I submitted the following to The New York Times in the wake of the shootings in Colorado last month. Word on the street is they didn't use it so, now, it can find a home on my blog, a close second in terms of prestige.
In the wake of the massacre last week in Aurora, Colorado, the United States is left wrangling with a mounting number of tough questions with respect to gun control, mental health care, cinematic violence, definitions of terrorism and politicization of tragedy. And while they’re all quandaries worthy of reflection, one particular outcry hits home, literally, for many of us: What is wrong with Colorado?
I was a sophomore in high school when the Columbine shooting occurred. Sitting in geometry class, we watched the drama unfold on television. (It was the first time I’ve felt that sensation of empty helplessness, the same emotion experienced watching the World Trade Center fall the first week of my freshman year at Boston College.) My high school, Regis Jesuit, isn’t exactly around-the-corner from Columbine, but it’s not far, either. Later, when I found out that I had played youth soccer with one of the victims, Isaiah Shoels, I joined a larger community of puzzled mourners.
And, now, Colorado is left with a doubled-down-upon nausea. Not only is there the tragedy and its consequences, there’s an perception in and out of state that there must be something awry here. (To add insult to significant injury, the Centennial State has experienced one of its worst summers on record, from fires north and south to drought, unbearable heat and the murder of a police officer after a jazz concert.) So, what gives?
Colorado’s relatively relaxed gun laws aren’t decreasing violence, whatever the concealed weapons advocates say. It’s up for debate as to whether or not it’s increasing violence; a statistic like a 41% uptick in background checks for weapons isn’t comforting, to say the least. But, that doesn’t explain why two of the biggest shooting sprees in U.S. history have occurred, here, in Colorado.
Nothing really can. For lack of a better explanation, it’s evil luck. There’s nothing in the water here (it’s actually quite delicious) and Coloradans don’t have a preordained lust for violence. There’s a stock phrase, now, around election time, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” I’d say the same of this Rocky Mountain purple state and go one or two steps further: Whatever is “wrong” with Colorado, is “wrong” with the United States. Or as Anthony Burgess related in a recently-printed New Yorker essay, perhaps “evil” is the more accurate term.
There will always be people who want to cause harm to others, from California to Colorado to Connecticut. Our governor, John Hickenlooper, dodged a gun control question on Meet the Press this weekend, but his basic point was right. “This wasn’t a Colorado problem,” he said. “This is a human problem.” While it’s true we won’t be able to stop people from choosing malevolence, it was misguided to imply we shouldn’t try harder.
Colorado is a divided state. Denver Democrats have little in common with Eastern plains farmers or Pueblo steelworkers. It can be a paranoid, tense and conflicted place, but if that doesn’t describe the current state of the union, I’m not sure what does.
A brief defense is in order, too. I love Colorado. It is a gorgeous, sprawling region. Coming back here two years ago--after going to college out East and living in New York City for five years--was a breath of fresh air. People at this altitude are as laid-back as the stereotype promises, and Coloradans are overwhelmingly kind, jovial and generous. The divide that exists can, often, give way to a harmonious balance, perennially-top-ranked healthy nuts enjoying a few of the local craft beers or bankers biking to work, no ties allowed.
Friday morning was an awful one. Coloradans woke up to concerned phone calls from family and friends, only to slowly learn what had happened. It seemed like it would last forever. But, it didn’t. The Denver Post hosted its 12th annual Underground Music Showcase from Thursday to Sunday on South Broadway street. Hundreds of bands participated--the lion’s share of them local--and for a few hours each day, the citizens of the Denver area enjoyed the welcome respite of melody, high-fives and cold drinks. The tragedy hadn’t overtaken Colorado, just the opposite. And in those theaters on Broadway, no one could stop the show from going on.