Terrance Heath

Aurora: We Have to Be Able to Talk About It

Filed By Terrance Heath | July 23, 2012 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Aurora, Colorado shooting, gun violence, James Holmes

I don’t have a lot to say about the shooting in Aurora, CO, in which 12 people were killed and 38 injured during an early morning preview of new Batman flick The Dark Night Rises, except to say that it’s a terrible tragedy and a heinous crime. 

But I do want to echo a couple of things I’ve read this morning.

Police have identified 24-year-old James Holmes as the shooter. Holmes was apparently arrested without incident, outside the theater, dressed all in black and wearing a bulletproof vest. Holmes has told the police his apartment is booby-trapped, and police have confirmed that to be the case. Holme’s mother is said to have told the police “You have the right person.” 

Little appears to be known about Holmes at present. I’m sure that will change within a few days, if not hours. All that’s known for sure is that he’s not this guy, nor is he any of these guys. The James Holmes in question is a white male, previously from San Diego.  In May 2011, he moved into an apartment within walking distance of the theater where the shooting occurred. The University of Colorado Medical School has confirmed that Holmes “enrolled in the university in June 2011″ and “was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado Denver’s graduate program in neurosciences.” Neighbors describe him as a “loner,” but public records indicate he had two roommates.

Not much else is known, so it is way too early to speculate about Holmes’ alleged motives. That’s something ABC News learned when it speculated that Holmes was affiliated with the Colorado Tea Party.

While care must be taken not to jump to conclusions, when events like this occur, there is a tendency to severely limit how it may be appropriately addressed. The result is that everyone has to walk such a fine line, that there’s not much one can say, beyond rightly calling it a “terrible tragedy” and a “heinous crime.” Any discussion beyond that, any attempt to put the event any relevant context, is either shushed, shouted down, or shamed into silence.

In situations like these, saying anything that falls outside of the prescribed boundaries gets labeled as “politicizing” what’s happened. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “Now is not the time.” 

Sorry, but I don't buy "now is not the time." It seems like every time an event happens, any attempt to talk about it in any way other than what's generally approved is discouraged.

If that's the way it's to be, all anybody can say about it is "What a shame." So, we should go ahead now and appoint someone to do that and all shut up until .... when? 

I have a sneaking suspicion that set in after 9/11, and again after just about every debacle of the Iraq war. It's that "now is not the time" means there will never be a time, or at least that the appropriate time won't come until well after anyone's listening. (Because by then the next "big story" will be on everyone's minds.)

Maybe it's me. I'm one of those people who sees any number of news events and immediately thinks of how they relate to a host of other things, often in terms of how some tragic events might be avoided next time. But if seems that now, after every event, there's a grace period when we're not supposed to think. Or if we do, we're supposed to keep quiet about it.

In this case, I don't have a problem waiting until the families are notified. Or is it after the funerals? Or a week after the funerals? Or ... when is the arbitrary deadline after which we can talk about what we're not supposed to talk about, so that maybe we won't have any need to talk about what we're not supposed to talk about the next time something like this happens because maybe something like this won't happen if we talk about what we're not supposed to talk about? And will anyone be listening by then? 

But, now is probably not the time to ask those questions. Is it?

If I posted that today, there would be a bit less snark in it. But the main question would still remain for me. Is there a way to have a thoughtful discussion about events like this soon after they happen? From my perspective, there are a whole lot of issues that are relevant here, beyond just the gun control debate. (For example, I wish the media would stop hammering over and over that the shooter was depressed, without some context that the depression may not have had anything to do with the shooting, but other underlying or even undiagnosed psychological conditions may have played a part. Depressed people are more suicidal than homicidal.)

I don't necessarily have any answers, but I think there's value to having some sort of thoughtful discussion, because I've seen it happen more than a couple of times that in the absence of such, emotionalism rules the day and we stop short of pursuing any understanding beyond the simplest explanations.  

Well, I agree with Michael Grunwald: sometimes there’s nothing wrong with politicizing a tragedy.

If advocates or experts or even politicians think their policy ideas can prevent the next Aurora--by preventing potential killers from obtaining guns, by making sure potential victims can carry guns, or by some other method--then by all means, now is the time to spread the word. Pretty soon, the pundits will be back to "you people" and "you didn't build this" and whatever new verbal gaffe overwhelms the competition to lead the free world. 

It's telling that the people who get paid to analyze politics recoil at the notion that its practitioners should connect it to real-life pain. They think they're covering a sport, an entertainment. But politics matters, because policies matter. "Obamacare" and "gay marriage" are not just issues that might play badly with swing voters or turn the tide in Virginia; they're issues that affect people's lives. Gun control and the Second Amendment are issues, too, and now seems like a pretty good time to talk about them.

