As of now we know little about what conditions drove, or proved useful to, the Aurora suspect to murder and maim. But given the worldwide incidences of so-called “rampage killings,” the culprit was not the particular gun laws of Colorado. His dark counterparts exist in contemporary Norway, Uganda, Russia, and Latin America. I am sure there is a typology of the multifarious conditions that might prompt such demonic killers—workplace anger, spousal revenge, school-related grudges, religious fanaticism, race or ethnic hatred, political extremism, and abject insanity that offers no exegesis at all.
So far we have heard that guns did it; or that there were unfortunately not any good gunmen in the theater to stop him; or that the mentally ill are not closely enough watched, medicated, or hospitalized; or that we live in a “sick” culture; and on and on.
One unmentioned fact is that rampage killing is not necessarily a modern phenomenon, although firearms as force multipliers facilitate it and up the horrific body count. Killers in the 19th century often shot down innocent bystanders. Yet I think there are some new developments that already have brought hundreds of millions worldwide into the horrifically demonic mind of the suspect James Holmes.
The first is modern global communications. In 1957, if a disgruntled Ugandan policeman slaughtered 57, to the degree anyone in Selma, my hometown of 5,000 at that time, knew about it, it was at best perhaps a day or two later and in a small column in the Fresno Bee. The same was true when a deranged German shot and killed 14 in 1913. Before the telegraph and telephone, did anyone, more than 100 miles distant from the scene of a crime, know that a Romanian or Japanese or Virginian carved up a dozen in the 17th century?
Today every rampage, everywhere, worldwide hits the Internet and cable news, without wider thoughtful context, and yet with great detail of the crime. The graphic story is without valuable analyses, and so offers us little reminder that there are now 7 billion people on the planet—and in a nanosecond we are going to know the name and circumstances of any single one of us who that day goes on a rampage. The net effect is that the Bolivian worries just not about the mass killer in Lima, but the one in Miami or Ukraine as well.
Popular culture—particularly the visual arts of modern movies and TV, or the imagery on the Internet—is far different from even the immediate past, at least in the sense of blurring reality with fantasy. In the old 1950s Western, the hero shot the villain, who grabbed his chest and fell, as if struck inexplicably by a heart seizure. We were told after Bonnie and Clyde that such stagecraft was “fake”; people should die on screen instead like Clyde Barrow actually did—and we must as adult viewers appreciate the real effects of pulling the trigger.
The opposite ensued! There was far greater chance on Gunsmoke or Bonanza that we had a few seconds to ponder the landscape of the occasional dying victim than amid the dozens who implode on Breaking Bad or Spartacus. How did it happen that by supposedly showing us exactly what a bullet does to flesh, we were thereby exempt from any human accounting— from the sort of explanation of a death that Doc, or Kitty, or Matt Dillon offered, when the latter shot one or two “bad guys” in an hour on Saturday night, or a “good guy” tragically died? Yes, it was phony when the gunslinger slumped over without a drop of blood on his chest; but it would be phonier still to have a smart-ass Marshal Dillon blast away ten in succession, in slow-motion, flesh-exploding detail as if they were mere mannequins all, with no past, no present, no nothing.
Since about 1970, the cinema victim dies in the manner real people die (bloody trauma, the body contorting and in visible pain and shock). But here again is the dilemma—the hyperrealism still blurs reality. In an action-hero movie, a teen-horror film, a shoot-em-up crime show, lots of people perish in the manner in which real people would so die under similarly violent circumstances. But there is less not more shock at the loss of human life.
When Alien, Predator, or Terminator slice up or rip apart dozens, life just goes on. Bodies fly all over the screen and we are onto the next scene. Wondering about who actually was the 11th poor soul who had his heart ripped out by the Terminator is far less interesting than watching the latter utter some banality. The same is true of everything from Die Hard to 300—lots of real-life, graphic killing, but almost no pause and bewilderment over the staggering loss of life or the consequences of Target 12 or Victim G leaving life at 12 or 56. Killing is so easy not just because of robotic arms, RPGs, and computer simulations, but also because there are almost no emotional consequences from the carnage—a fact easily appreciated by the viewer, the more so if young or unhinged or both. The killer usually smiles or at least shows no emotion; the victims are reduced to “them,” anonymous souls who serve as mere numbers in a body count. Will Kane’s victims, in contrast, were known—evil, but still not anonymous and not mere sets for the sheriff’s gunplay.
