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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

July 24th, 2012 11:26 AM

Justice Unresolved and How We Forget Survivors

Horror.  Horrific.  Unthinkable violence.  Death around us.  Resolve to recover and to remember those killed and injured.  Media frenzy to show the trauma.  The pattern of how we deal with mass murders in America is now becoming standard operating procedure for the media and also, unfortunately, for many communities.  And so it is now with the most recent mass shooting in Aurora, CO. 

Listen to the hyperbole – “Massacre in Theater Nine” or “Batman Theater Massacre” or even elected officials’ well-intentioned and heartfelt promises like “We Will Remember.”   Yes, we’ll all recall some level of tragedy when we hear these words shared in the months hence, but I can also almost guarantee that we will forget, and we will expect even the survivors to move on in rather short order lest they remind us of the potential for violence among us and distract us from living happy lives.

In an article about many mass murders this week, one report did what so many do.  He reported the status of a Colorado killer from long ago, not the names of the victims.  Victims become numbers of dead; survivors are forgotten. 

The Chuck E Cheese pizza parlor murders on December 14, 1993, are instructive in many ways, since the shooter survived, was arrested, went on trial, and remains alive after 19 years.  His dead victims were Sylvia, Ben, Coleen and Marge. The living survivors of that pre-Christmas shooting --  Bobby, and my son Russell who left the restaurant minutes before the murders, and other people who were deeply wounded psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually in that event – go on with deep scars and with justice unresolved.

From BusinessWeek, but it could easily be any publication: 

“Three men are on the state’s death row, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections website. One, Nathan Dunlap, was convicted of killing four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.”

I do not support the death penalty.  But I recall forever sitting in the courtroom in Arapahoe County after Dunlap was tried and convicted.  I was seated next to one of Sylvia’s relatives who also felt conflicted in those moments about what justice might mean.  We shook and prayed together that God’s will be done. 

I had watched my son testify during Dunlap’s trial.  He held in his hand for the first time following those murders his time card from December 14, 1993, that showed just how few minutes had passed between when he prepared a sandwich for the killer and when he clocked out to come home.  My beautiful son looked so frightened and traumatized as he testified years later.  It was the same look I had seen on his face when Adele Arakawa of Channel 9 News in Denver interviewed him in front of Chuck E Cheese on December 15, 1993.  It was so very painful to not be able to relieve his pain.  And it has remained painful.  As he has written this week, the shadows remain.

I remember talking with Colleen’s mom in the days after her daughter was murdered.  She learned the details of how Colleen died – how her 17-year-old daughter pleaded for her life on her hands and knees before being shot and killed -- when she read them on the front page of the Denver Post.  She was inconsolable, though I tried.

Yet, with all of our advancement in coverage of such horrific events, and all of our intentions to remember and help those who were hurt, we still live in a society in which humans have an amazing and frightening capacity to forget pain and suffering.  A college professor of mine once said we have raised a whole generation and more of Americans who expect things to be wrapped up in the same time as their average TV programming – like a sitcom or soap opera. 

To some extent, when the killer or killers kill themselves or are killed, we are removed from the difficult work of figuring out what to do.  It is decided for us, and it is only our pain and the pain of those around us with which we are left to deal.  But in these murders at the theater in Colorado, like the Chuck E Cheese murders of so long ago, because the killer is alive, we still have to be conflicted about what justice might be or not be.

Some now say as they did then, “Fry him.”  Others say, “Study and learn from him.”  Still others say, “Lock him up, throw away the key, and forget him.” For his victims, I am not sure which might be best, but one clear decision would be better than uncertainty.  The Chuck E Cheese killer is still pleading for his life on the taxpayer’s dime, and his case may end up before the Supreme Court.  I keep remembering Colleen pleading for her life as the killer stood over her.  Something about the whole legal process seems unjust to me even as I still cannot abide by the death penalty.  

Yet, even as the killer pleads on from long ago, I am relatively certain that only those of us close to the events of December 14, 1993, can even conjure up names of those killed.  Society forgets and moves on to the next horror story – the next headline, the next breaking news story.

All of my kudos to Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado for being such a humane and caring man and public servant during this time, and also to Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan who I knew long ago and respected a great deal.  And to all now who are suffering and grieving in the aftermath of the most recent Colorado shootings, I am so sorry.  America and many even in Colorado will expect you to fade back into life, buck up, and not mention any “unpleasantness” going forward.  And none of us can dwell in the pain or should do so forever or without a break from it or once again finding some measure of peace and joy in life. 

But I say as one who still lives with justice unresolved and anger about what a shooting did to my family, you are not alone and whatever you are feeling is OK.  Now and forever, I will remember you and yours.

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