The Colorado massacre: when unspeakable tragedy becomes the new normal

Here we are, a day after the horrifying events that took place in Aurora, Colorado, and the thing that chills me to the bone is how ordinary it has come to seem. A deranged gunman coolly and methodically shoots up a college campus, a high school, a military base, a museum, a supermarket at a meet-and-greet with a local Congresswoman. Anywhere from one to several dozen people die, and many more than that are seriously injured. These outbursts of lethal violence occurring at such familiar American institutions and shattering the peaceful, quotidian activities of everyday life that were taking place there once seemed shocking. Now they seem almost banal — oh god, one of these nuts again? How many were killed this time? And does anyone have a clue why?

So the fact that yet another place we once thought was safe — a movie theater — has been shown to be anything but, is unsettling, but not, anymore, unimaginable. And so we go through the usual rituals. Liberals point to the need for stricter gun control laws, but sadly, that seems to be all but a lost cause. If the Columbine massacre, which seemed unimaginably shocking at the time, didn’t spur big changes in Colorado’s gun laws, it’s hard to see how any other event could. And certainly neither of the two major party candidates for president have breathed a word about how this tragedy illustrates the need for gun control.

Another familiar ritual: we read profiles of the killer, and look for clues — were the signs of trouble always there? Could he have been stopped? What’s especially scary about the case of James Holmes, the Aurora gunman, is that there do not appear to have been any signs that things were clearly out of whack. According to various media reports, Holmes had had no run-ins with the law other than a speeding ticket, and though he was in the process of dropping out of his Ph.D. program, it was for academic reasons, not because of mental health issues or behavioral problems. He came from an apparently stable, middle-class family, and is described by those who knew him as studious, smart, and even (I shudder to use the word here) “kind.” Acquaintances say he was quiet and slightly awkward socially, and he had some nerdy hobbies like online role-playing games. But nothing remotely suggests that he would even contemplate, let alone commit, such a monstrous act.

In this he resembles Greg Ousley, a man currently serving a life sentence for killing both his parents when he was 14 years old, who is the subject of a profile in this week’s New York Times Magazine. It’s an interesting piece on a number of levels, but what’s most striking to me is how seemingly inexplicable his crime was. His family life was certainly unhappy — dad had a drinking problem and mom had anger management issues — but there was no physical or sexual abuse, or any other kind of mistreatment that would make the murders, which were premeditated, seem understandable.

The additional issue with people like Holmes and Ousley, is even if you do have good reason to believe that they are a danger to themselves or others, in most cases there is very little you can do. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings once wrote a very scary post about a friend of hers who went through a prolonged episode where he was threatening to kill people, and seemed quite serious about it. The most horrifying thing, to her, was that there was nothing she could do about it. He refused to get help, he had committed no crimes so involving law enforcement was not an option, and neither was involuntary commitment to a mental health facility. To her horror, there was not even anything she could do to prevent him from getting a gun license:

I called the gun licensing board in his jurisdiction. I didn’t expect them to deny him a gun license on my say-so, and would in fact have been pretty appalled if they had. But I had a fairly extensive collection of emails in which he discussed what he wanted to do at considerable length, so I offered to send them the emails, and also to allow them whatever access they needed in order to verify that these emails had in fact been sent to me. If they couldn’t spare the resources (this friend lived over a thousand miles away, so that seemed likely), I also offered to let them choose a forensic computer person to do it, and to pay the tab. I also offered to pay for a psychiatrist of their choosing to evaluate the emails and determine whether or not the person who wrote them was indeed a threat. Because I thought: while it would be awful if I could get them to deny someone a gun license just by making unsubstantiated claims about his sanity, surely there must be some provision for denying a gun license to someone who is demonstrably homicidal.

Guess what? There isn’t. Or so that particular gun licensing board told me. If someone has committed a felony, they said, he can be denied a license. But if they are merely insane and homicidal, there’s nothing anyone can do.

Fortunately, her friend eventually did get psychiatric help, but it’s a chilling story nonetheless, and one that heightens the sense of helplessness I feel whenever I read about one of these horrific killings.

Another big question I always have when I read about this kind of tragedy is, why? Why do they happen at all, and why do they happen so much in this country? Part of it is our lax gun laws, of course, but it seems much bigger than that. Crime may down overall, but it’s my impression that these kind of senseless mass murders are occurring more often. In his op ed in today’s New York Times, Roger Ebert argues that Holmes’ lust for fame is what drove him:

I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. Those like James Holmes, who feel the need to arm themselves, may also feel a deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation. Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action. The cinematic prototype is Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver.” I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.

While I think that fantasies of being all-powerful definitely had something to do with Holmes’ acts, I’m sure if I buy the theory that he did it for fame. After all, do we even remember the name of Virginia Tech murderer, or Gabrielle Giffords’ attempted assassin?

Then again, we live in a world where, according to People magazine, Casey Anthony finds inspiration in Kim Kardashian and is seeking to reinvent herself as a reality star. According to People, Anthony reportedly told an acquaintance, “I need to work on my brand.” Let your mind linger on that for a second, if you can stand it.

In a completely dysfunctional economy that has totally stopped working for so many, and in an era of skyrocketing inequality where the structural barriers to any kind of meritocratic achievement are so formidable, crime is one way to break away from the pack, I suppose. Among the 1 percenters, the most profoundly antisocial behaviors and acts, from tax evasion to illegal hacking the phones of private citizens to aiding and abetting the sexual assault of children to all manner of financial chicanery, have been not only tolerated but enabled. In some cases, the offending parties (see: Wall Street, the Catholic Church) have emerged not only with their reputations largely intact, but with their political power seemingly greater than ever.

Given that state of affairs, it’s perhaps not so great a stretch to imagine that, to some unhinged minds at least, even a crime as heinous as a mass murder could be their ticket to tabloid immortality and a shot at joining the elite club of the 1%.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee