For the past 10 years I have had the distinct honor of organizing the Victims of Crime Candlelight Vigil which is held each year just prior to the Christmas holiday.
The intended purpose is to offer remembrance and respect to the families of those who have lost a loved one based on a criminal act. It is a wonderful event made up of informative, consoling and motivational speakers, musical entertainment, bagpipes and honor guards all mixed with Christmas decorations to remind us that there is reason for hope as the holiday season approaches. As you can imagine, a great deal of hard work and careful planning goes into an event such as this in order to provide the best possible program that we can.
At this year's event, I began to think that this event was not really so much about the program being offered but it was more so about the people who the program was being offered to. Don't get me wrong, it was a program that received high accolades from those in attendance and I know that they truly appreciate all of the hard work that went in to it. But, I realized that most of them were coming to the event not only for the program, but to be with people who had shared experiences just like theirs.
At one point, I looked across the crowd and saw genuine pain on so many of the faces present. The pain was clearly visible on faces of all colors. The conversations among the attendees were spoken in many accents and in several languages. The hurt and void that these crimes had caused could be seen in the eyes of victims who were at the top of the economic ladder, as well as those who could not even afford to raise a foot to the first rung of the ladder. There were family members and friends of victims who under normal circumstances would probably never even meet each other. Many clung to religious conciliation and beliefs that others present would never understand. Tears flowed freely as strangers hugged and embraced each other as if they had known each other for years. They had no particular social ties and lacked any particular common denominator that would normally bring them together. But, on this night, this special group shared an overwhelming connection based on an uncommon denominator, the factor created by violent crime.
As a long time practitioner in the field of criminal justice, I have debated crime and the effects of crime on our society on many occasions. Most often the debate turns into a demographic categorization and separation as it relates to the overall effect. What I now know is that while crime may create categories from an academic perspective, it literally erases those categories in a literal sense. Much like a disease without a cure, it has no preference to any particular race or economic standard. It shows up in all walks of life and can often leave a sometimes crippling effect on those who it touches. It is a disease that has different levels of toxicity and its effects can be felt far past the actual victim who first encountered the scourge. Criminal victimization can be found in people who were miles from the actual crime scene, but their lives are forever changed based on the acts committed.
As with the study of a rampant disease, it is much less complicated to identify the carrier than it is to identify the next victim. Violent criminal acts typically come unannounced, without warning, and have nothing to do with the proverbial "good health" lifestyle that so many try to adhere to. A sometime wrong place-wrong- time situation can have deadly results despite our best preventive efforts. A single criminal act can cause generational damage in the blink of an eye. Long-term family planning and dreams are no deterrent to a criminal who has no plans past the vile and heinous act that he or she is about to commit.
Like a rare strain that is unfazed by the strongest antibiotic, crime reacts and adapts to society's medicines so that it may live another day. Unfortunately, for every day that the virus lives, another innocent person dies. And as long as we continue to search for a remedy, and cause and reason to the short-term, long-term, and often fatal results that crime leaves in its wake, we must rely on nothing more than the human factor to get us through. A group that relies so much on the uncommon, rather than the common denominators, that fate has dealt them. It is a more powerful tool for healing than any pharmaceutical company will ever be able to develop.
The Victims of Crime Candlelight Vigil continues to provide the necessary comfort for so many who are in pain. While it can never be a cure-all for the many ailments that crime can cause, it at least provides a temporary reprieve and lets those who attend the ceremony know that there are many people just like them who are searching for comfort in any way possible. It is remarkable and refreshing to see that, as with so many things in life, it is often less about the pomp and so much more about the circumstance that makes the real difference.
Stan Hall is the director of Gwinnett County's Victim Witness Program. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.