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Shooter Aaron Alexis shows meditation can only improve matters, but not instantly solve demons

Sep 18, 2013 Shooter Aaron Alexis shows meditation can only improve matters, but not instantly solve demons

On September 16, I drove to the Arlington, Virginia, general district court from neighboring Fairfax County for a DWI trial. Before I ever got in the car, Aaron Alexis already was murdering people at the Naval Yard in Washington, D.C., just six miles from the Arlington courthouse. The route I drove took me closer and closer to the massacre scene, when it was not known how many shooters were involved nor how many were at large. Had I stayed on that route, it would ultimately have taken me but a mile from the murder scene.

The business-as-usual mood in the courthouse was surreal when juxtaposed against the murders a few miles away. After court, as I caught up on emails inside my car on the side of the road, the thought did cross my mind whether I would be safer driving further away from Washington, D.C., first, if possible shooters were at large. More risky, of course, was my close proximity in 2002 to sniper murderers John Muhammed and Lee Malvo, who chose my YMCA to work out at, and likely were there the same time I was the morning of their last shooting within a few miles from there.

Law enforcement ultimately concluded that Aaron Alexis was the sole cause of the murders. He is dead, whether by his own hand or by police. Perhaps no motive for his shootings will ever be determined. However, he would much less likely have ever gained access to this secure facility had he never obtained a job with a Hewlett Packard contractor doing work at the Navy Yard and had he not obtained a security clearance despite his alleged history of issues when in the military and mental health issues.

A good number of my criminal defense/DWI defense clients have security clearances, and we always discuss how their cases may affect their clearances. I certainly do not believe that security clearances should automatically be denied to those with convictions, particularly for such minor convictions as DWI and marijuana possession, and particularly when we already know that too many people are falsely convicted, as witnesses by the many death row inmates who later get exonerated by DNA evidence. Also, mental health issues by themselves should not preclude security clearances. We need to start by asking what is the mental health issue (for instance, depression, anger, bipolar, anxiety?), how severe is it, what should be the course of treatment (do not automatically jump after medications, which can have many serious side effects, both known and unknown, so I include diet, rest, exercise and mindfulness practice in treatment), and what is the prognosis for functioning well with the ailment, with or without treatment?

Of course, had Alexis been denied access to the Naval Yard, he may have merely sought other targets, or not. His murder victims ranged in age from their forties to seventies, which makes me wonder whether age had anything to do with his targets, or if age was just haphazard.

Alexis apparently sought solace from his anger demons at a Thai Buddhist temple in Texas, where gun laws are liberal, and where he did carry a gun. He meditated, and was interested in becoming a monk. Of course my teacher Claude Anshin Thomas underlines that we need more Buddhas — or should we make that bodhisattvas, which is a high level to reach already, with Buddhahood even higher — rather than more Buddhists.

Like Alexis, I have long had an interest in Thailand, where I travelled during my time after taking the bar exam. Like Alexis, I have long had an interest in Buddhism. Although peace is a huge message of my peace mentor Jun Yasuda of the Nipponzan Myohoji Nichiren Buddhist order, Buddhism in and of itself does not stop violence. A key component to reaching world peace is for each of us to achieve internal peace.

Alexis bought his gun(s) used in the murders in Virginia. I live in Virginia, and Virginia’s gun laws are eminently more lax than those in neighboring Washington, D.C., and Maryland. I joke that people are so polite in Virginia, lest they learn the person next to them on the street is carrying a lawfully concealed handgun. The background check by the Virginia gun seller found nothing in his history to legally prevent the sale.

Mass murderers get mass press coverage, whether or not they intend it. I certainly do not wish to feed into the goals of such attention, but write about Alexis’s murderous rampage because I must get my views off out of my pen, and send my prayers to the victims and their loved ones.

Violence runs rampant in society, and often is expressed in smaller scale and less violent ways than mass murder. Before information on Alexis had been released, I posted on Facebook: "Without mutual caring, compassion and connectedness, violence will continue, in many forms."Yet, here, Alexis apparently was receiving some significant level of caring, compassion and connectedness through his Thai Buddhist community in Texas, where he meditated and had his eyes on monkhood. Maybe his demons were too excessive and too long term for such caring to have made enough of a difference yet. Maybe his distance over a thousand miles from his temple while working on the Navy Yard project distanced his feelings of feeling cared for and cared about. I have driven past and near the Navy Yard countless times. Walking the sidewalks there gets no more of a warm and fuzzy feeling from other people than walking any stereotypical urban street.

USA Today reports that for a time, Alexis lived in building behind a Thai Buddhist temple in Fort Worth. He later moved elsewhere, went to the temple less often, became unhappy, and wanted to return to being with the monks. Did Alexis know that a sizeable Thai Buddhist community is in the Washington, D.C., area, where he was doing his contract work at the Navy Yard, including a large Thai Buddhist temple around twelve miles northeast in Silver Spring, Maryland? Would it have made a difference?

Alexis learned to kill in the military. So did sniper John Muhammed. So did convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Killers learn somewhere(s).

I read that, with Alexis’s murders, survivors of the massacre victims in Newtown, Connecticut (a few miles up the street from where I grew up) have again called for tougher gun laws. Gun laws alone are not going to stop violence. Plenty of people obtain guns illegally already, and the Second Amendment must keep teeth, lest other provisions of the Bill of Rights suffer tooth decay. How do we stop violence if we do not further defang the Second Amendment? We can start by disarming ourselves; by finding internal peace, which translates into external peace; and by barring weapons from our homes, cars, and places of business.

Ringu Tulku writes: "Once we no longer feel compelled to cling to ourselves and fixate on our own problems all the time, we can look around and see everything clearly. We can perceive others’ lives and understand how and why they experience their problems. Although we see that others are suffering greatly, we know that their suffering is almost needless." Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Buddhism at 58 (Snow Lion Publications, 2005). And then Aaron Alexis strikes.

Has Aaron Alexis, through his death, rid himself of his demons? Not if life does not stop merely when the heart no longer beats.

To all who have suffered at the hands of Aaron Alexis, and to Alexis himself, I send my prayers. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.

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