Tag Archives: Colorado

The use and misuse of the word ‘occult’

crucifix
Image by Flickr user Photodeus.

Last week, several news outlets latched into the story of a Colorado house where cleaners preparing the house for sale found something a little unusual: animal bones. But several reports said they also found “occult items.” So, what exactly were the occult items?

chains
candles
bottles
a machete
a crucifix

… Really? These are not occult items. They’re household items, particularly if it’s a Catholic household. It’s easy to dismiss the use of the word “occult” here, because it doesn’t connect to anything.

But even stalwart publications like the New York Times aren’t immune to throwing this word around when it suits them. The article describes South Korean CEOs who rely on “the occult” — in this case, fortune-telling — when making business decisions. Although this may be unfamiliar to Westerners (at least those who don’t remember that First Lady Nancy Reagan had an astrologer), according to the piece, many South Koreans believe in physiognomy or speak with fortune-tellers, so it may not be so taboo there. But here, the word “occult” — which doesn’t clearly apply to what’s going on in Korean — serves to stigmatize something that may be common practice there, and alienate readers from this Asian culture at a time when Korean exports from Samsung and other companies are booming. We need to be finding common ground with counterparts in other cultures, not demeaning their beliefs.

It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men


Suspected Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza.

Thirteen and a half years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold brought guns to school, killing 13 classmates and faculty before turning their guns on themselves. When President Bill Clinton solemnly addressed the nation after the shootings at Columbine High School, he said, “Amidst all the turmoil and grief … perhaps now America would wake up to the dimensions of this challenge, if it could happen in a place like Littleton, and we could prevent anything like this from happening again.”

Did we wake up?

Since then, frankly, as a nation we’ve done fuck-all to stop another one from happening. And they’ve kept happening.

While we’ve been listening to the “researchers” like Craig Anderson, Doug Gentile and Brad Bushman, whose hundreds of studies have permanently embedded in our brains a correlation between video-game violence and real-life aggression, young men have kept shooting. While we’ve been listening to the nightly news blame the occult, heavy metal, and goths, young men have kept shooting.

Within hours of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, one of Fox News’ talking heads was already laying it on about video games — without knowing whether suspected shooter Adam Lanza played them. CNN and Sen. Joe Lieberman — also on Fox News — were not far behind.

In the past two days, the Daily Mail has run at least two articles linking Lanza with goth kids, as though that simple fact would have made him a killer. If anything, goth kids — who are about as non-aggressive as kids get — would have taken him in because he was different, he didn’t know how to get along, and they were able to make space in their social group for someone like him.

We don’t know, precisely, what Adam was like. The two people who probably knew him best — himself and his mother — are dead. His mother, who apparently quit her job at Sandy Hook Elementary a few years ago so she could take care of him, even though he was almost an adult. What was going on with Adam? In the coming days and weeks, we may know more. For now, all we know now is that, for whatever reason, his mother felt he needed full-time care at an age when most young men are getting ready to leave the nest.

The thing is, I think a lot of moms know — parents know — when their kids are teetering on the brink of violence. Or when they’ve gone way over the brink. One of the pieces circulating today is by mom/blogger Liza Long, who wrote a post Friday that’s now being called, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” She isn’t — but she is the mom of a violent 13-year-old whom she fears:

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map). Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

After James Holmes shot a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater this summer, didn’t his mother say she knew he’d done it? How many other moms have had that conversation with police — they felt helpless to protect their sons from those violent feelings, and they knew it was only a matter of time before their sons hurt someone else?

I know it’s tough to talk about mental health here without stigmatizing huge swaths of people who battle mental illness but aren’t dangerous to themselves or others. But we need to try. Note that most of the perpetrators in mass shootings wind up killing themselves at the end of the event. I’ve heard such massacres called elaborate forms of suicide. Something, temporarily or permanently, has gone very wrong in their minds. And in most cases, there seems to have been adequate evidence that they were capable of such violence. There were signs and plans leading up to the event. There were caring people who tried to intervene, but for whatever reason, these boys and men slipped through the cracks.

Their moms: are they asking for an end to violent video games? To goth culture? To paganism? To heavy-metal music? No, they aren’t. They’re asking for something American society is loath to provide: adequate mental-health care. Treatment. Protection, for their boys and for themselves. And for society. Caring for others, especially potentially dangerous others, is contrary to our “everyone has the freedom to make his own choices”/”everyone can pull himself up by his own bootstraps” philosophies. But at what cost?

So while the debate rages on about gun control, video games, and goths, what are we doing for moms like Liza? What are we doing to actually prevent this from happening again?

So far, nothing.

In Ridgeway death, “goth” is scapegoated again


Sensationalist media have had a field day with Austin Reed Sigg, Jessica Ridgeway’s alleged 17-year-old killer.

