Archive for July, 2012

I think a lot of why I’m in journalism is because it’s a job where my goal is to take in a lot of information and turn it into a story. I gather information, break it down and try to explain it to other people in simple understandable ways. The process for me is about finding meaning. Often as I interview people or cover events I ask myself “what is the story here?” I’m trying to find my own narrative for events.

One of the reasons that doing this job appeals to me is because I’m a pretty sensitive person and I spend a lot of time trying to understand all the Bad Things in the world on my own. Getting a job where I am trying to tell stories and find meaning has an inherent appeal to me because it’s what I do every time I see Bad Things in the world.

I think this impulse to find meaning is a very human thing. When we see things that horrify us we either have to try to wrap our head around it or ignore it. I’ve never been able to ignore it, which is hard because I’m the kind of person who can break down into tears while reading news stories or looking at photos from whatever tragedy is breaking.

The moment that did it for me with the recent shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. was looking through photos from the Denver Post on Friday. In several of their aerial photos of the exterior of the theater you can see blood spattered all over the exit from the theater. Although the shooting was already a tragedy, this image is what brought it home for me.

Since being unsettled by this image I’ve been devouring news stories about the events. I keep hoping something will tell me why the accused shooter James Holmes would kill and injure these innocent people. I know there is no possible justification for this shooting, but I think it’s easier to sleep at night if you can put these actions in some kind of category. Is Holmes a political radical like Anders Breivik or Jared Lee Loughner? A bitter social outcast like so many of the school shooters since the era of mass killings began in 1999 at Columbine High School?

Maybe on some level I want to put this shooting into a category so I can feel like there is some way to remedy it (even if there isn’t). A part of what has really gotten to me in this shooting is the photo of Holmes that appears with so many photos, which looks to me like a school ID photo. He looks like a nice guy in the photo, the smiling face of a young man who would become a murderer. He looks like the kind of person I’d have been friends with, and he’s my age. The choice of the latest Batman movie indicates he may be a geek, like me.

Frustrated by the stories that I was reading and how little they told me I began to google Holmes to see if I could find some insight into this person. Eventually, I ended up googling the words “why james holmes” hoping that something would tell me more about why this man would choose to do this. I didn’t find any answers, I only found a Slate.com article discussing how little social media told us about Holmes.

After work I went home and watched both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” as I’d planned to do before going to see the “Dark Knight Rises” on Saturday. Although I’d intended to watch the movies anyway, I think there was something else I was looking for as I watched them: I was hoping to understand why someone could watch these and be inspired to commit violence.

It wasn’t hard to find dark, violent themes in the movies. I’m a fan of the entire Batman franchise, and I must acknowledge that it does have many themes a sick mind could latch onto. From the comic books to video games and movies, Batman’s world is not a nice place. Still, it’s just entertainment and I in no way believe that media alone can make a person violent. For every James Holmes there are many, many decent people who enjoy these movies and are perfectly normal.

As I went into the “Dark Knight Rises” I still was looking for some insight, something that would help me explain why Holmes became a killer.

I didn’t, of course, find any. As I watched the movie I realized it was just that: a movie. No more, no less. In fact, despite it’s violence the movie has strong themes of redemption and hope, and people rising to defeat violence.

Sunday, as I was reading an editorial by James Fallows in the Atlantic, his opening paragraph really struck me. He writes, “Soon after the Aurora murders I argued that the worst part was the shared American knowledge that we’ll go through this cycle again. In some other city, with some other setting, and because of some other specific reason why the (probably male, white, in his 20s) killer went mad — and why no one could have seen this coming (“he kept to himself mainly”) but also why everyone should have seen it coming. We’ll have the “moments of terror” media recreations, the flowers and testimonials, the flags at half-staff — and then nothing. After a little while it will happen again.”

As I read this it occurred to me why I was looking so hard for understanding of this issue: if we understand what causes someone to lose their minds and do something like this, maybe we can prevent it. I’m sure that this impulse is foolish, but I guess looking for answers is my coping mechanism for horror like this.

As I reflect, I think my personal search for meaning is motivated by the knowledge that Fallows is right: we will go through this again. What is nearly as upsetting to me as this incident itself is the knowledge that Americans, as a culture, have accepted that mass killings. We no longer rage over them or even discuss seriously how to prevent them from happening again. I remember when Gabrielle Giffords was shot a conservative pundit complained about how people would try to use the tragedy as evidence for the need for gun control. Although I have very mixed feelings about gun control, I remember thinking that anyone trying to use shootings to argue for gun control would be making a valid argument.

However, in spite of the fears of the Fox News brigade gun control hasn’t taken any steps forward since then. Shootings like this don’t start real conversations about gun control anymore. Gun control is an idea that neither Republicans or Democrats will touch. After Columbine, Colorado enacted new gun laws. While this shooting seems to show that they haven’t stopped mass killings, at least then people were willing to try something.

Now, it seems as a society we’ve accepted that this kind of insane violence is a way of life.

I don’t have any ideas for how we solve this problem. I personally suspect that these shootings are a sign of some deeper problems in our culture: the digital disconnection from the world and the strains of surviving in a harsh economy. I honestly don’t think that we can fix anything with gun control, but at least I appreciate the sentiment of its advocates: that this is a problem that can be fixed. At least that attitude it is better than the apathy and acceptance of the rest of us.

Ultimately, I think trying to understand James Holmes isn’t what I want my narrative to be. The meaning that comes from this must be created by all of us. We, as a people, need to take a good hard look at ourselves and try to understand and then fix our society so that we don’t create any more James Holmes. While he is a symptom he is not the disease. Above all, we need to make sure that we don’t just accept this as a part of our lives.

In a lot of ways, this is what the plot of the Dark Knight Trilogy is: not accepting evil and doing what needs to be done for it to stop.


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