Holocaust Museum Shooting

What Was He Thinking?

What was his morning like?  Did he take a shower?  Did he eat breakfast?  Did he clean his 22 gauge rifle before loading it?  Did he think-at all-about what he was about to do?  Did he hesitate as he opened the car door, considering if this really was the thing he wanted to do?  Or did he drop into the driver's seat, slam the door, throw it in gear and start driving toward the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.?  

And then, I wonder...I wonder because I cannot fathom it, I just can't imagine--at all--how that 88 year old man could park the car, grab his rifle, enter the Holocaust Museum and begin shooting.  To kill. 

I cannot imagine that kind of hatred.  That much hatred.  I.  Cannnot.  Imagine.  It.

At least one of the shooter's family members suspects mental illness.  And perhaps her relative truly is sick and unable to control his emotional impulses. 

But what if he isn't mentally ill?  Sometimes I think that, even while acknowledging the devastation of acts like the Holocaust Museum shooting, we dismiss those acts as the result of a mentally deranged mind.  There is a part of us that wants to believe ourselves-- we sane, "normal" people--immune to the kind of hatred that fueled James von Brunn's actions two and a half weeks ago.

And I wonder if that-our tendency to distance ourselves from the ugly, hate-filled, violent impulses in the world--I wonder if our willful blindness to our own ugly, hate-filled impulses is part of the reason the world is still so hate-filled, violent, and ugly in so many places.

Hear me well.  I am not suggesting that anyone other than James von Brunn is responsible for his actions that morning.  But what contributes to the circumstances in which his hatred took root, grew, and thrived?  Is there some sense in which we all--even we good, well-intentioned Christian people--either by our actions or inaction, contribute to the nurture of hatred in the world?  Is there some way in which I, even I, create some bit of ugliness the world could do without?

Guarding our Thoughts

One of the nuns at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, is Sr. Mary Margaret Funk.  Sr. Meg is an internationally known scholar in the writings and practices of the desert fathers and mothers.  (Check out her website at www.megfunk.com)

Drawing on the work of some of those ancient monks, John Cassian, in particular, Sr. Meg focuses a lot of her scholarly attention on thoughts.  Contrary to common wisdom, absent psychological pathology, we are not ruled by our thoughts.  In truth, we are much more capable than we know of determining our own thoughts. 

Here's how it works.  Thoughts arise.  Because we're human beings, that's not something we can stop.  We have brains and experiences and ideas, all of which come together to form images in our minds we call thoughts.  To borrow a popular phrase--thoughts happen.

Here's a thought-"I'm hungry."  It was a large breakfast, but still.  I'm hungry.  The "I'm hungry" thought arises unbidden.  I can't help having that thought.  What I can choose is whether I will allow that initial thought to give way to a second thought: "I'm hungry and lunch will be a while longer yet."  After the second thought arises, I again can choose whether or not to stop the "thought train," as I like to call it, or let a third thought arise, "I know exactly what will fill my hunger-a cinnamon roll!"  Again, after that thought arises, I can choose whether or not to let the fourth thought arise, "Where's the best place to buy a cinnamon roll?"

As you can see, the longer you allow this "thought train" to travel, the harder it becomes to let the thought go.  After one or two more thoughts, it will be nigh on impossible not to go out, purchase a cinnamon roll, and eat it.

The same is true, I suspect with thoughts of hatred.  Hatred of others doesn't happen all at once.  Hatred grows in tiny increments over a long period of time.  One might imagine the hate-thought that "triggers" an act of violence to be the caboose of a very, very, very long hate-thought "train."  As one hate-thought leads to another and another and another, it becomes increasingly difficult to let go of those hate-filled thoughts.  If one doesn't discipline one's mind away from hatred, the hatred only grows and intensifies and, eventually, leads to violence.

So when's the time to stop hate-thoughts?  The first moment you feel one arise...the first moment, the first millisecond a negative or derogatory thought arises about another person, that's the moment when it will be easiest to disengage from the hate-thinking.  The moment the first hate-thought gives way to the second, letting the thought go becomes more difficult.  By the time your mind has made it to the 5,000th thought in the train, that thought has become a part of you and will be very, very difficult to let loose.

Is James von Brunn mentally ill?  Is he evil?  I don't know the answer to those questions.  I do know that the more we focus on life-giving thoughts (like love and generosity) and let go of negative thoughts, the less hatred there will be in the world.

Peace for the journey,