Shootings aren't 'senseless': Five lessons about mass violence we still haven't learned
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It's been nearly three years since I wrote in these pages about the mass shooting at a local fitness center that left four dead and nine wounded. My article was subtitled "Five Lessons the Collier Shooting Should Teach Us (But Probably Won't)." Sadly, my prediction proved accurate, at least to judge by much of the coverage of the most recent mass murder in Aurora, Colo.
In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again. So let's review:
Nearly every description of the Colorado theater shooting has featured the words "random" or "senseless." To most law-abiding people, violence appears purposeless. Yet to its perpetrators -- be they mass murderers, gang-bangers, terrorists, muggers or abusive spouses -- violence is a purposeful, well-reasoned means to an end. Sometimes it's money, power or control. Sometimes it's Andy Warhol's promised 15 minutes of fame.
But the first step toward preventing violence is to understand that, even in extreme forms, it follows the same logic as lesser crimes. And because those patterns are recognizable and predictable, society's watchdogs -- from health professionals to teachers and school officials to human resources professionals -- need to be trained to recognize the signals and alert us ahead of the danger.
Details about the suspect in the Aurora shooting are little known. Even so, I can safely predict that once they become publicly available, he will emerge as a person who views himself as a victim of society. He feels no guilt about the atrocities he commits or pain he causes because he's devoid of conscience. This isn't to say he doesn't know right from wrong, but rather that he feels the rules governing the rest of society don't apply to him.
While most of us would like to believe that such people (known clinically as sociopaths) are incredibly rare, Martha Stout, a psychologist who has studied sociopaths for decades, estimates that one out of every 25 Americans lacks the ability to feel remorse for his hurtful actions. Not all will become homicidal mass murderers or serial killers, but these "wolves in sheep's clothing" live among us daily and do incalculable harm to society. (Think: Bernie Madoff.) Moreover, psychologically speaking, there's little difference between nonviolent sociopaths and Dylan Klebold, Jeffrey Dahmer or the 9/11 terrorists.
It's clear from the circumstances of the Aurora shooting -- the national premiere of one of the year's most awaited films -- the subject sought to link the insignificance of his own life to an event far greater than himself. This is the same motivation that often conditions the actions of terrorists and assassins. A prominent target or a famous anniversary serves to amplify the infamy of the crime. "Some men just want to watch the world burn," Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred remarks about the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Plainly, the murderer identified with that select company of perverse individuals.
Already most major theater chains have stepped up their security, commendable moves which serve to enhance public confidence and reduce the likelihood of copycat crimes. But turning entertainment venues and other public spaces into armed fortresses will do little to deter future attacks.
Sociopathic criminals aren't stupid. Harden one target, and they'll find a softer one. This type of predator thrives on outsmarting the rest of us, and a bunker mentality will only serve to push the game to greater heights of perverse creativity. We don't need more "lifeguards" stationed around the pool; we need to make sure that most everyone in the pool knows how to swim.
9/11 marked a fundamental shift in the thinking of air travelers -- namely, that if someone is foolish enough to try to hijack a plane, he's going to be met with a planeload of citizens willing to take him down. We need to extend this same mindset to the whole of our public life. As Edmund Burke said long ago, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Sensational crimes are a means to an end: a soapbox for one's grievances against society. Whether it's Columbine or Beslan, a summer camp in Norway or the Aurora Century 16, the perpetrators of horrific crimes use body counts to make a statement.
The rise of global media and the 24-hour news cycle has taught billions that celebrity -- once largely a product of self-discipline and achievement -- can be had for the price of some antisocial behavior. Kardashians, hoarders and bridezillas may be relatively harmless (if mind-numbing) entertainment, but producers, reporters, editors and pundits need to examine how their choices can encourage or inhibit future tragedies.
Moreover, with the rise of social media, nearly all of us now make choices about whose behavior we valorize and whose behavior we condemn (or, better still, ignore). This can be a powerful tool.
Indeed, an encouraging sign that emerged soon after the shooting, as the names of the victims were released, was the way in which Twitter users publicized the names and stories of the victims -- several of whom sacrificed their lives protecting loved ones -- and deliberately avoided mention of the suspect's name.
Above all, new and old media alike should resist the temptation to politicize such incidents, not only out of respect for the memories of the victims and their families, but also out of respect for the bigger issues at stake.
Thankfully, crimes like the one in Aurora are outliers set against the more than 1.2 million violent crimes that occur in the United States each year. To the extent we can avoid letting a single event hijack our national conversation about violence and law and order, the more of an outlier a tragedy like this one will become -- and the less this writer will feel the need to repeat himself.
First Published July 29, 2012 12:00 am