Can we feel safe in a crowd anymore?

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Story highlights

  • Larry Barton: After the Colorado massacre, many may be anxious about attending crowded events
  • However, murders at concerts, movies and sporting venues are statistically small, says Barton
  • Instead of being fearful, we should be aware and alert at events and workplaces, he says
  • Barton: About 70% of those who commit suicide or homicide have told someone in advance

In the aftermath of the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, various pundits and experts will ask whether anyone can feel safe enough to enjoy a concert or movie. It's not an unreasonable question.

The answer sounds distant and cool, but it is empirically correct: Murders at concerts, movie theatres and sporting venues are statistically small given the sheer number of persons who attend them.

They are rarely caused by people who have a grievance to settle with another patron or fan; they are more commonly caused by people with profound mental illness who recently experienced negative milestones in their life, such as a divorce or mental breakdown. They seek revenge, but have no specific target. They seek to incur maximum lethal damage in order to be memorialized. In short, by causing untold pain to strangers, they are able to achieve whatever notoriety or accomplishment that eluded them previously.

It will take weeks, if not months, for us to understand the motivations behind this crime as well as whether the suspect, James Holmes, shared signals with others in advance, such as on a blog or with friends. That he was in the process of withdrawing from an esteemed graduate program in neurosciences is probably not insignificant. The question that parents, friends and all of us now seek an answer to — "Why?" — parallels the very same questions posed in the aftermath of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and the nearly 200 public shootings that have occurred over the past 10 years in the United States alone.

The challenge for all of us is whether we will choose to avoid movies, festivals, state fairs and other activities out of fear, or whether we will choose to be aware and alert while also enjoying ourselves at these events.

Larry Barton

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We should remember that the citizens of New York, after an appropriate grieving period post 9/11, chose to return to Broadway, take the subway, shop Fifth Avenue and yes, commiserate the loss of friends and strangers— rather than isolating themselves in group fear. We can learn from them: Through prayer and reflection, we remember the victims. Through our actions and refusing to be intimidated by assassins, we are like those who have lived in Israel, Northern Ireland or Bali in the midst of terrorist events. We must re-engage, yet with heightened awareness.

    I have studied more than 2,800 attacks on civilians at workplaces since 1981 and have helped many Fortune 500 companies identify persons at risk before they pursued suicide or homicide. Here are some of the lessons I would share with you:

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    •Your intuition is a gift. If you find yourself in a public venue where someone, or something, seems out of place, act without hesitation to leave. Those who linger can engage in what medical specialists call "milling" — a sense of "this can't be happening to me." Think about those who fled from the Pentagon immediately upon guessing that a plane had crashed into their building in 2001, likely saving their lives.

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    •Your plan of safety cannot be improvised. When you attend any public event, and that includes a service in a house of worship or an Olympic event, routinely look for and remember the location of exits in advance. If a perpetrator enters through an exit, such as in the Aurora shooting, a group assault on the individual may be the only tangible way to end a massacre. A few may lose their lives, but many others will be spared. It is in these moments, in the military or civilian life, where heroes emerge.

    •Pay attention to signals. Year after year, according to my research, about 70% of those who commit suicide or homicide have told someone in advance of their possible intentions. If you sense that someone may be on a path to violence, contact law enforcement and allow them to manage the situation. They are experts and know how to address people with mental illness, substance abuse, anger and related issues.

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