In their important book The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic, Jillian Peterson, a psychologist, and James Densley, a sociologist, describe the work of a nonpartisan research center aimed at investigating mass gun violence. They created a comprehensive database about the life histories of more than 170 mass shooters, and also interviewed the victims' families, first responders, and experts to create a better understanding of why such events happen and what might be done to put an end to these tragedies.
The statistics are shocking. More than 1,200 lives have been lost, and Americans from high school age down, have never known a world without a mass shooting. More than half of American teenagers worry about a shooting at their school, and a lifetime of active shooter drills, locker searches, and locked downs at school has seeded in them an overwhelming fear of imminent death.
Peterson and Densley point out that millions of dollars have been spent in the hunt for what many call "these monsters." But this study reveals that there is no one profile of a mass shooter, only multiple pathways to approach mass shootings, each filled with missed opportunities for prevention and intervention.
Mass is a harrowing drama written and directed by Fran Kranz which points out the trail of pain, horror, grief, anger, and guilt left behind by one troubled teenager who murdered 10 classmates and then committed suicide. The film focuses on two sets of parents -- Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), whose son was the shooter, and Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), who son was killed at school. A social worker (Michelle Carter) has arranged for them to meet in a small basement room of an Episcopalian Church years after the massacre. They see this as an opportunity for some healing and perhaps closure.
The meeting gets off awkwardly. Linda has brought flowers, and they can't decide where to put them. They have brought pictures of their sons, but find it hard to settle on one story to share with the other couple. Gail finally says the obvious: "I want to know about your son because he killed mine." Did they intuit something was wrong? Was it pathological? Do they regret what happened? Do they blame themselves?
Richard and Linda explain that there was not one thing to point to in their son's behavior and reactions. Maybe bullying, computer games, not fitting in, bad therapy, secrecy, an inability to empathize. As for their own responses after the event, they didn't know what to say. They mourned too. They want to remember their son for what he was not for what he did.
This is a hard conversation, made vivid and real by outstanding acting by the cast and a script that touches on many levels of grief and the difficulty of talking about forgiveness, let along practicing it. We encourage you to stick with it and let it become your opportunity to listen to the effects of mass shootings and develop your own capacity for empathy with all those involved.
Mass premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 and in December won the Independent Spirit Robert Altman Award which paid tribute to director Fran Kranz and the ensemble cast. In an interview with Sky News, Kranz noted that he wrote the intense drama in order to explore the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, feelings that to those faced with the darkest of situations might seem impossible to come by. He explained that the film was inspired by true stories about parents of shooters meeting parents of victims and by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body set up in 1996 to investigate human rights abuses after the end of apartheid. Like those examples, this fictional story shows how open-hearted conversation can lead to healing, even after a terrible tragedy.
In her book The Rising, Wendy Wright points out the importance of the ethical theme of Mass:
"Forgiveness seems to remain a theme waiting to be explored in depth in our present age. This deep and extensive kind of loving of enemies . . . seems to have become a theme of special urgency in the contemporary world."
Mass offers us an opportunity to ponder forgiveness as a spiritual practice. Here are four quotations to start your reflections and inspire applications in your own life.
"Forgiveness is the final form of love."
-- Reinhold Niebuhr in Heart of Forgiveness
"The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world."
-- Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love
"In the end, forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart."
-- Jack Kornfield in The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace
"On the wings of forgiveness is carried all other wisdom."
-- Honey J. Rubin in Compassion