Dealing with Madness and Terror in Colorado Springs

Once again, Colorado Springs has made national news, this time for what might turn out to be an act of domestic terrorism. For a state of our size, we have a depressingly long list of mass shootings, from Columbine to Planned Parenthood. The why of these events is easy to discern although Colorado may have a greater propensity for such behavior. More on that later. The important and far more difficult question revolves around how to prevent these acts.

Whether or not the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting is an act of domestic terrorism isn’t the main point of this article, but the hypothetical possibility does beg further analysis because words matter in significant public forums. Most terrorists, foreign and domestic, tend to be socially awkward males who seek media attention for themselves, their cause, or both, and those who misunderstand or deny this need to do some honest research. Demagogues spreading lies, plus disenfranchised males, plus access to weapons equals bloodshed. The arithmetic of terror. The same people who created and spread the lie about Planned Parenthood harvesting and selling baby parts are trying to distance themselves from the recent attack in the fear that it really was an act of domestic terrorism. This reminds me of the story of Heinrich Himmler being mortified at getting a drop of blood from an executed Jew on his highly polished boots.

Manipulating the less intelligent into doing the dirty work of the rich and powerful is nothing new. Exhibit A is the death of Socrates. His real crime, as students of history and philosophy know, was exposing the lies and distortions of those who were trying to sway voters in order to enrich themselves. Guiding human action is as old as society itself. Changing human buying behavior, for example, has evolved into more of a science over the last century than an art. Whether selling soap, cars, or candidates, legions of degree-holding experts guide successful media campaigns every day. Sure, it doesn’t always work, but the science of understanding human behavior and thus shaping it is becoming increasingly more robust.

All human behavior is driven by genes and environment. While it is true that these interactions are incredibly complex, sort of like predicting weather in the Rockies, scientists don’t need all of the data points to be able to determine patterns of understanding. Genetically, for example, humans are hardwired for social interaction. Social order, along with opposable thumbs, has pushed us to the top of the food chain. Almost every human has a built-in need to belong to a group greater than themselves. It is why solitary confinement works even as it is being discontinued as “cruel and unusual.” Those who do not feel a strong bond to positive societal groups will gravitate towards negative ones. Gangs, religious extremists, and cults all prey on the disenfranchised.

When you add a global media that guarantees publicity for successful terrorists and with it the societal recognition these men crave, terrorism becomes inevitable rather than inexplicable. The world is full of men, young and old, who feel useless and disconnected. Finding a cause, committing to it, and sacrificing for it gives meaning to dreary and hopeless lives. Sacrificing themselves to a greater cause makes them feel important and useful. And by the time they discover there aren’t 72 virgins in the world, let alone in heaven, it’s too late.

As for the environmental factors, they are too numerous to detail in this space. However, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and inadequate education combined with radical religious beliefs are some aspects of the toxic brew that trigger these irrational acts. Do they become terrorists because they are crazy, or do they become crazy because they are terrorists? Does it matter? I also see no significant difference between foreign and domestic brands. Aside from 9/11, domestically grown terrorists have been more successful in carrying out their murderous agendas. Fear is now a daily part of life for many Americans. Schools, businesses, and government offices train for terrorist attacks in the way we used to train for nuclear ones. And the psychological scarring of our children will probably be as bad.

But why Colorado? I could be flippant and blame the altitude. The rarified air does affect newcomers for a while. Certainly, living in Hartsel didn’t help the Planned Parenthood shooter’s mental stability. It’s a tiny, desolate place that ruined many a pioneer. But I do suspect that the Rocky Mountains themselves may actually play a role. This sixth or seventh version (depending on which geological evidence persuades you) of the Rockies is a constant reminder of how small we are, of our brief existence, of our impermanent place in the universe.

But perhaps more than anything else, Colorado is a microcosm of America. For decades, marketing executives have used Colorado Springs and Oklahoma City, site of our worst domestic terrorism event, to take the pulse of the country in response to products, movies, and political campaigns. The extremists from both ends of the spectrum, as well as the befuddled middle, are well represented here. We are officially a purple state and a bellwether for the nation. I think it’s sad that most of my readers actually know what red, blue, and purple states are. We used to be Americans. Now we are divided by party, religion, political issues, and even sports allegiances among the more rabid fans.

What can be done? It is both simple and complex. Society needs to change, but not in any ways that have been proposed. None of the gun laws being discussed would have prevented most of our mass shootings. There is, however, a need to address gun culture and violence. New laws that are respectful of the Second Amendment are worth trying. Mental health needs to be addressed, obviously. This is more complicated due to cost and our primitive knowledge of the brain. The time will come, probably by the end of the century, when we will be able to image the brain and pick out the less stable before they strike.

But for right now, everyone can take one simple step that costs nothing except our animosity. It’s time to stand up and defend all Americans, especially those we disagree with. You can hate Obama’s policies all you want. But he is your President, and all citizens should insist on due respect for the office. We must abandon the us versus them thinking. The bad guy/ good guy mentality. We must appreciate that in a democracy, all viewpoints–conservative, liberal, or independent–contribute to our success as a nation. Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist. . . all are necessary in a healthy, free society. We must turn off the Mark Levins and get up and leave churches when pastors preach hate and violence. We must insist on respect and dignity for all humans. If we don’t, if we continue to allow political leaders to divide and exploit us, then the terrorists and the extremists who guide them have already won.