Surely you've read by now of the killings in the Omaha shopping mall yesterday. That story hit close to home for me, literally, because it happened at the mall that stands closest to what was once my home. I lived on the west side of Omaha for four years in the mid-1990s, while my wife and I wrote for the local newspaper, the rather pretentiously named "World Herald." We shopped frequently at the Westroads Mall, and had our last meal in the city at the TGI Friday's there, before moving to Denver in 1996. My thoughts go to my former neighbors, because I know what heartache they are enduring and will endure in the months to come.
Why? This isn't the first mass murder/suicide that's happened within spitting distance of one of my homes. In 1992, a gunman shot and killed two students in the dormitory where Laurie and I lived in graduate school. The gunman then took his own life. A couple years later, another young man, who had been fired from the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora, Colo. where my wife had worked in high school years earlier, returned to that pizza shop to shoot and kill five employees.
And in 1999, as my wife and daughter sat in a Starbucks a block away, two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School outside Littleton, Colo., about a mile from where we'd moved to... after we'd left that home in Omaha.
I asked my wife this morning, should we be scared that we are some sort of statistical freaks, doomed to live near future mass murder sites? Or, is it scarier that we are not? That these tragedies are common enough now that many Americans like us have lived within a short distance of one or more?
She didn't have answer. All she could conclude was that in all cases the shooters were young men. Each felt disconnected from society, most having recently lost a job, a girlfriend, or both.
And that... is why I am grateful for theme parks.
"Huh?," I can envision you saying to yourself. I am grateful for theme parks because, more than almost any other form of entertainment, they bring people together. To go to a theme park, you have to get out of your home and stand, wait, walk and play among thousands of others who share at least one common interest with you. (That they like the same theme park!)
Following tragedies like this one, community is essential. The people of Omaha, like the people of Denver before them, need to know that other Americans, do, indeed, feel their pain. That they do not bear the burden of this tragedy alone.
And community can help prevent tragedies such as this from happening in the future. When young people, especially young men, feel connected to their community, when they do not feel alone, they become far less likely to engage in such destructive acts.
I love theme parks, in part, because they bring people together, in community. Yes, you might curse the crowd of hundreds who are keeping you in an hour's-long line for Millennium Force. But how many chances do we anyone to just hang out and talk with people? (Heck, that chance is one reason why I love Web communities like TPI so much.)
So, next time you are in a long line at a theme park, pay a moment of karmic respect to the people of Omaha. Talk to the folks in line around you. Especially if they are those "scary looking" young men that so many theme park visitors have complained about. Think you don't have anything to say to them? Think again. You both, obviously, are interested in the same ride. Ask if they've ridden before. Ask what other parks they've visited. Talk about air time, wait times and the rides you've always dreamed of riding. Talk about all the stuff you write about here.
And make a connection. If only for a moment. But what yesterday's tragedy ought to teach us is... we all need more connections to the people around us.
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