Calling For A Compassionate Approach To Violence Prevention

(Editor's Note: The following story was written before yesterday's tragic events. The author was responding to a mass shooting five years ago this month in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. We think the sentiments are still relevant.)

by Celine Markel  

With the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado this summer and the recent sentencing of Jared Loughner in Arizona,   I've been thinking about a similar tragic event in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. In December of 2007, 19-year-old Robert Hawkins walked into the local Von Maur department store. He was armed with an AK-47 and he opened fire on the holiday shopping crowd. Nine people (including Hawkins) lost their lives.

Shoppers and employees outside the Von Maur department store on Dec. 5th, 2007. Photo courtesy of Charles Le Blanc.

Like Holmes and Loughner, Hawkins had a history of mental illness, for which he received inadequate support and treatment. A foster child who had essentially been abandoned by his family, he was an outcast who reached a breaking point. There was no one there to save him when he most needed help and those who tried were simply too late.   As a result, he not only took his own life, but the lives of eight other people.   It’s not the fault of his family or friends. Hawkins made the terrible decision to kill himself and others on his own, but as a community we all bear some responsibility. Too often we assign blame to external forces rather than looking at ourselves.

In the aftermath I heard a news anchor wonder how could this happen in such a "wholesome," Midwestern town like our own. Well, it did happen here. Perhaps, Omaha is not such a wholesome city.

Of course, my town is not the only city in the nation that has had to endure such atrocities.   Many more tragedies (Aurora, Virginia Tech, Arizona) came after us.   But how many cities can claim to have two shootings prominently scrutinized on national television?   Following the Von Maur tragedy, another Omaha teenager made the national news when he shot and injured his high school principal and vice principal before turning the gun on himself. He was the son of a police detective.

Jared Lee Loughner, image courtesy of DonkeyHotey.

These things do not happen by coincidence. It’s not merely bad luck that it happened twice in the same community.   Omaha can be a cruel town, but we’ve consoled ourselves by blaming outside forces.   For instance, some people want to blame these events on violent media, believing that television and video games are the cause of their actions.     It’s a nice thought to blame the entertainment industry.   It allows us to abdicate our responsibility to each other.   Yes, it is true, ultimately the choice  is in the hands of the one who pulls the trigger.   At the same time, though, it would be inaccurate to suggest that our community had no role in how these events unfolded. In many parts of America, we do not treat the misfits, the marginal, the poor or the mentally ill very kindly.

I have a friend who has been afraid to walk the streets of Omaha. This person was afraid to be seen in public -- not because she was afraid of being shot, not because she has social anxiety or paranoia -- because people call her names. College students yell at her when she walks near the campus -- calling her “fag," among other names.   Even senior citizens gasp with shock and give her weird looks when they encounter her less than “normal” appearance.   It is sad when a community reacts in fear to someone I know to be so gentle. Someone who has been a wonderful friend to me.   Someone who is non-violent, creative and intelligent. Unfortunately, I know she is not alone.

Downtown Omaha. Photo courtesy of Daniel Powell.

In the United States, we are often so focused on individualism that we sometimes forget about community support. We sometimes forget to help the most vulnerable. That may mean something as small as being kind to the “weird” neighbor kid, the quiet person in the back of a classroom or the loner at work who everyone makes fun of. A middle-sized city like Omaha is caught in the middle. It does not have the caring, supportive atmosphere of a small town nor does it have the open-minded attitude or resources of a major city.

I can’t speak for the other places that have faced mass shootings, but in Omaha it seems that the mixture of big-city unfriendliness combined with small-town close-mindedness makes for a bitter, destructive recipe - one that breeds despair in the people who don’t fit in. It is easy  to see   how someone who is emotionally unstable could be pushed to the edge.

After the Von Maur shooting, I thought this town would take a deeper look at itself. I believed this community would take action to prevent such a terrible tragedy from happening again. I was wrong. Omaha did not take time for introspection. Perhaps it is because of our arrogant assumption in the Midwest that we are morally superior to communities on the coasts - that we are “wholesome.” Perhaps if the people of Omaha would have humbled themselves, would have realized that there is a need for a more loving and supportive community, we could have avoided the second shooting.   I am disappointed that Omaha looked outward to explain these tragedies instead of reflecting upon the deeper problems. Like many communities, we talked about violent media, guns, policing and security. We talked about how the shooter was “crazy” and “just wanted attention.” However, tighter security does not get to the root of the problem. When someone is in deep despair and wants to act destructively they are not so easily stopped. It will not make any difference how much the laws are enforced. A wounded person will find a way to hurt others as they have been hurt.


Image courtesy of Susan Von Struensee

I am saddened by how little reflection there was about the way these shooters may have been treated by social services, their schools, peers, neighbors, etc. We did not discuss what could have been done for this young man so that he never reached his tragic breaking point or what can be done to prevent this from happening again. We are still not taking moral responsibility for these incidents.

We must treat each other differently.   In fact, if the citizens of Omaha really value being wholesome and moral we can follow the example of Christ. He acknowledged the decency and humanity of the most marginal members of society. The disease may be rare in the modern world, but “lepers” still remain. Until we learn to approach problems with love rather than fear and anger, we are bound to see these tragic mass shootings again and again.


Celine Markel studies Physics, Mathematics and Biology at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. If anyone would let her she'd probably add five more majors. She has a wide-range of hobbies including skateboarding, playing guitar,   photography, drawing, trap shooting and hunting. As a total bibliophile she never says 'no' to a book and usually is reading a stack of them at once.   One of her latest intellectual endeavors has been to visit as many different church services and centers of worship in the Omaha area.