A tragedy of undetermined cause [Editorial]

We join with those who mourn the young people who died in the senseless shooting at the Mall in Columbia Saturday morning. And we are grateful to those police and firefighters who fearlessly responded to the scene and extend our sympathies to those injured, both physically and emotionally, as a result of the incident.

Monday was a day of healing, a time to return to normalcy at the most quintessential of suburban outposts. We believe Howard County Executive Ken Ulman took exactly the right tack in choosing to have lunch at the mall's food court. Whatever inspired 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar to open fire in a skate and snowboard shop, it was an aberration, a lightning strike. Time to move forward, as difficult as it may be, to put the shock and terror of that fateful day behind.

That's not to suggest that victims Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park or Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy will be forgotten. Both were employees of the Zumiez store where Aguilar opened fire, and their deaths will haunt the community for a long time, so pointless was this loss, so stupid, so awful, such an enormous waste.

Brianna, the store's assistant manager, was remembered as upbeat and the mother of a young son while Tyler was leading the challenging life of a recovering addict. Active in 12-step programs, he was just sorting out where life would take him. Indeed, that might be said of all three who died that day, including Aguilar, who took his own life; they were still on the cusp of adulthood and finding their way in the world.

What demons drove this young man, a College Park doughnut shop employee, to bring a 12-gauge shotgun and shells, as well as two homemade explosive devices crafted from fireworks, to the mall? That we do not know. The incident does not appear to fit any of the patterns we have come to expect of such highly-public murder-suicides post-Columbine, post-Aurora and post-Fort Hood — the angry loner or the crazed sufferer of delusions or the ideological terrorist.

This lack of an apparent motive — and the fact that so many of those around Aguilar said they saw no signs of anger, depression or potential suicide — makes the shooting all the more disturbing. He kept a journal expressing, as police have described it, "general unhappiness with his life," but it falls short of an explanation. Rare is the teen who has not entertained similar thoughts — just listen to the lyrics of their music. A certain amount of angst and gloom are standard for the age group.

It is possible we may never know what drove this behavior which, of course, makes it all the more difficult for the devastated families of the victims, not to mention a heartbroken and traumatized community trying to make sense of such senselessness. How do you take comfort that this was a complete aberration when it lacks all justification, even a misguided one?

This much we do know. Howard County rose to the challenge of this 21st century horror, the mass shooting, with the vigor, professionalism and resolve that we recall from the sniper shootings in neighboring Montgomery County in 2002. Not only have county employees distinguished themselves (as did first-responders from neighboring jurisdictions), but we see the same strength, compassion and outreach among local residents.

Affluent suburbs like Howard County, and unincorporated communities like Columbia in particular, are sometimes assumed to be less close-knit then either small towns or city neighborhoods, dismissed as having less sense of place, shallow roots and bourgeois values. But that's not been our experience, and disasters like this one demonstrate that a shopping mall can be as much a rallying point, a community's town center, as any street corner or courthouse square.

That the mall's management would think to leave a memorial book for visitors to sign at the center court Monday demonstrates that they understand this, too. "Forever in our hearts," read the sign outside the Mall in Columbia where the victims were also remembered. It is a fine sentiment and true. But it might also have announced, "forever inexplicable," because that is the sad legacy of that fateful day, too.

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