My book After the Blood Bath, which I wrote in memory of the innocent victims of mass shootings, tracks the ripple effect of pain and sorrow from rampage shootings. Robbie and Alissa Parker, parents of three young daughters, know firsthand the challenge of healing: Their 6-year-old, Emilie, was a first grader who was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. Their grace in the face of this tragedy, in the face of the unimaginable pain of loss, inspired my research into life after rampage shootings. I am honored they wrote the foreword to my book. They explain:
“The reach (of the ripple effect) is far and wide. At its epicenter lies those most directly impacted: the victims and their families as well as the families of the perpetrator or perpetrators, moving outward from the same point of origin in disparate directions. Left in the void is a pain that never fully heals. Questions that will never be answered. This void and these questions leave us to wonder how to move forward. We know this because we are one of those families.”
As we approach the seventh anniversary of that sad day in Newtown, as the Parkers and 26 other families grieve for the lives lost, we must ask ourselves: Can a community heal? If so, how? My journey in the study of rampage shootings began as the personal observations of an experienced criminal lawyer. My close ties to Fairfield County, Connecticut (where I practiced for more than two decades), and to Tucson, Arizona (where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot and where I was completing an advanced law degree at the time of the Sandy Hook massacre), made it hard for me to look away. My coursework in Indigenous peoples studies drew me to research how Indigenous communities dealt with tragedies like this — I focused on the rampage shooting on Red Lake Reservation, which pointed me toward the historical traditions of criminal dispute resolution among Indigenous peoples around the world.
At Red Lake there was no talk of revenge. In contrast to Newtown, the family of the killer did not have any difficulty finding a place to bury him, and the killer was given a traditional funeral and mourning rituals, which were well attended. In Red Lake, the shooter’s grandfather — with whom the killer lived — was counted as a victim and wasn’t blamed for the killings. His funeral was also well attended. What was most remarkable was that the tribe included the killer’s family in distribution of victim compensation funds, helping to pay for his funeral and burial expenses. In Red Lake, parents of victims thought the murderer deserved some recognition from the community so he would not, as a human being, be forgotten. A number of relatives of victims forgave the killer and considered the circumstances that led to the massacre.
Like the people in Red Lake, the Parkers did not target venom, anger or hatred at the surviving father of the man who killed their 6-year-old daughter, and they did not treat him as an adversary. They recognized that he, too, was mourning the death of his child, and they empathized with him. Instead of filing lawsuits, they sat down and met face-to-face, parent-to-parent and talked. Ultimately, they forgave the father and the murderer himself. The meeting, which included mutual expressions of forgiveness, helped all of them process their loss and better understand it.
That desire for healing seems to be gaining momentum. Increasingly, parents of shooters are speaking out publicly to express sorrow for the bad acts of their children. The families of some victims and offenders are beginning to seek, on their own, interpersonal, face-to-face interactions. These can be encouraged and facilitated by psychiatric/psychological and counseling professionals. Dialogue and interaction make lots of things possible — including understanding, confession, apology, forgiveness and potentially reconciliation.
There are more lessons we can take from how Indigenous peoples deal with mass shootings. Primarily, parents and family members of mass murderers should be given empathy and considered as victims in their own right.
Sadly, we know too well there will be another horrific, painful rampage shooting. When there is, rather than respond in haste and solely in hatred and anger, kindness and healing will radiate.
James D. Diamond has spent more than twenty-five years as a criminal lawyer, with experience both as a state prosecutor and as criminal defense attorney, and he is certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy as a criminal trial specialist.
He is the Dean of Academic Affairs and a member of the faculty at the National Tribal Trial College. He is the former Director of the Tribal Justice Clinic at the James E. Rogers College of Law and Professor of Practice at the University of Arizona. He served as Special Prosecutor to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona. In 2014 Diamond was awarded a Doctor of Juridical Science degree with an emphasis on Indigenous peoples law and policy from the University of Arizona College of Law.
He is the author of the recently published book, After The Bloodbath: Is Healing Possible in the Wake of Rampage Shootings?