October 6, 2020

Imagine Being the Shooter—Can we Find Empathy?

I try to imagine being in the shoes of a young man, not yet the age of majority, pointing a killing machine at people I’ve never met, and pulling the trigger.

Would I feel empowered and successful? I would have accomplished what I set out to do—kill someone with this powerful thing I’ve always wanted to use. I would save some people I don’t know from dangerous people whom I know are the bad guys. I’d let the police know I’m on their side, and I’m here to make a difference.

Wait, no one even noticed I killed someone when I held up my gun and walked toward the police. That was disappointing. I did my job, no one noticed. Until—wait—what happened? I’m confused.

Did someone teach me this was the way to prove I’m a Man? Or the way to prove that I’m patriotic, a Yankee Doodle Dandy?

Maybe it just feels like the way people I care about expect me to be, the way to fit in, be accepted, and loved by my family and friends.

I cannot imagine.

At 17, I was struggling to make sense of calculus, to figure out what would have my classmates gossiping about me, to understand why my guidance counselor didn’t want to recommend a women’s college for me. I was clueless.

I did understand what it meant when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was horrible. Someone shot and killed my President. That’s about all I knew about guns. We didn’t have them in my house, no one I knew used them for hunting or target practice. I was so privileged and sequestered in my middle-class white enclave. Safe.

That was 1964. So long ago—a different universe.

Today, it’s 2020. A 17 year-old-boy, a member of a group of people who own and use military-style rifles to protect the people they feel need to be protected, by killing those people from whom the first group needs to be protected. He packs up his machine, a lunch bag, and maybe a bottle of water, and his mother drives him to the event, to the place where he is planning to do his duty to god and his country by shooting the bad guys.

I am so puzzled by this. I cannot imagine where he learned all this; learned who needed protecting from whom, learned it was his job to use this killing machine to clear the streets of a city not his own, of people he does not know, who are apparently threatened by another set of people he does not know. In what universe does this make sense?

Oh. You guessed. Yes, I am a Boomer. Of course, I don’t understand. I’m ancient (73) and ignorant of the current century, the current state of my fellow humans, and the current nightmare that is my country. I admit it. I have always been an optimist, looking for the good in all people in my universe, always presenting the best me I knew how to be. For most of my life, I’ve felt fine about myself and my place on the planet, in my country, my neighborhood, and my family. Now I am feeling crushed, invisible, useless in today’s United States of America.

How can we feel and express empathy for someone whose actions are so alien to our own experience?

I have to assume I can reach a feeling of empathy. I need to do this alone, not in the company of someone who might think I’ve lost my marbles altogether, boomer or not.

Step into an imaginary set of shoes, think the thoughts, take the actions—in pantomime, not reality, please no guns in my hands, okay? I have started writing a journal with entries written as if from the pen of someone I am not, someone I have trouble understanding.

Can it possibly be real? Can the words I come up with be remotely like those the above young man might use? I may never know. I do know that I have found a reason to pause before I suggest this young man, an alleged killer of two strangers, should spend his life in prison.

We have such a long way to go before we can look at one another and say, “I understand.”

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