I met him on Tuesday. By then I thought he’d seen plenty of people in uniform: police, corrections officers, medical staff, as well as lawyers in suits. He was in a solitary cell on the seventh floor. The cell was in a corner at the end of the wing. No casual traffic passed by his door and the window in his door looked out to a blank wall. He wore a quilted green blanket/wrap. It couldn’t be torn into strips or folded into a noose. A chart taped to the doorway gained a new set of initials every fifteen minutes. He was on suicide watch.
I knocked on the window and woke him. His eyes were blank, but he focused on my face. “I’m a chaplain,” I said by way of introduction. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” He nodded but didn’t say anything. I asked if he wanted anything from the chaplain’s office. He barely shook his head. He looked more stunned than anything. “I’ll come back and check in with you.” He went back to his mattress and lay down. He’d been to court that morning to hear the initial charges against him. There were TV crews parked outside the jail, but he wouldn’t have seen them.
He was still in that cell when I saw him again. He didn’t remember me. Our conversation was a repeat of the first one: I talked, he nodded. I said I’d come again. He went back to bed. The third time I stopped by, he’d been moved to another wing on the same floor. He still looked at a blank wall. The green quilted blanket/wrap was gone. He was dressed in a white jumpsuit. He was a little more engaged this time, said he was feeling okay, that his family had been to visit, but beyond that, he said little. “Is it okay if I come back?” He answered. “Yes.”
Unlike most people I meet at the jail, I know what brought him here. The Thursday before I met him, my drive home was filled with news reports from a campus where a man had brought guns and rounds of ammunition and started shooting. Unlike many other recent shooters, he is alive. He wasn’t killed by a SWAT team. He didn’t have time to turn the gun on himself. A student pepper-sprayed him and held him down. He was arrested and he’s in jail. A man died and two other students were wounded.
In the aftermath, there were some familiar events. There were several vigils at the campus. The local radio and TV stations went looking for comments everywhere they could. One station lined up an interview with a man who’d known the shooter years ago, when he worked at a gun range. But that’s where things began to happen differently.
The man thought better of the interview, decided he had nothing to contribute to understanding the current events. He cancelled.
The man who had interrupted the shooting declined to be interviewed. So did his family. Local area residents wanted to thank him, so they bought everything on the registry for his upcoming wedding and raised fifty thousand dollars for his new life. He asked that any donations be directed to the school.
The school issued a few statements, but focused on their mission as a Christian school and spoke of compassion and community. Graduation happened the next week.
Legal proceedings went on. Arraignment, lawyers making statements, the usual. Last Sunday there was an article in the paper detailing the accused man’s chaotic upbringing and mental health issues. The court of public opinion will have its say in the weeks and months to come. Yesterday, the seven pages of a journal were made public. It’s awful and scary writing. It can’t be ignored. Someone in the prosecutor’s office said, “We need to understand why people do these things.” News organizations are suing for 911 tapes and pictures from the crime scene to be released. The school and the victims are resisting that move. Why traumatize people all over again?
On the maximum security floor, I met with the young man again. This time, we were able to sit at a table with plexi-glass between us instead of standing at the door to his cell trying to make ourselves heard and understood. “I’ve been reading Psalm 37,” he said. “‘All sinners will be destroyed; the wicked will be cut off.’ Am I cut off?”
I hear the voice of Sr. Helen Prejean in my head. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I say these words out loud. We will have many months to live into them.