I was driving my truck through Salt Lake City last Tuesday afternoon when I heard the awful news from Littleton, Colo., on the radio. I immediately pulled over and set up my satellite dish, tuning in to CNN. The images and descriptions were all too familiar to me. Just over a year ago I was driving my rig through Dallas when the radio broke in with news of a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. I had two boys in that school and frantically called the administrator on a pay phone to find out where they were, and if they were all right. A moment later, an Arkansas State Police officer was on the line. I will never forget the horror of the words I heard next: my 13-year-old son, Mitchell, was involved.
Sitting in the back of my truck last week, looking at the faces of students and parents whose lives would never be the same again, I was overcome by the awful knowledge of what they were going through. Many of the parents of the children who were hurt or killed are probably feeling a vague sense of guilt, though there was nothing they should have--or could have--done to prevent this from happening. And that is what makes tragedies like Littleton and Jonesboro so frightening. To think anyone so young could create this kind of havoc, to be so callous about other people's lives, strains the imagination and makes us wonder and worry about what we are becoming as a country and a society.
It is even harder to imagine when the person who caused so much pain is your own child. I have such empathy for the parents of the troubled boys in Littleton. The boys who felt killing was, somehow, their only option. What could possibly have been going through their heads?
It is my sorrow to know from my own experience the flood of raw emotions--shock, disbelief, guilt, anguish--overwhelming those parents every moment of the day and night. There is nothing I can tell them, or the families and friends of the victims, to ease that pain. I personally sought professional counseling to help me begin to come to terms with the reality of what my son did. I have spent countless hours talking about that awful day with friends and family. Still, the question haunts me: how could this happen? A year later I am at a loss for an answer.
I worry about the way the media cover tragedies like these. I can't help but wonder if the nonstop pictures and commentary and endless scrutiny somehow give desperate kids in need of attention a way to get it. These kids turn themselves into martyrs hoping to get on the evening news.
I visit my son in prison once a month, and he is deeply remorseful and tells me he thinks constantly about the victims and their parents and the horror he put the community through. Lately I have begun to fear the changes I see in him. The facility is full of young gangbangers, and their influence has begun to rub off on the way Mitchell talks and acts.
I do not want my kid to become like them. He committed an unspeakable crime and can never undo the damage he has caused. But it is still my greatest hope that he will somehow find a way to use the rest of his life to keep tragedies like Jonesboro and Littleton from happening again.