The atrocities confronting our world are as old as time. Some are horrifically violent acts, often perpetuated upon those most innocent, especially women, children, the infirm and, yes, even our elders. Others arise out of negligence, sometimes under less than optimal conditions. The majority of acts are the off-spring of historical hatreds, biases and prejudices.
There is nothing I or anyone else can say or do to ease the sheer suffering of the victims and their families, or their communities, villages, churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. I do not purport to know the depth of despair experienced. Nonetheless, it is so abundantly easy to proclaim my compassion and empathy. Hopefully no one reading this feels any differently.
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” penned late author and journalist Robert Ebert.
This inspires deeper consideration as to the meaning of empathy and compassion. Upon solid foundational spiritual teachings, I also feel the pain of the perpetrator’s families and villages who, more often than not, have thrust upon them guilt or a shame that is not merited, thus shattering even more lives. This scenario has unnecessarily played itself out time and time again in the domestic and foreign media.
The net result is that we ourselves become perpetrators creating more victims.
One example that has never left the minds of Americans is the April 1999 Columbine shootings. A dozen students and a teacher were fatally shot, and twenty-four more students were injured by two high school senior boys, who then took their own lives. Scores of students, educators and community members were forever left with scars transcending the physical. The public was quick to blame the parents of the two boys who were not just shooters but had suffered the loss of their own children.
Dylan Klebold was one of the boys responsible. His mother, Susan Klebold “…was not only grief-stricken but also wracked with guilt. She thought about killing herself, spontaneously cried, and refused to say her last name in public[i].”
But while I perceived myself to be a victim of the tragedy, I didn’t have the comfort of being perceived that way by most of the community. I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a “monster”[ii].
“A year after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, a Pew Research Center poll found 85% of Americans thought it was the job of parents to stop school violence [iii].”
This has been true in all of the copycat school shootings occurring since Columbine.
A decade after Columbine Mrs. Klebold wrote that she still could not believe the “…horror and anguish Dylan caused. I cannot look at a child in a grocery store or on the street without thinking about how my son’s schoolmates spent the last moments of their lives. Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love[iv].”
Dylan parents, Thomas and Susan, were interviewed over an eight year period by Andrew Solomon for a book published last year on parenting ‘abnormal’ children called “Far from the Tree”. In an interview Mr. Solomon concluded:
I began convinced that if I dug deeply enough into their character, I would understand why Columbine happened — that I would recognize damage in their household that spilled over into catastrophe. Instead, I came to view the Klebolds not only as inculpable, but as admirable, moral, intelligent and kind people whom I would gladly have had as parents myself[v].
How did Mrs. Klebold survive? She cites an “unexpected blessing” being the “…few occasions I was contacted by the parents of some of the children killed at the school. These courageous individuals asked to meet privately so we could talk. Their compassion helped me survive[vi].”
“It must be said that genuine compassion is not like pity or a feeling that others are somehow lower than you. Rather, with genuine compassion you view others as more important that yourself,” reflected His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
We are teachers and we are students. In this instance, we can all learn from Mrs. Klebold.
A good childhood gone awry is not so hard to comprehend. The bigger question is what do we extend within ourselves to other perpetrators of violent crimes?
In my younger years, while on a meditation retreat, the now late Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called “Thay”, asked the question, ‘If you were called and asked to go counsel an individual incarcerated for having participated in 9.11, would you go?’
The filled-to-capacity crowd became rather still.
After mindfully allowing the seed to be planted, Thay explained that the perpetrators did not act because they were inherently bad or evil but because they too had suffered; whether they or those they loved or had loved had been persecuted or abused; whether they suffered from disease or impairment that had gone unnoticed or untreated. Of course, there are also tragedies that occur from negligence – whether by act or omission.
He explained that the compassion we extend to perpetrators is not that of acceptance of such atrocities, calling that “idiot compassion”, but that which we would extend to any other human being.
The crowd began to physically shift about on their cushions and rugs reflecting first what had to have been their discomfort, soon replaced for most, as gauged by the energy I myself felt, to be a conscious and collective thought.
What I know for sure is reflected in the words of Doe Zantamata, author of the Happiness in Your Life book series:
Compassion dissolves anger. Understanding why someone behaves they do allows for forgiveness when they have mistreated you. Maybe they are insecure, or in pain, or maybe even they suffered some type of abuse in their lifetime, and you can see why they are the way they are. But when your compassion extends to excusing them for treating you poorly, over and over, it not only damages your self-worth, but prevents them from healing as well. Refuse to allow it to continue, for everyone’s sake.
It will take a collectively pure and steady heart to apply that rationale to the cool the heated discourse that has continued since the August 9, 2015 shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. Without losing sight of our duty to as citizens communicate to our leaders that civil rights violations are of paramount concern, our nation must simultaneously begin the process of reconciliation and healing.
The reality is that no one except Mr. Wilson will ever know what was running through his mind at the time he took Mr. Brown’s life. Regardless of his motivation or perceptions as to race, he will live with the knowledge that he took the life of another human being. That does not make him less of a human being. Yet, nowhere in the media is empathy found.
Taking a brief look at the facts, from a differing viewpoints, helped me to change the mental schema I myself had constructed, especially having just published an article titled “Rethinking Ferguson. One blogger wrote:
Fast forward nearly two weeks later. You have been villainized as a racist by everyone in local, state and federal governments. Angry citizens by the thousands are chanting for vengeance, declaring you as a hater of black people. The media is on a frenzy, stoking the flames of disorder as you flee to an undisclosed location because of threats to kill you.
