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The Demons of the Modern Rampage Killer

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.