Like Grunwald, I think “politics is about life and death and human suffering.” Politics is as personal as a bullet to the brain or an offshore account in the Caymans.

There’s no way around looking at this crime through a very personal filter. Unlike Adam Gropnik, I didn’t have a child at any midnight showings of The Dark Knight Rises. I consider Parker, at nine-years-old, too young for a midnight showing of anything, and probably too young to see that movie before his bedtime. In our house, a PG-13 ratingsmeans that before Parker sees a movie, I either need to see the movie, or have Common Sense Media tell me what I need to know about it as a parent. I trust that information on that site, and the reviewers there don’t recommend this movie for kids under 14. They also have some helpful tips on how to talk to kids about the shooting.

Still, I can’t help remembering about how many times I’ve gone to the movies with Parker, or we’ve gone to the movies as a family, and thinking about just how vulnerable we were. The truth is, we’re that vulnerable everywhere. The truth, Gropnik points out, is made worse when we can’t address the very basic realities that factored into this crime. There’s much we don’t know, but it’s made worse when we can’t talk about what we do know.

The truth is made worse by the reality that no one--really no one--anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don't know, and perhaps never will, what exactly "made him" do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night--as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.

The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country--Canada, Norway, Britain--has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do--as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue. Does anyone even remember any longer last July's gun massacre, those birthday-party killings in Texas, when an estranged husband murdered his wife and most of her family, leaving six dead?

But nothing changes: the blood lobby still blares out its certainties, including the pretense that the Second Amendment--despite the clear grammar of its first sentence--is designed not to protect citizen militias but to make sure that no lunatic goes unarmed. (Jill Lepore wrote about the history of the Second Amendment in The New Yorker recently.) Make sure that guns designed for no reason save to kill people are freely available to anyone who wants one--and that is, and remains, the essential American condition--and then be shocked when children are killed. For all the good work the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence tries to do, nothing changes. On the last episode of Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," Jeff Daniels's character, in a scene set shortly before the Gabrielle Giffords gun massacre, was thought to display political courage by showing, accurately enough, that it's a lie to say that Barack Obama is in any way in favor of gun control. This was said in Obama's defense.

Only in America. Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it. In Europe not long ago it was the belief that "honor" of the nation was so important that any insult to it had to be avenged by millions of lives. In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers. The argument has gotten dully repetitive: How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free? You can only shake your head and maybe cry a little. "Gun Crazy" is the title of one the best films about the American romance with violence. And gun-crazy we remain.

Meanwhile, those who will blame the victims for not being armed.

If we can’t have thoughtful discussions about the very personal implications of policy and politics at a time like this — when the connections and implications are painfully relevant — then we are left with shallow, empty emotionalism that will leave us ill-equipped to deal with the next such event when it happens. Because if we can’t talk about how or why it happened this time, it’s guaranteed to happen again.

Those discussions must be carefully conducted, and will evolve over time, because they must deal with facts of the case as they become revealed. But we have to be able to talk about these things when they happen, folks. And we have to be able to say more than “What a shame,” or “What a tragedy” in order to do that.

And if we’re wondering how to respond to this latest violent criminal (if not terrorist) act, I recommend this Christian Science Monitor editorial.

Killers often seek to evoke anger and fear in crowd shootings, perhaps out of a perverse need to deal with those same emotions within themselves. Simply reacting to such murders with anger and fear - while certainly understandable - may only reinforce such behavior. 

The best antidotes are the opposites of those emotions. They include openness, empathy, a respect for individual rights, and even forgiveness. These undermine the emotions that lead to violence because they have a long-lasting reality, as seen in how human civilization has advanced to embrace them as the core foundations for governance and daily life.  

An open trial for this killer in a public courtroom will include many of these defining qualities, such as a fair treatment of the facts and an adherence to the rule of law. Such traits may take a long time to have their effect on violence-prone people. But history shows that violence has declined as more societies adopt the humane ideals of justice.  

I have a lot of questions about this shooting. Like, how did Holmes’ get an AK-47, if he was the shooter and if witness reports of the weapon used are correct? What was the state of his mental health leading up to the shooting? Had he made threats before? Did he any messages suggesting a motive? (Assuming that he intended to commit suicide, as shooters of this type often do.)

I’m sure some of these questions will be answered, and some will go unanswered while even more are raised. I’ll have more to say then, because we have to be able to talk about these things, people.


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