You are a symbol of the criminal justice system, but you see something else unfurling before your eyes as you read newspapers and watch television from your hiding place. You always thought the system was about evenness and fairness, where justice is determined in a court room where evidence is presented challenged and evaluated before judgment is reached.
But that’s not happening for you. You’re different. You’re a white cop. The dead kid is black. You’re guilty[vii].
Mr. Wilson concurred, “You’re always looking, wondering if someone recognized you, if someone’s following you. I take precautions wherever I go. From where you sit at a restaurant to where you drive. Everything runs through your head[viii].”
On November 29, amid public outcry, Mr. Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police force with no severance pay citing security concerns. His attorney confirmed that Mr. Wilson will never again serve as a police officer.
The fact that he had a new wife who became pregnant with their child went virtually unnoticed, as did the impact of the incident on their own lives.
“We’re just normal people,” he said. “I just want to live a normal life[ix].”
Compassion toward Mr. Wilson and his young family will not excuse what happened or diminish its effect on Mr. Brown’s family
This concept was explored by David Klinger. Mr. Klinger, 57, is a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in the use of deadly force. After conducting years of interviews, Mr. Klinger has written a book, “Into the Kill Zone,” which details the experiences of other officers who’ve shot and killed people[x].
Mr. Klinger was inspired to pursue this career path after himself having been a police officer who fired a fatal shot. He was barely out of police academy when he took the life of a suspect to save the life of his partner. His efforts to disarm the suspect of the knife he was wielding were unsuccessful and he had no option but to fire a fatal shot.
“I blamed myself for 20 years for not being able to wrest the knife from him,” reflected Mr. Klinger[xi].
Efforts to adjust, even with a smaller department, were unsuccessful. The process of healing has been arduous:
What he has come to terms with is his guilt – which he says sometimes caused him to get angry with friends and family over even little things, or that brought on an anxious, uneasy feeling each year when the shooting anniversary came and went. After 20 years, he sought the help of a counselor, hoping to finally let it go.
“You can articulate verbally why you did what you had to do,” he remembers the counselor saying. “Why can’t you get your heart to accept that?”
That question struck a chord with Klinger.
“Shooting someone changes just about every cop who does it,” said a veteran officer Klinger interviewed, who “struggled mightily” after shooting two people in his career, killing one. “You’ll just never look at life in the same way[xii].”
This spring Mr. Klinger testified at a U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing on deadly force:
Often times, officers find themselves in too close, too quickly, and they don’t have any option other than to shoot their way out of it. That’s where I really think we fall down in American law enforcement[xiii].
Now, Mr. Klinger “…hopes to be a voice of reason in an emotional national debate, and an advocate for change.”
Like Mrs. Klebold, Mr. Klinger is a teacher.
In closing, consider the words of Sufi poet Rumi:
In this earth, in this soil, in this pure field let’s not plant any seed other than seeds of compassion and love.
About the Author
Cynthia M. Lardner holds a journalism degree, she is a licensed attorney and trained as a clinical therapist. Her philosophy is to collectively influence conscious global thinking understanding that everything and everyone is subject to change given the right circumstances; Standard Theory or Theory of Everything.
Ms. Lardner has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and LinkedIn, as well as accounts under the pseudonym of Deveroux Cleary, and is globally ranked in the top 1% of all account holders.
[i] Fuchs, Erin, “Columbine Shooter’s Mom Gave A Chilling Account Of Discovering Her Son’s Massacre 15 Years Ago Today”, April 20, 2014, Business Insider, as found on the www at
[ii] Klebold, Susan, “I Will Never Know Why”, October 2009, O Magazine, as found on the www at http://www.oprah.com/world/Susan-Klebolds-O-Magazine-Essay-I-Will-Never-Know-Why#ixzz3ehSwZodW.
[iii] Fuchs, Erin, Infra Endnote No i (“After such tragedies, people struggle to contemplate why a young person could do something so horrific, and it’s natural they would look to the shooter’s parents for answers.”).
[iv] Klebold, Susan, Infra Endnote No. ii (In her only first person essay, Mrs. Klebold wrote:
In the weeks and months that followed the killings, I was nearly insane with sorrow for the suffering my son had caused, and with grief for the child I had lost. Much of the time, I felt that I could not breathe, and I often wished that I would die. I got lost while driving…
Seeing pictures of the devastation and the weeping survivors was more than I could bear. I avoided all news coverage in order to function. I was obsessed with thoughts of the innocent children and the teacher who suffered because of Dylan’s cruelty. I grieved for the other families, even though we had never met. Some had lost loved ones, while others were coping with severe, debilitating injuries and psychological trauma. It was impossible to believe that someone I had raised could cause so much suffering.)
[v] Fuchs, Erin, Infra Endnote No i
[vi] Klebold, Susan, Infra Endnote No. ii.
[vii] Frank, Marshall, “You are Office Darren Wilson, Ferguson, P.D.”, September 14, 2014, as found on the www at https://plus.google.com/+DavidLamberson/posts/deiQdhuRYQq.
[viii] Helling, Steven, “Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Is Expecting a Child: ‘I Want to Live a Normal Life'”, November 26, 2014, People Magazine, as found on the www at http://www.people.com/people/mobile/article/0,,20876874,00.html. See also Brown, DaNeen, “At Darren Wilson’s house, neighbors say he and his family took off”, August 14, 2014, Washington Post, as found on the www at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/08/15/at-darren-wilsons-house-neighbors-say-he-and-his-family-took-off/.
[ix] Helling, Steven, Infra Endnote No. viii.
[x] “A former LA cop who killed shares lessons on deadly force”, June 28, 2015, Associated Press, as found on the www at http://wkbn.com/2015/06/28/a-former-cop-who-killed-shares-lessons-on-deadly-force/.