment to cause deadly harm and who shot and killed innocent people who were fleeing in fear.
In the coming days, we will undoubtedly learn more about this shooter. We will hear about his childhood. Maybe he was a loner. Maybe he had friends. Maybe he has a history of drug use. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe his psychological torment was evident to others. Maybe it was hidden.
We may find out that his parents were concerned. We may find out that they didn’t know a thing. We will hear people say, with the benefit of hindsight, the parents had to have known. We will likely hear blame.
For those of us who are parents, we will know that these parents are hurting. Their names will likely not be included in the list of survivors.
After the shootings at Columbine, ironically just 15 miles from the Aurora movie theatre, the parents of the shooters were vilified. How could they not know? How could these kids be building bombs in their bedrooms and be so unsupervised? What was wrong with these families? The parents must be monsters.
In the little I’ve read so far, the parents of the Batman shooter are upper middle class, educated and involved in the community. Dad is a software company manager. Mom is a nurse. There is a younger sibling. Perhaps like the rest of us, their days were full of carpools, work schedules, grocery shopping, laundry and family time.
I can imagine their pride at a college diploma with highest honors and what probably seemed like the next step in a life’s journey. He had been a summer camp counselor. He was accepted into an elite graduate school.
Colleagues at work described the shooter as polite and responsible.
Maybe his parents spent time with guidance counselors and doctors seeking help for a son with mental illness. Maybe they didn’t.
When we send our children out in the world, we hope they are successful, kind and good people. We hope they aren’t bullies. We hope they won’t cheat or steal. We hope they are honest, hardworking people who carry on our legacy, whatever that is.
We hope they are happy and have positive relationships with others. We hope that they make good decisions. We worry.
We don’t expect that our children will harm others.
We are sadly familiar with the horrors of mass shootings with incidents such as Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech and Fort Hood. Law enforcement and medical and mental health experts have examined these shootings to try to determine the common factors or characteristics of the shooters.
The picture is unclear. While some argue that anyone who decides to take a gun into a public setting and open fire on innocent bystanders is clearly mentally ill, others argue that the often methodical manner in which these are often played out shows cunning, clarity of thought and true evil.
It is not surprising that many of the shooters are teens or young adults. Today’s culture can be a pressure cooker even for kids who don’t struggle with mental illness. The pressure to be the perfect student, athlete, musician or student leader. Bullying and hazing.
The ease of the Internet and cell phones and social media to accelerate and magnify social discomfort. TV, movies and video games that make shooting other humans seem like normal behavior. Young brains that aren’t always ready to process impulse control and good decision making. Feeling invisible and insignificant. Feeling alienated and persecuted.
Through the lens of paranoia or other thought disorders, the shooters often carry out explicit planning and detail in an attempt for revenge or notoriety.
And they come from families. While those families may have been toxic or dysfunctional and some would argue responsible for the creation of these so-called monsters, the families – the parents - are often caught as unaware and as horrified as the rest of us.
In profiling these troubled individuals, one expert said “In almost all cases, there was someone who was worried about him.”
I’m reminded of poet Kahil Gibran’s thoughts on children in "The Prophet."
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
I pray for strength for all of the victims and their families impacted in the Aurora shootings.