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.