Restoring Security in the Wake of Aurora Shootings

By: Stephen Recca, M.A.

We offer our heartfelt condolences to the victims and families of those wounded and killed in the Aurora, Colorado tragedy. With the community reeling from last Friday’s shootings, U.S. citizens, media, and government officials will question how to restore public safety and prevent future attacks. We asked Steve Recca, M.A., former Program Director for Homeland Security at CTU and Colorado resident, to comment on the early security implications – this is his reply.

Aurora Colorado Shooting Encouraging SignAs of this post’s writing, a little more than 24 hours have passed since the shooting rampage.  It’s still early, and there is a long list of unanswered questions associated with the attack on the Aurora, Colorado movie theater.  Given the level of violence targeting innocent people where they live and play, patience waiting for answers will be sparing.  As we try to make sense of the killing, I suggest we start by attempting to ask the right questions. Often, our first questions don’t always draw out answers that place the event in a context we can understand, learn from, and – in the best case – use to prevent future violence.  Getting these questions right is essential, as mistakes will invariably lead us to draw the wrong conclusions and make costly decisions that put resources and lives at risk.

Getting Beyond the “Why?”
The likely first question on everyone’s mind is “Why?”  Why did 24-year-old suspect, James Holmes, who up until this past month was a doctoral student at the University of Colorado, dress in full SWAT tactical gear, throw smoke grenades and fire indiscriminately into the cinema audience?  We will not know the answer until Holmes and his lawyer provide an explanation to investigators. While the “why” is interesting, it does not really get to the essence of what this tragedy means for community safety; or the security and well-being of our families and our Republic.

Perhaps a better question is, “What behavioral indicators did Holmes exhibit leading up to the event?” And, in parallel, “How might we enable the community to see and act on these indicators?” Even though there are many unknown details at this point, there were likely bits and pieces of the suspect’s behavior that might have suggested he was on a violent path. Given the proper resources and channels, someone may have been able to act on observations to prevent the atrocity.

Another common question will be, “Why didn’t the police see and stop this before it happened?” With the corollary, which I have heard many times already, “Shouldn’t we put police at all of our theaters?”  While it’s natural for communities to wonder how an event like this could this happen and search for ways to feel safe again, such reactive questions convey indignation and fear. We must be vigilant in seeking the most useful ways to move beyond Aurora, Columbine, or Virginia Tech.  Is it practical to station police at every Cineplex, at every showing? Will we do the same for every mall?  For every grocery store and every school?  Or, as is done in Israel, should businesses be left to pay for private security? Financial burden on cash-strapped cities and counties aside, there is an Orwellian element of too much security that we – the people – should debate and consider carefully. 

I suggest we contemplate questions of this nature instead:  “What personal, community, and national measures might we take to prepare for crimes of this nature and magnitude?”  The approach requires thorough consideration and a community-wide commitment.  Rather than leaving the full responsibility of security to police, maybe we should assess our own roles in securing our neighborhoods and cities, as well as prepare emotionally and practically for violent crimes, acts of terrorism, or natural disasters which could occur.

Past experience suggests we will see further violence in our schools, shopping centers, and places where we work and play.  Part of how we move forward as a community and a nation must be to confront and manage our fear.  Instinctively, we want understanding from the “why.” And, let’s face it, we want vengeance. However, if we can move beyond these immediate emotions and discard the simple questions driven by uncertainty and fear, we might stand a chance at working together to address the most productive questions arising from Aurora.

We Are Not Alone
Although the Aurora shootings raise perplexing questions about safety in our country, we are not alone in trying to understand and respond to horrific crimes on a global scale.  This past Sunday, July 22nd marks the one-year anniversary of the massacre in Oslo, Norway; the act of a lone-gunman and bomber whose rampage resulted in the death of 77 people – mostly teen boys and girls at camp.  While the Oslo and Aurora crimes were very different, Norwegians and Americans share common values and notions of the law. As we think about moving forward on our own home front, it is worth seeing how Norwegians are healing one year after the Oslo shootings.

Let’s remember Aurora, and the families that now must make sense of this senseless tragedy.  And remember the city’s namesake, Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, arbiter of the spirit and resilience inherent in a new day:

Aurora now had left her saffron bed,
And beams of early light the heav'ns o'erspread,
When, from a tow'r, the queen, with wakeful eyes,
Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.

- Virgil, Aeneid

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