Police say Dr. George Zinkhan, a professor at the University of Georgia, shot his wife and two others to death at the Athens Community Theatre Saturday while the couple’s son and daughter, 8 and 10, waited nearby in their father’s maroon Jeep.
After the shootings, according to police, Zinkhan drove the children to a neighbor’s house and left them there. When the neighbor asked Zinkhan’s daughter what was going on, the child said something about fireworks.
I wonder if that’s what Zinkhan told his children when he returned to the vehicle after the killings. Maybe his daughter just invented that innocent explanation for the sounds she and her brother were close enough to hear. Maybe the girl wanted to believe all those sharp pops were just middle-of-the-day fireworks at the theatre party their mother was attending.
But the girl and her brother knew, at least on some level, that something terrible had happened. They’re not babies; they’re modern children who watch the news on television. They know the meaning of screaming and sirens. They may even have seen the killer holding the handgun that caused their mother’s death.
The children had to know the father they loved was involved.
After dropping them off, Zinkhan vanished along with the red Jeep. Maybe he’s committed suicide; maybe he’s hiking the Appalachian Trail or crewing on a rusty freighter. Maybe he’ll turn up; maybe he won’t.
Whatever happens to him, his young son and daughter are paying for the crimes he allegedly committed. For the rest of their lives, the children will remember the beautiful spring afternoon when they lost both their mother and their father.
How could any parent do that to his children? If he cared enough to leave them with a neighbor, why didn’t he care enough to solve whatever problems he had in a way that wouldn’t permanently damage them, too?
Maybe the children will be strong enough to move past this tragedy and lead healthy lives. Maybe they’ll come to understand that no truly sane person guns down three people in cold blood. Maybe someday they’ll even be able to forgive the person who killed their mother and ended their happy childhood.
Even with loving relatives and counselors to help them through this, they’re going to hurt for a long, long time. Because children tend to feel guilty when parents divorce, they may even think their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance was somehow their fault. They may wonder if they might have done something to keep it from happening.
But there is only one person who could have done that. The unanswerable question is: Why didn’t he?