There is not much profit in expatiating once again on the perils of an armed-to-the-teeth populace in the United States—thanks to the National Rifle Association (NRA). We all know the false mantra that has become so sickening in our time: guns don’t kill, people do. If you want to read chapter and verse about this organized insanity, check out Saturday’s piece by Matthew Chapman, “What Will it Take for Americans to Reject the NRA?” I also just saw an interesting statistic from a similar piece today: there are 58 murders a year by firearms in Britain, and 8,775 in the United States.
For me, though, the Aurora Colorado massacre evokes other sadnesses and ironies. To begin with, isn’t it fitting that a 24-year-old all-honors grad student should enter a theatre premiering the latest violence fantasy, style himself as The Joker, and open fire on the crowd? Batman in the films based on the comic is always battling evil geniuses—the Joker being the most memorable—who commit virtually motiveless violence. They’re just evil. James Holmes seems to be, or want to be, one of these. No one had done him any harm. He doesn’t seem to have been psychologically maimed in any obvious way—indeed, his latest project was investigating the "Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders." And yet, he carefully plans his murderous spree, entering the theater normally, exiting from a side exit whose door he carefully leaves ajar, arms himself with assault weapons, tear gas, body armor and a gas mask, and re-enters to begin his slaughter of people he knows nothing about. He apparently just wanted to kill people.
Questions immediately come to mind. Did he realize what he was doing? Did he have any idea what it’s like to be shot, to bleed, to suffer, to be devastated by the loss of a child, a lover, a relative? Did his mirror neuron system—that system which allegedly gives us our most precious human quality, that of empathy—work at all, or was he one of those, classified as psychopaths, whose mirror neuron system seems to be defective or inactive? And then we have to think: this guy was only 24, and had probably grown up as a devotee of precisely the comic and film fantasies glorifying violence, growing always more graphic in their depictions of slaughter, that are replicated in video games and TV shows daily, hourly, constantly as our most common form of entertainment. Watching killing, simulating killing, identifying with killers, in short, is our main form of fun. So why should we be surprised when young men like Holmes, or the high school students who shot up Columbine High School, or the student named Seung-Hui Cho who shot up his Virginia Tech classrooms, or any other mass murderer splashes into our lives to chill our souls. Shouldn’t we, rather, expect it to happen regularly—especially given the fact that the weapons of mass destruction these guys use are as easy to procure as chewing gum?
And this doesn’t even take into account our history. America began with violence, with a violent takeover of occupied land, and has continued with similar violence ever since. Settlers were all armed so they could slaughter Indians who showed any reluctance to hand over their lands. Southern planters were armed so they could demonstrate to the slaves upon whom their wealth depended that even a hint of attempting to escape or rebel would be met with lethal force. Animals—first the buffalo, then the predators that might threaten livestock, like wolves, bears, and cougars—were slaughtered with increasing fury, the heirs of this slaughter being the hunters on whose behalf the NRA still justifies the “right to bear arms.” Any excuse to start a nice little war was taken as yet another opportunity to expand our always-expanding territory: Mexico, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, Hawaii, and on and on. Today, the weapons industry is perhaps the most vital, the only vital industry at which America still leads the world. And even where the product is not weapons, American capitalism is by its very nature a violent sport—its object the destruction of any competitor or regulation or worker organization that stands in the way of always increasing growth, always spiraling profit? So why should we be surprised when a young man absorbs all this, and decides to kill himself a few folks, just for the hell of it?
And yet we all are. Just looking at his face—the face of our latest mass murderer—alarms us because it seems to lack that in us which we imagine gives us our humanity. That inclines us to recognize in other humans, at least, kindred spirits deserving of our sympathy and empathy; beings whom we go out of our way to help, if we can, rather than blast to nothingness. And yet, Holmes’ face exhibits none of this. He looks to us more like a zombie. An automaton acting as if on automatic pilot to destroy human beings at random. Without passion. Without animosity. Without any emotion whatever, apparently, except perhaps the joy of a boy engaging in the wanton destruction of insects. And in this, he reminds us of some of the other destroyers in our culture. Encased in body armor and wearing a gas mask—all to make himself invulnerable—he reminds us of American troops advancing on Iraqis and Afghanis in their body armor; of armored Tac squads advancing on demonstrators in our own streets; the objects of their “cleansing” simply trash to them. And then there are our weapons du jour, our infamous drones. Poor Holmes apparently couldn’t get his hands on any of these, but they are, in many ways, just like him. Invulnerable to attack, because they are destructive weapons without a human face, drones are the perfect expression of the cowardly violence of our time. They are precisely targeted from thousands of miles away by computer techies at keyboards guiding them without fear or risk of retaliation. And they strike with deadly force and allegedly deadly accuracy anywhere in the world where “terrorists” are presumed to be gathered, giving no warning whatever. Perfect. Weapons that eliminate anyone or anything that appears to threaten us, all with no risk to American personnel, no blood on the hands of those who can go home to dinner after their remote-control killing is done, and play with the kids.
Is Holmes a drone? a zombie? Perhaps not. Perhaps he has his story to tell. But wittingly or not, he has become the latest expression of our increasingly soul-less nation in our increasingly soul-less time. Predictably shocked that such a nice boy, from such a nice family, in such a nice neighborhood, could possibly act as if he were one of the living dead.