By Tim Hayes

This past week, a 16-year-old high school sophomore allegedly flew into a rage at the start of the school day, using two knives to stab and slash more than 20 people, mostly other students and one adult.

Most of the victims look to be able to recover from their injuries, but one or two remain in critical condition with deep internal wounds.  That’s not even mentioning the internal wounds that those students, faculty, staff, parents, and neighbors will carry forward in their minds and emotions.

Initial statements by the alleged attacker’s attorney offer little insight as to why a kid from a nice middle-class neighborhood, attending a quiet, salt-of-the-earth suburban high school, could consider – much less carry out – such an act.  Bullying has been suggested, but not validated.  At this point, people can only guess at a motive.

When you think of the instances of public attacks – in schools, movie theaters, subway stations, shopping malls, college campuses – one of the most maddening elements always comes back to the question of why?  What pushes a person, regardless of how young or old they may be, to actively plan and plot violence against random victims?

A few years ago, I saw the play “Assassins” by Stephen Sondheim.  It’s a curious musical, featuring as the lead players all of the individuals who have at one time or another tried to kill the President of the United States, whether they succeeded or not.  Each “assassin” character gets a spotlight song, starting with John Wilkes Booth and moving down through history from that terrible night at Ford’s Theater.

The climax of the play comes as Lee Harvey Oswald debates whether to carry out his idea to kill President John Kennedy.  The gallery of assassins, both those who preceded Oswald in real time and those who came afterward, converge to egg him on, pushing him to go ahead and pull the trigger.

And why?  To enter history himself.  To prove that he matters.  That he can do big things.  To finally be somebody.  And, of course, Oswald accepts those arguments and takes his three fateful shots from that Dallas sixth-floor window.

The play presents a real head-scratching experience.  It forces you to look at the world from the skewed viewpoint of someone capable of hurting, even killing, another person – not necessarily because of any kind of personal vendetta or hatred toward that other person, but to achieve some strange sense of elevated self-worth.  The victim, in other words, could be anybody.

I suppose one lesson to take from these sad, tragic, confusing events is that words matter.  The messages we convey to one another matter.  Because when they are not based on respect and friendship and trust and love and lifting each other up, those messages have the potential to swim and stew and corrode in the mind and lead to some inexplicable, unbearable acts.

Let’s make a pact, you and me.  Let’s make sure we say something positive, to speak a blessing, to someone else every day, at least once.  It may not feel like much, but the effects can pay dividends of grace and kindness and patience that we can only imagine.  And let’s pray that people considering violence seek the kind of help they may need before deciding to act on those dark impulses.

Copyright 2014 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting