There was another shooting in America.
On Friday 20 July, shortly after midnight, in Aurora, Colorado, a single assailant entered a screening of The Dark Night Rises. According to reports he was covered in body armour, including a gas mask.
He allegedly threw a canister of tear gas into the audience before opening fire with up to four guns.
He was arrested under ten minutes later in the parking lot by police, without resistance. 70 people were injured, 12 of whom died, ten at the scene and two after being taken to hospital.
Those are the bare bones of it.
The suspect was identified by police as James Eagan Holmes, a 24 year old student at the University of Colorado, in the process of withdrawing from a PhD in neuroscience. He has no known criminal record, and is in solitary confinement for his protection at Arapahoe Detention Centre at the time of writing.
According to the NYPD police commissioner, Holmes told local police that he was “the Joker”, Batman’s archenemy, and this has been related to his dyed red hair.
Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said Holmes had received a high volume of deliveries over the last four months. The guns used in the attack were purchased legally at local gun stores in the 60 days before the shooting, and over 6,000 rounds of ammunition were purchased online.
The cinema was just 15 miles from Columbine High School, and July 22 brought with it the anniversary of last year’s Utoya massacre.
When these horrible things happen, they bring up a lot of pretty big questions, and force us to feel something.
What seems senseless needs to make sense, some sense, any sense. When people are forced to remember that something as basic as being in public may suddenly stop being safe to do because of an unexpected man with a gun, you’ve gotta find a way to explain that to yourself.
If you can identify why it happens, you can fix it, right?
I suspect most of us don’t know what could possibly go on in someone’s mind that lets them make a decision to kill, so we make some strange guesses, and try to find something to blame. Things like guns, of course, but in the end that argument is just the same kind of technological determinism that saw video games, Nazism, and homosexuality alternately blamed for the Columbine massacre.
This time, though, what I’ve seen in the broader reaction is less about gun control, and more about trying to understand something terrifying but logical – that the monstrosity is inside humanity.
It’s not other, or foreign. It doesn’t move in the shadows or burn in the light, have green saliva or talons (props to Leonard Cohen), or (necessarily) spout fountains of words.
As long as we expect our monsters to come to us fully and obviously identifiable as monsters, we can let ourselves relax when everyone around us seems pretty normal.
But James Holmes didn’t become James Holmes Alleged Mass Murderer overnight; it took him 24 years. In that time he accumulated an undergrad degree with highest honours in neuroscience, following his father into the scientific arena, hung out with people who would later admit to the media that they engaged with him socially, and some good extra-curriculars, like being a counsellor at a camp for needy kids in LA.
In a YouTube video from 6 years ago, his dream was apparently to own a slurpee machine. This month, we saw him turn Chris Nolan’s dream into a nation’s nightmare. Somewhere in that time, something obviously did not go well.
This one is harder to write off because he’s not a teenager, or obviously of diminished capacity, or something, anything. When you look into his past or his present there is nothing that clearly explains how a smart young guy ended up deciding to kill a lot of people.
No clear motive has emerged, but neither have any glaringly obvious warnings.
That makes a lot of sense, because I think the warnings we’re supposed to look for, just like monsters and villains, aren’t going to be particularly obvious.
We’ve all seen people on the edge. For some reason or another, there are people who find it difficult to fit into their slice of the world – who can function, but are finding it hard to cope.
Maybe there’s trauma or abuse in their background, or their social or emotional skills are poorly developed. Maybe they’re lonely, or some other emotional need isn’t being met. Maybe they’re going too far with drinking or drugs or spending too much time in their room being eerily quiet or annoyingly loud. Mostly fine, maybe, but a little off.
Of course we all have our own particular types of crazy, and most of the time we can cope with them. Sometimes people can’t, though, and if there’s no one to help them and they can’t, or aren’t, helping themselves then they’re realistically going to get worse until they are hurting themselves or other people.
Obviously not every homeless person or depressed teenager or garden-variety weirdo is your own personal problem, but in a society everyone is supposed to be someone’s problem, somewhere. If your mate isn’t doing too well, have a chat with them. If it’s not your mate, maybe find that someone to be responsible for them. Friends, parents, whoever.
Surely if we watched a bit more closely for people who are struggling, before their particular crazy becomes too much for them, we’d create a much better place for ourselves, and prevent some of the awful shit people sometimes do.