What the Colorado shooting says about us
The Colorado movie massacre imposes on us once again the temptation to extrapolate lessons from a demented act of violence. Depending on the lens through which the massacre is viewed, it has encouraged some to restate their case for gun control or to argue for comprehensive mental healthcare. Others have named Hollywood an accessory to the murders while savoring the irony that the ultraviolence was meted out by a killer who delighted in executing Aurora, Colorado, fans of violent films. Hollywood has already mulled its culpability. An otherwise intelligent film critic has blamed the rampage on midnight screenings! Politicians are wagging their fingers about how nobody should extract immediate political advantage from the killings while plotting means to reap later benefit.
As I write, the accused killer’s high school yearbook is being pillaged for clues to his motives. People who knew him well or hardly at all are being interviewed for psychological evidence. And the media does fMRI scans of the accused’s skull, in search of evidence of his brain “lighting up” at the idea of murder.
Such attempts at pattern recognition are as inevitable as they are necessary. Philosophers may be capable of throwing the null set at a suburban bloodbath. For the rest of us, attempts at finding causation – however tenuous – help settle the mind. The shooter did it because he was crazy, we say. He did it because he was evil. He did it because we (or somebody else) made him that way. He did it because guns make it possible. Any explanation that will help us cope will do.
As a Michigander who grew up reading grisly accounts about the 1927 Bath Consolidated School mass murder, I find little solace in today’s discussion. In that small-town slaughter, a disgruntled school board treasurer named Andrew Kehoe (pdf) detonated the explosives he had secretly planted in the basement of the school, killing 38 children and four adults. Kehoe’s other targets: his wife, whom he bludgeoned to death at his farm before he torched the place and blew it sky-high; and the school superintendent, whom he pulped in a suicide car-bombing. The little town buried its dead over the course of several days, and the story gained national notoriety.
You can’t blame Kehoe’s spree on the mass availability of guns. He relied on another killing agent. You can’t blame Batman, Hollywood or midnight screenings, either. I’m sure Kehoe was crazy – according to historical sources, he was angry at authorities about the property taxes levied to support the school, taxes to which he attributed his financial troubles. The impulse to kill irrationally, and to use whatever means accessible to do so, resides deep in the American grain, perhaps integral to being human. That doesn’t mean our situation is hopeless. As Noel Perrin wrote in Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, cultures can change their violent ways, but building such a cultural consensus takes more effort and persuasion than just passing new gun-control laws.
Kehoe, like the accused Colorado killer, had spent weeks, maybe months planning his crimes in detail, amassing a cache of dynamite and pyrotol. He also appears to have held clichéd views on what causes people like him to kill innocent people like schoolchildren. According to the New York Times news story about the bombings, a placard reading “criminals are made, not born,” was found wired to a fence on his farm: The people of Bath made him do it. As an Amazon review of the book about the Bath incident noted, Kehoe had nothing against children. “Typical of psychopaths, he took the blame off of himself,” wrote L. Blumenthal.
The human reflex to find cause, meaning and lessons in the detritus of a massacre – and to impose a solution on the chaos based on those findings – should be trusted only to the extent that it allows us to muddle through the confusion churned up by such a crazed act. As we recover from the initial shock, we revert to our fundamental and irresolvable arguments about freedom and individuality, which aren’t very good at explaining why people shoot or dynamite innocents – or at stopping them from doing so.
Pollsters tell us that killings like the Colorado massacre don’t seem to move the public opinion needle very much. The 1999 Columbine shootings turned support for stronger gun-control laws upward, as this Huffington Post analysis of poll data from ABC/Washington Post, Gallup, and Pew shows, but the public’s attitude soon reverted to the previous baseline and actually continued to fall for the next 11 years.
Some events change minds and change politics, as any observer of 9/11 and its aftermath can confirm. But Americans – who have lost presidents, civil rights leaders, sons, and daughters to maniacs packing heat – have normalized gun carnage. Step outside of the violent, visceral moments of last night, of Gabrielle Giffords, of Virginia Tech, of Columbine and all the rest and you find continuous confirmation of our skill at normalizing. I leave it to you whether it demonstrates that we’re blind or that we’re realists about violence.
Our normalization skills have not escaped the attention of longtime gun-control advocate Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): “Americans really have to begin to show some outrage at this,” she said today. She also said: “I don’t believe [gun-control legislation] has a chance in this environment.”
Go ahead and visit the Kehoe grave. Send all unnormalized views to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and follow my Twitter feed for the same from me. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: James Holmes, 24, is seen in this undated handout picture released by the University of Colorado, July 20, 2012. REUTERS/The University of Colorado/Handout