Aurora, Colorado, shooting suspect James Holmes, in a recent mugshot courtesy the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.
We’ve had the weekend to begin to digest the news of what happened in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater early Friday morning. While officials spent much of the weekend de-activating suspect James Holmes’ booby-trapped apartment — where the most information about Holmes’ life is likely kept — reporters began circulating among his former friends and neighbors, gathering what shreds of information they could about a man who apparently lived little of his life on the Internet and mostly kept his interests and proclivities private.
In the absence of much information, people’s — and pundits’ — imaginations have begun to fill in the details.
For example, Pat Brown, a criminal profiler, speculated on CNN that video games were at the center of Holmes’ murderous outburst:
“He’s probably prepared for this for a long time, just obsessing over it, gathering his weapons,” Brown said on CNN. ”[He] probably spent a lot of time in his apartment, playing one video game after the other—shooting, shooting, shooting—building up his courage and building up the excitement of when it’s going to be real for him. And it’s made his day.”
“This has been something he has really been into. And now we’re going to find, probably on [Facebook] or anybody who knows him will say, ‘Yeah, he did have a lot of interest in that. He was always playing the video games. And I’m not saying video games make you a killer. But if you’re a psychopath, video games help you get in the mode to do the killing.”
Perhaps more innocently, the Los Angeles Times circulated an article in which a childhood friend of Holmes said the suspected shooter enjoyed video games and movies as a teenager. Of course, that’s like saying a teenager enjoyed loud music, Facebook, and sleeping until noon. None of it describes Holmes with any accuracy, and it especially doesn’t say anything about his ability to plan and commit such a horrific crime. However, pundits like Brown, and anyone who believes video games cause violent behavior, will jump on such a line and consider it evidence.
In fact, much research has found no link between mass shootings and video games. Some shooters may play video games, but the one doesn’t cause the other.
There are a couple of reports that Holmes was into role-playing games. Of course, those reports are coming from fishy-looking Web sites that harbor more conspiracy theories (or, er, boxing information) than actual fact-based journalism.
Then come the religious pundits who argue that the shooting was, in fact, motivated by Satan. In the Christian Post, Greg Stier writes that a text-message exchange about the shootings:
… got me thinking about another “Dark Knight” who ruled the heart of a gunman in Aurora last night. It got me thinking about Satan’s role in the Columbine massacre on April 20th, 1999 when he invaded the hearts of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It got me thinking about Satan and the stranglehold he has in the souls of so many. Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that this dark knight, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” and he did just that last night. He used the trigger finger of this twisted madman to steal innocence, kill people and destroy hope.
Research has indicated that Eric Harris’ psychopathy and Dylan Klebold’s depression, not Satan, was ultimately behind what happened in Columbine. (Apparently Stier didn’t get that memo.) I can understand the impulse to name the Devil as a scapegoat when we don’t understand why something awful has happened, and I’m thankful that Stier is blaming a mythological figure, rather than real-life Satanists, for what went on in that midnight movie.
As long as we blame forces outside ourselves (and to some extent outside our control), we let go of our power over very real, treatable motivations, such as mental illness in the Columbine case. In other words, it means we not only let the killers off the hook, we let ourselves off the hook for not intervening if someone we love goes off the deep end in a catastrophically violent way. It wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t his fault. It was Satan. It was video games. It was role-playing games.
Speaking of Columbine, Dave Cullen, the author of the definitive book on the shootings, wrote a piece in the New York Times decrying the temptation to jump to conclusions, and we all should heed it:
Over the next several days, you will be hit with all sorts of evidence fragments suggesting one motive or another. Don’t believe any one detail. Mr. Holmes has already been described as a loner. Proceed with caution on that. Nearly every shooter gets tagged with that label, because the public is convinced that that’s the profile, and people barely acquainted with the gunman parrot it back to every journalist they encounter. The Secret Service report determined that it’s usually not true.