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The futility of trying to make sense of the senseless



Last Thursday, a visibly shaken Douglas de Grood, a 30-year veteran of Calgary's police force, stood before a room full of reporters in the wake of the worst mass killing in the city's history.

But that day, de Grood would not be appearing as an officer of the law, but rather as the father of a 22-year-old man who inexplicably stabbed and killed five young people at a house party to celebrate the last day of university classes.

Leaning on a cane for support and fighting back sobs, de Grood had about as many answers as anyone else as to why his son, Matthew, would resort to such a heinous act.

"Just like you, we struggle to understand what happened," Doug said. "We hope someday to have answers as to why this happened. Regardless, it won't bring the victims back, but we would give anything to do just that."

I don't know if the elder de Grood truly believed what he was saying. I don't deny his willingness to find answers, but I wonder if he thinks anyone is capable of providing them.

While Matthew reportedly struggled with mental health issues in high school, he was, by all accounts, a happy-go-lucky young man with a bright future ahead of him. He was enrolled in university, enjoyed good grades, and raised money for a host of charities through his passion for running. He exhibited no outwardly violent tendencies, had a healthy social life, and held down a steady job.

Some will immediately look to de Grood's parents as the source of his inner demons, but by all indications, Matthew enjoyed a stable childhood surrounded by two loving parents. I'm reminded of a recent episode of This American Life that explored the root of "badness" in children. In the first segment, host Ira Glass spoke to Cheryl, the mother of an eight-year-old boy who had exhibited signs of — for lack of a better word — evil ever since he was a toddler. He's tried to suffocate his brother with a pillow, and drown him by holding him underwater. His parents awoke in the middle of the night one time to find their son standing by the side of the bed clutching a steel pipe. No form of therapy or medication has been found to work, and yet, Cheryl, the mother to two other happy, healthy children, is a black sheep at her son's school, regularly accused of being a failure as a parent. The fact is it's easier for the other parents to see Cheryl as a horrible mother, because it makes them feel better about how they've raised their own children.

And if we're going by the traditional mould in which we tend to place society's most violent mass killers — social outcasts from troubled childhoods who struggle for years with severe mental illness — de Grood doesn't really seem to fit. And to many, that must be quite an unsettling thought.

The inclination to find an explanation for such brutality is a natural one, and completely understandable in the face of such inexplicable horror. In the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine massacre that left 12 students and a teacher dead, reporters grasped at whatever straws they could find to lend some sense of understanding to the deadliest mass murder on a high school campus in American history.

It was retaliation for years of bullying, they said. It was neglectful parents. Or Neo-Nazi propaganda. Or maybe it was the violent video games or the Marilyn Manson albums the teenage killers enjoyed so much. The rush to point fingers was so swift, we never stopped to consider if we were even asking the right questions.

The sad truth is we desperately need to paint these killers as something inherently separate from ourselves, as something inhuman, as deraged monsters profoundly corrupted beyond repair. We try to convince ourselves that we aren't capable of such terrible acts because we're afraid to shine a light on the darkest corners of our own minds.

We try to make sense of the senseless, not for the victims of horrific violence or their devastated families, but for ourselves. This only serves to alienate the most vulnerable among us even further, those that need help the most. The truth is, the Dylan Klebolds and Jared Loughners of the world are the same people we ride the bus with every day, the same people standing in front us at the grocery store, that same eccentric loner at work we gossip about when he's out of earshot.

"I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them," a distraught Peter Lanza told reporter Andrew Solomon in an eye-opening piece that appeared in the New Yorker last month. The father of the Sandy Hook killer spent months after the shootings trying to gain some sense of reality.

"But it's real," he said. "It doesn't have to be understood to be real."

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