The word rolls lyrically off the tongue, almost like a poem unto itself.
The Romans would tell us she is the goddess of dawn. The meteorologists would say, using precise language you can find at Dictionary.com, that an aurora is a “radiant emission from the upper atmosphere that occurs sporadically over the middle and high latitudes of both hemispheres in the form of luminous bands, streamers, or the like.” The luminous bands and streamers, you see, are the product of the bombardment of the atmosphere by charged solar particles guided along the earth’s magnetic lines of force.
That, too, sounds like poetry.
There are some conclusions I humbly submit for all of us to ponder. Tragedy and loss disorganize the mind, and mine is no different. These I list in no particular order of importance—other than I think they are all equally valid.
Bravery and selflessness are real. And, as it turns out, neither requires training or expertise. Matthew Robert McQuinn, 27, hurled his body over his girlfriend, Samantha Yowler. Bullets took his life and spared hers. Jonathan Blunk, a Navy veteran, did the same to save the life of his girlfriend, Jansen Young.
Stop with the slacker smears. Our culture is neck-deep in derision for a generation of supposedly weak-kneed ingrates who possess neither grit nor guile—a feckless horde of smartphone-savvy nullities who turn to jelly in the face of adversity. Let us consider those in the theater who didn’t panic—didn’t simply save themselves, but instead kept their cool and rendered aid. President Obama told the story of Stephanie Davies, 21, who saw her friend, Allie Young, 19, shot in the neck and did the unimaginable—applied pressure to the bleeding wound, and, with Allie telling her she had to run, stayed and called 911 on her cell phone. Then, with others, she carried Allie across two parking lots to safety. Slacker nation? Don’t tell Stephanie or Allie or others who summoned themselves to near-greatness in that tear-gas and horror-filled madhouse.
Stop asking the wrong questions. When did the suspect snap? What made him snap? What laws could have stopped him? When will we write new laws to stop the next mass murderer? The suspect, if you ask psychologists and criminal profilers, did not “snap.” You snap in a traffic jam or in an argument or in the bar when you punch the muscle-bound bouncer. The suspect planned methodically for dark, deeply personal, and unfathomable reasons. We may never know why. We may find out why and consider the answer(s) banal—he dropped out of school, his girlfriend dumped him. Chasing why and what made him kill is a tortuous errand for psychologists. Not us.
No new laws. Almost no new law would have applied in this case. An old law, the assault-weapons ban, might have. But no ban is going to eradicate assault-weapon crime. The properly motivated found those firearms. This suspect would have probably been so motivated. And even without an AR-15, the suspect would have had legal access—because he had no record and no markers of mental illness—to numerous Glock semiautomatic guns. We are not banning handguns. Period. Ammunition? Even if purchases were regulated, which they are not, the suspect would have and could have spaced out his purchases to avoid detection. Magnetometers at the theater door? The suspect entered through a rear exit that he propped open. His motivation was part of his mania. And our society, which justifiably prides itself on freedom of movement, cannot hermetically seal itself off from this kind of demonic malevolence.
Crime is down. This point cannot be emphasized enough. We have a consensus in our nation, a quiet and durable one, that favors the following crime-fighting tools: long prison sentences for repeat felons, concealed weapons to be carried by law-abiding citizens who submit to training and licensing (49 states allow this in some form—although Aurora banned the practice), and community policing that targets high-crime urban areas. These laws and approaches have worked. Spectacularly. The violent-crime rate in America in 2011 was lower than in 1960. The murder rate in America in 1960 was 5.1 per 100,000 people. In 2010, it was 4.8 per 100,000 people. Since 1991, the murder rate in America has dropped more than 52 percent. When I was young, movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish spoke to a culture besieged by the ever-present menace of thuggery. Violent crime quadrupled in America from 1960 to 1991. It’s been declining ever since due to a state and federal consensus on what works and what doesn’t: better policing, longer sentences, and, yes, a sense among the criminal class that potential victims might well be armed.
In the aftermath of Aurora, let us remember the bravest who saved others, who, in their own ways, were like luminous bands and streamers of protection, valor, and selflessness. Let us think of the nimble of mind and stout of heart, who, like radiant emissions of light in that sick atmosphere, helped others and gave solace to our nation.
And let us also, as the Romans and Greeks did, remember the limitations of mankind to harness, redirect, anticipate, or shield ourselves from spasms of violence that can bombard our world, rendering us dumb, disbelieving, and heartbroken. And let us remember the dawn that is Aurora.
This article appears in the July 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.