What the Colorado shooting says about us

By Jack Shafer
July 20, 2012

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.”

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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

9 comments

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People kill people, the gun or knife is some of the tools that a sick minded person will use to kill someone. If the tool is on a table it has no value of harm but if the tool is picked up by some crazy person who wants to do harm than it becomes the object to use. Now take example if cars/trucks/motorcycle/bicycle was banned there would be no way a person can carry any weapon to a scene of a crime location. So use reason when pointing the finger at the tool because a car, gasoline, and other house hold goods can kill a person as much as a gun can. Blame the sick person and not the object that they used. A sick minded human being is it’s worst enemy to the people of a free society.

Posted by Cisco2012 | Report as abusive

Good article, Jack, although I would change normalizing to rationalizing. In passing, I note that other countries also occasionally suffer from massacres like Columbine and Virginia Tech and Bath School. The difference seems to be in frequency. I lived in the UK for many years during which Dunblaine and Hungerford occurred. They were horrific, but isolated and rare events. In America, mass shootings are monthly, if not weekly, occurrences. The main difference is the number of available weapons. Britain has its fair share of psychos (Crippen, Hindley, et/al.), but only a hundredth of the guns per head of population. But in recent years, the increasing availability of guns has lead to more mass shootings (i.e. Bird). If you are enraged and psychotic, but only have access to a baseball bat, there is a limited amount of damage you can do. But a semi-automatic weapon with 100-shot magazines? Now we’re talkin’!

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

My last rant on Reuters:

The current “Fast and furious, high flying, high risk high reward” life is filled with too much pressure, temptation, desperation, stimulation.

We need to slow down from sprinting speed to marathon speed.

Otherwise, many more people will be driven insane. More psychotic, more tragedies like this.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

There is no meaning in this. Of course there isn’t. There’s no rationalizing it, putting it into some kind of useful framework, etc. It’s about as handing as trying to find meaning in somebody eating a ham sandwich. It simply is.

Now that said, all Shafer has proven is that the impulse to kill in anger, and en masse, is a human instinct that crops up with statistical regularity, and perhaps arguably increasing regularity given the increasing stress and complexity of modern life. But that aside, all it shows is that these impulses exist in modern life.

So assuming that one won’t reasonably be able to quash these kinds of people from existing, there is a valid policy question here: how do we make this harder to do, and therefore reduce the frequency and severity of these kinds of events? And of course, as Shafer notes, no politician save for Bloomberg has stepped up and made the simple statement that the easy availability of guns, a tool designed solely as a killing machine, is part and parcel of this event. But that’s the obvious answer here. And the fact that nobody is saying it tells me that this country has tacitly accepted that these things will happen and that its the cost of a perverse form of “freedom.” And therefore, I can no longer mourn or grieve for a country that has no intention of doing anything about it.

And for those who argue that more guns, not less, is the answer, riddle me this: in the confusion of a gas-filled theatre, with one (or more) gunmen, how does every heat-packing citizen then determine who to shoot at? Who’s friend, who’s foe? How does law enforcement figure that out? Do we need to encourage bad guys to wear black hats?

Posted by gpeng05 | Report as abusive

I decided to look up mass murdering women. They exist in specialization: mothers who kill their young, women who kill with a lover, nurses who kill their patients, and women who kill the infirm (like arsenic and old lace). I tried to put them in order of numbers from most occurring to less occurring (the source is http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notor ious_murders/women/index.html … I suppose there are more scholarly sites, but here is a beginning)

Now, for men (from the same site): 1. sexual predators (that includes men, women, children), 2. men who kill co-workers (which include school, Fort Hood), 3. men who kill at “random” (as in the Aurora movie house, Amish school house ~ from other news sites), and 4. men who kill for some ideology. It is hard to tell from the above site which among the three for men who murder, which occurs most often, but clearly, ideology kills the most people.

Between the sexes, men kill the most and kill more because of ideology. Men kill ritualistically more often the women, Women kill for personal issues (status, position in a relationship).

As the first commenter said, access to weapons makes the numbers of killings more frequent. I think that people (normal?) can detect when someone is not socially adept. So, I think less weapons, more healthcare (physical and mental) would be both important to slow down these incidents. It may not stop them because ideology kills far more people.

Posted by tardigrades | Report as abusive

The day in Colorado’s movie theater massacre of innocent children, women, and men was again a very sad day for America for the World to see, and it will further tarnish our Nation as the “Peace Keepers” in the World!
That lunatic in the old Western ways of Justice would have already been tried and hung yesterday! But now, the new Judicial Process will have Tax payers pay for his Defense, and to keep him on Death Row for years to come while he is being fed by the Moneys from the people he wanted to Kill! What kind of justice is this in return for the quick and instant death of those he killed? None! This is No Justice of any kind! The Court must let this man into the General Population for only 1 day for him to taste of “real and exact Justice!”

Posted by stevehorvath59 | Report as abusive

Even in the old west it was sometimes accepted that armed men had to leave their guns at the door if they ever went to church or a town meeting. It was easily understood that weapons were, by their very nature, a threat to the peace and I’m sure they knew about hot tempers and the emotionally unbalanced.

It may have only been a ritual but it also created a brief time in people’s lives when they were not defending against each other but sitting together in a state of mutual vulnerability.

BTW- The theater shooting is something I heard about once before in a theater in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City in the mod 70s. It was a case of armed gangs battling it out in public.

As the territories developed, the time-outs seemed to get longer and extend beyond the church or meeting hall. However – in those moments of peace it was expected that the participants would also engage in fair dealing and truthful discussion.

It does not work if one side demands gun control, or disarmament, or good faith discussions, while all the time pursuing policies that mean the participants run straight for them when the meeting has ended. They just waste their time. In that case, peaceful coexistence wouldn’t happen until the conflicts had succeeded in killing one or the other, or both.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Too many Americans love guns more than the lives of strangers. That says it all.

Posted by deneicy | Report as abusive

I am sorry for being a bit know-it-ally here and divert from the main subject, but “Giving Up the Gun: ‪Japan’s Reversion to the Sword” is simply put wrong. The gun wasn’t banned at all, neither did the samurai think of it as only a peasants weapon, the samurai used them too. Guns was used less during the Edo period because there was no wars in Japan during that time. And for police action or personal defence the sword was more appropriate than matchlock guns.In the Japanese translation of Perrin’s book the postscript says:“This book does not take as its goal the empirical examination of the events of the past.”
http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-11 122007-003804/unrestricted/Ethridge_thes is.pdf

Posted by Thrashmad | Report as abusive