For the diseased mind that is saturated with such modern imagery, there is fascination aplenty with the drama of killing, but no commensurate lesson gleaned from its sheer horror—at least in human terms of the devastation that such carnage does to humans, both nearby and in the larger community. In the awful mind of the rampage killer, he always must be the center of attention in the manner of his homicidal fantasy counterpart, his victims of no more account than are those decapitated, dismembered, or shot apart by Freddy Krueger or Arnold Schwarzenegger. How odd that we rush to the emergency room for a cut finger in the kitchen—stitches, tetanus shot, pain killer, bandages, a doctor’s reassurance—only to matter-of-factly watch horrific wounds on television that night with no thought that a .38 slug to the shoulder entails something more than our split forefinger.
And there is a further wrinkle to these hyper-realistic cinematic rampages. The killer, be he an evil “Joker,” the horrific Alien, or a hit man in a mafia movie, has a certain edgy personality, even a sick sort of intriguing persona—at least in the sense that his evil is sometimes “cool” in a way that his plodding victims, who simply got in his way, are not. In the abstract, we sympathize with the good, who became his targets; but in the concrete, the film focuses more often on the killer’s emotions, his language, his swagger.
The Joker spits, he puns, he acts disengaged and “cool,” while his victims scream and panic; we want to know why he acts so, and are supposed to be fixated on his strange clothes, face, and patois, never on the series of Joe Blows that are incinerated by him. Is it any wonder we know all about the orange hair of the suspected killer, but very little about the hair colors of any of the poor victims?
Will this distortion of reality change? I doubt it, but I sense a great public hunger for the wounded victim, the near corpse, the dying to suddenly rise up and announce “I am a human being and I count,” as he either dies with a second of nobility or ends the rampage killer. One of the attractions of the violent film Dirty Harry was the utter disdain Clint Eastwood held for the perverted killer (“he likes it”), as he sought to remind society that in comparison with his victims, the killer’s feelings mattered little.
Yes, you say that the teary scene of the death of Boromir in Lord of the Rings or a Kirk Douglas burning on the departing Viking ship was hokey. But I prefer them to the new normal of cinematic death as irrelevant—an indifference that ripples through society at large.
In the Dark Knight, when Batman chooses not to run over the Joker when he can, we are supposedly offered a number of valuable messages—the caped hero has not quite descended into the jungle of the vigilante; the rule of law and due process are upheld; saving the Joker ensures Batman is not the Joker; and even perhaps the misunderstood crime fighter senses a sick affinity with the similarly outcast crime perpetrator. But lost among the director’s messages is the simple fact that had Batman splattered the psychopathic mass murderer, dozens still alive in the remaining minutes of the film would not have been slaughtered. Or was that the director’s message—that Batman’s inflated sense of justice, his inability to terminate evil, ensures that evil will terminate others good but weaker than he?
All of which brings us to our third symptom of the modern age that makes the contemporary rampage killer somehow different. If the suspect is charged and found guilty, I have zero confidence that he will be hanged. I have a great deal of confidence that over the next five years, his awful presence will pop up on a news broadcast. We can execute bin Laden and high-five it; we can incinerate over 2,000 suspected terrorists by video-controlled Predators, and have the president brag about it in warning away suitors from his daughters at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner— but we cannot do the same for someone who was tried, convicted, and sentenced for horrifically destroying people.
For months to come after his trial there will be a “new” revelation in the case—an interview, a testimonial from a former friend, a novel twist about the evidence. The net effect is that we will know more about the killer and his crime, and each day ever less about his victims.
Tonight, I wish to know nothing about him other than the information necessary to try, convict, and punish him—and any data that might provide some sort of deterrence in preventing another such rampage.
In comparison to those he killed and maimed, and the legions of their relatives and friends, he is nothing. We the sophisticated with university degrees are supposed to know better: that hanging such a nightmarish criminal when convicted is both barbaric on our part and offers no statistical evidence that it will deter future such killers.
Perhaps. But society needs to be affirmed with a certainty that it has the clear sense of evil and good to try, convict, and punish the killer. Hanging Saddam or Eichmann, for all the controversies over their trials, at least offered some finality: they were evil and now are no more—and now we don’t worry whether Saddam was unloved, or the circumstances of Eichmann’s childhood.
In other words, I don’t care a whit whether the Aurora killer was a loner. I don’t care if he was unhappy or if he was on medication. Millions share such pathologies without killing a mouse. I don’t even know whether giving him swift justice will deter the next mass shooter. Yes, give the suspect expert legal counsel; call in all the psychiatrists imaginable; sequester the jury; ensure the judge is a pillar of jurisprudence; but if he is found guilty, I would prefer the gallows and quickly so, to remind us that we live in a civilization that prefers to remember the victims and to remember nothing at all of their killer.