Is Austin Reed Sigg a goth who was infatuated with death? Did he hang out in the “goth corner” with the “metal heads” at school? Was he a Nazi wizard (whatever that is)? Did he play World of Warcraft and Call of Duty?

Over the past week, plenty of news has come out about the demise of 10-year-old Colorado girl Jessica Ridgeway and the 17-year-old boy who led police to human remains, which were underneath his house. He has allegedly confessed to killing her, and a prosecuting attorney has said there is DNA evidence against him.

It’s almost funny how many different tropes the media have tried to pin on Sigg: goth culture, heavy metal, violent video games.

Did Sigg do it?

If so, what would his choice of clothing, school hang-out spot, video games, music, or even speculation about a cross found at a crime scene have to do with it?

Whether or not Sigg committed this horrible crime is for the court to decide, and let’s hope that he has a fair trial, with competent people working both sides of the case and a jury that is capable of setting aside its biases. And let’s also hope that, if Sigg did kill Ridgeway, that he gets more than locked in a hole for life, because a 17-year-old (or anyone) who commits such a crime needs help, not isolation and abuse.

I say that because while I was away, I was lucky enough to see a press screening of West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s new documentary about the West Memphis Three. It is such a stark, vivid reminder of what happened to Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley, who were jailed for 18 years on charges of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas. Their case has some of the same hallmarks as Sigg’s: a gruesome crime against a child, a community hungry for justice, a teenage boy whose interests are less-than-socially-acceptable; a confession. Yes, there are differences, particularly the fact that Sigg turned himself in, had body parts under his house, and the DNA evidence (if the prosecuting attorney can be trusted); there was no such thing as DNA evidence when the WM3 were convicted, and there’s now ample DNA evidence that they were not involved.

Still, my point is that mistakes can be made this early in the game — mistakes that can send the wrong person to jail for a long time, while the killer may walk free.

My point is that a community starved for a scapegoat will sometimes land on whoever’s most convenient, particularly if he looks different or just never fit in. If something seemed “off” about him. There’s a big difference between someone who makes you uneasy and someone who’s guilty of murdering a child. One is a personal feeling. The other is for a judge and jury to decide.

My point is that calling this kid a goth doesn’t make him any more guilty than he may already be. Calling him a “Nazi wizard” doesn’t, either. All it does is imply that somehow the simple act of being a goth, or even a neo-Nazi, means you might as well be a murderer. And that’s an awful thing to say about a group of people, no matter how you feel about their beliefs.

Goths, understandably, are concerned. In that forum, “CallaWolf” said, “This, to me, almost felt like scapegoating. I wear all black on almost a daily basis (and as I’m writing this, I’m actually wearing a Slayer shirt), and while I do not know any fellow goths outside of this site, I still kinda consider myself a part of it in one way or another, but the very idea of doing these things is apalling to me.”

“Nephele” said, “This happens periodically: The news media confusing sociopaths with goths.”

And CanCanKant said:

Even if the perpetrator does consider themselves a goth, I don’t necessarily think that it was his “gothic” tendencies that caused him to commit heinous crimes. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met that are goth are very cerebral, calm, introspective types. Hardly the kind to do anything harmful to another human being, especially on this scale.

It’s the tendency of the general public to equate dark, or especially black, clothing, band paraphenalia, tattoos and piercings with the word “goth” that causes this confusion. So many music and art related subcultures use these things, but not all of them would be considered goth. You notice how it’s used to shock. It’s quite sad.

Black-clad Denver stabber is probably not “goth”


Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises”: not a goth.

A small article crossed my path this week about a violent break-in in Denver. Police say man forced his way into a woman’s condo, stabbed her, and left. They described him as “dressed in goth attire.”

Hmm. So he looked like this? Probably not. Here’s what they said:

The man, who was white and appeared to be in his 20s, was “dressed in all black,” she said, including a black cap and black eye liner.

So, he was basically dressed like anyone else trying to look like an outlaw? Hm.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone specifically dressing up like a goth to go and commit a crime. My guess is that the perp knew the victim, and that his choice of clothing (or eyeliner, if that’s what it was) had little to do with it.

The police’s choice to use the word “goth” in his description doesn’t help — it seems unlikely that this is someone who “dresses goth” habitually. As regular readers know, goths are generally nonviolent to a fault, often unwilling to defend themselves when directly attacked. All this does is reinforce wrong-headed ideas about goth culture — and not even in the name of tracking down a man who hurt someone.

That may be one reason that parents worry when their kids participate in goth culture. A teen recently wrote to the wonderful Ultimate Goth Guide site, asking for advice because her mom is clamping down on her style:

I’m afraid to talk to [my mom]. She thinks Goths are a bunch of depressed druggies who are crazed over horror, death, blood and guts. She refuses to listen if I start to explain otherwise. Any ideas? I need help!

