Even today, few people anywhere in the world, who read or hear the inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence, fail to find hope in the bold and courageous statement that calls for “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
Most likely, however, those words were nowhere near the thoughts of the folks who entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado to exercise the exact meaning of those words. They were engaged in life and enjoyed the freedom to pursue, for a few hours at least, a special form of happiness.
The American Ideal — that all individuals have the right to Life, Liberty and Happiness — is an ideal that generations of Americans have struggled to achieve and fought to defend. Ideals such as these transcend political, economic, cultural, gender and racial boundaries. They are ideals built upon the promise that the citizens of a free nation can and should be able to live in peace and free of fear.
For those who went to that theater, those ideals vanished in a few terrifying and unbelievable moments. Life for some vanished entirely. Happiness evaporated in a hail of bullets. Liberty from fear and the nightmares of terror ceased to exist.
And all across the country, the ideals of hope generated by the Declaration of Independence, do not shine as brightly as before. Everyone has been diminished and everyone has found one more reason to be just a little more afraid.
The likelihood is that this act of mindless destruction is not just a rare or even unexpected event. Outbursts of violence such as the one in Aurora, Colorado will continue. More people will die needlessly, more lives will be destroyed, more hope will be lost and more fear will gnaw at the core of our existence.
Unless . . .
Unless there is a powerful movement to improve the mental health of those who are withdrawing from the community of their friends, neighbors and families. More than ever before, the workings of the human mind are better understood and better ways of helping minds that have gone awry are available.
It is estimated that at any one given time, 26% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from some form of mental illness. Of that number, 6%, or roughly 1 in 17, have a serious mental disorder. Of even more concern is that over 5 million children in America suffer from mental illness and that number is compounded by the fact that making such a diagnosis at an early age is very difficult. It is well known, however, that early detection and treatment of mental disorders can improve outcomes and lessen long term disabilities. Yet, at the very times when such understanding and the need for help intersect, mental health services have been defunded and the political will to act, with intelligence and concern to address this major health concern, is sadly lacking.
Unless the cries of those who suffer from a damaged sense of reality are heard, their suffering will become the suffering of many.
And then there is this other thing. Unless our society comes to grips with the insanity of free flowing assault weapons and inappropriately obtained handguns, true weapons of mass destruction as so vividly demonstrated in the latest slaughter, the fear that gnaws at the core of our freedom will grow.
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control are chilling. In 2007, guns killed 35,198 people in the United States. 12,129 of those were homicides and 17,348 were suicides. 3000 of those killed were children, while an additional 17,500 children were injured by guns, many of whom will never fully recover. Actuarial data from life insurance companies note that this number exceeds the death rate from colon and prostate cancer combined and health and life insurance premiums are increased due to deaths and injury from gun violence. The CDC also notes that the death rate from guns is higher than that from automobile accidents.
There is far too much complacency about those numbers and the tragedy they represent. It will take sober reflection and great courage to overcome the entrenched romance Americans have with their guns. Until that happens, the massacres will continue, anguish and grief will be front-page news and thousands upon thousands of the most vulnerable among us, our children, will never grow up.
The men who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence were faced with the challenge to shape a new day in the life of the civilized world. Had they not met that challenge, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness would have remained lofty ideals, forever lost in the shadows of human existence.
We, likewise, face new and demanding challenges to those ideals that must not be ignored. Unless we act with the same courage of those who framed our independence, we will find it ever harder to maintain the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness we hold so dear.