In Omaha Mall, It Could Have Been One of Us

Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 20, 2007.

When I first heard of the horrific tragedy that took place at a Nebraska mall last week, I thought to myself: It could have been me.

What I meant, of course, was that I, too, could have been killed or wounded, had I been in the wrong place at the wrong time. A short while later, I had an equally unsettling thought: Had life given me a different hand to play, I could have been the gunman.

No one really knows what the breaking point is for the human mind, or the human heart. There is no way to measure the capacity of one’s resolve. Each of us is unique, with varying degrees of genetic history, experience, choice and luck contributing to the way we respond to the world. And while it is true that, like the vast majority of us, I have successfully dealt with the challenges in my life thus far, there could come a day when I no longer can.

When Robert Hawkins shot 13 innocent people and then himself, the quest to find “the reason why” became the focal point of the resulting media coverage. Reason, however had nothing to do with it. How could it? Like Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (Columbine) before him, Hawkins’ psychological and emotional pain had become unbearable. So much so that, from his distorted perspective, the only way to quell his anguish was to carry out a murder-suicide.

I cannot imagine, under any conditions, ever reaching such a conclusion, myself. But, as the friends, family members and witnesses affected by this tragedy can attest, the very foundation of our well-being can be immeasurably fractured without warning.

The inability to function or cope with unfathomable despair and desperation can coincide with any number of life-altering events. The death of a loved of one. A financial crisis of epic proportion. The cumulative trauma of physical or mental abuse. In other instances, there is considerable difficulty in identifying a precipitating factor.

Each year, 15 million American adults experience major depression. Still, there is a growing trend in our society to chip away at the availability of community-support programs for our most vulnerable members. As a former social worker, I can attest to the paucity of comprehensive physical/emotional-health services, followup care, housing and job training for people in severe crisis or in transition from hospitals, prisons and other institutions. Case in point: In contrast to the billions of dollars spent on military operations in Iraq, municipalities across the country admit they are woefully ill-equipped to treat the thousands of servicemen and women expected to return from the war with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Accounts of stories like the shootings at the Westroads Mall frequently highlight the sensational, such as the killer’s morbid prediction of subsequent fame. Yet no one with a healthy mind views murder/suicide as an ideal. And to suggest otherwise minimizes the devastating hopelessness inherent in those words and makes it easier for us to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of the shooter.

Hawkins was not a monster. He was a deeply troubled, fragile human being. And while I never expect to reach such a dark and lonely place in my own life, there are no guarantees that I won’t. Should that day ever come, I hope I can get the help I need.

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John Morlino is a former social worker and is the founder of The Essence of True Humanity Is Compassion (The ETHIC), www.the-ethic.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace, nonviolence and compassion.