The girl has already toned down her appearance, but it hasn’t helped. Amy Asphodel, who runs the site, has some excellent advice, including 1) continuing to dress goth but not using the term; 2) making compromises, but saving favorite pieces of goth clothing for when she moves out, and 3) asking her mom which clothes she objects to most, and working around that.

Parents, when your kids try to communicate with you, welcome it, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This is a way to build bridges, to understand each other better, to love more and worry less.

In Sikh shooting, don’t blame the metalheads


There’s no need for this.

It’s rare, and very sad, to have three mass shootings in the news at the same time. Yesterday in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six congregants and wounding others, including a police officer, before police shot and killed him. It comes just as we are still making sense of the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, two weekends ago, and as Tucson, Arizona shooter Jared Loughner returns to court tomorrow and is expected to change his plea from “insanity” to “guilty.”

One of the problems I’ve seen with the American public’s analysis and understanding of those who commit mass shootings is that we tend to forget the details over time. Right now, as awful as it is, we have the opportunity to look at three suspects — and coverage of them — side by side: Page, Holmes, and Loughner.

Page: His identity was just revealed this morning, and so far the coverage has focused on three things: his military service, his apparent white-supremacy leanings, and the fact that he played in a hardcore band that expressed those leanings. Early on in the reporting cycle, this is typical; we hear about the surface-level stuff, but deeper issues take time for journalists to tease out. Page was also an army veteran. He was never deployed. It’s unlikely he had PTSD, but possible that other mental issues made him unfit for military service. It’s also possible that his political views took him to a rare and extreme place. We won’t know for a while, yet.

Holmes: At first, there was speculation about whether violent movies or video games inspired him to kill 10 people and injure dozens more. Some also questioned whether the Devil — or demonic possession — was involved. We now know Holmes had deep psychological issues that worried his doctors, and that he was dropping out of grad school — often a sign of worsening mental illness.

Loughner: Again, early reports were way off. Reporters pegged Loughner as a metal fan and an occultist, when in reality it looks like he was deeply disturbed. He has spent the better part of the last year and a half in a psychiatric unit. Now, doctors think they have restored him to a level of competency that would allow him to stand trial. The question remains: was he mentally sound when he fired into that Tucson crowd?

Frequently, psychological issues are core to these men’s struggles. I’m not saying all mentally ill folks are time bombs ready to go off. It isn’t like that. Most people with mental-health struggles, just like most video-game fans, most occultists, most Satanists, most goths, most metalheads, and so on, are not going to hurt anyone. Ever.

What I am saying is, since we know that mental-health issues are central to many mass shootings, what purpose does it serve to call Page a “metal head” on the front page of a major news site — other than to make it sound like his affiliation with metal somehow sparked the killing (it didn’t)? Or even to suggest that metalheads are somehow more likely to fire guns into churches where people are congregating peacefully (they aren’t).

Sure, I know that reporters are also trying to give readers a picture of who this guy was. But the way we dissect these reports, we’re looking for clues — why did he do it? Every piece of information becomes part of the blame game. And when we look in the wrong places, not only does it reinforce negative, incorrect stereotypes about unrelated groups (such as metal fans), but it keeps us from looking in the right places. And that’s the only thing that will help us prevent such tragedies in the future.

After horror, reclaiming power through games


A UK LARP gamer gets ready. Photo by Flickr user Bifford the Youngest.

Denmark: Land of Vikings, Beowulf, Niels Bohr, Mærsk ships, GSM phones, and … live-action role-playing?

In a land of 5.5 million people, roughly 100,000 LARP in some fashion, according to a recent article from TIME writer Nathan Thornburgh. As he points out, that’s bigger than the population of Indiana — and a higher per-capita role-playing rate than many other countries in the world. In his piece, Thornburgh examines why the Danes are so into LARPing — and the kinds of games they play.

To some extent, they explore the typical tropes: Lord of the Rings, for instance, is immensely popular. No surprises there. But Danes are also into much darker forms of role-playing: pretending to live in a prison camp for 48 hours, or unspooling what would have happened in Russia if the Nazis had won World War II. It’s not just adults playing, either; plenty of kids participate. Thornburgh speculates:

Larp might be a sensible diversion for restless minds in Denmark, which was recently named the happiest country on earth. Reality is simply more pleasant in Denmark than in many other places, so perhaps escapism means digging for more complicated, intense human interactions.

I’m not sure how much truth there is in this, which is to say, I don’t have enough data to compare. I know other LARPing groups go to some pretty dark places. For example, growing up, I knew people who played “Vampire: The Masquerade,” which got very twisted, personal, and psychological at certain points. And that didn’t come from kids who had trauma-free lives, either. It was a way for them to turn everyday horrors into something they could co-create and master.

Reading Thornburgh’s piece got me thinking about one of Denmark’s neighbors, Norway, which is still reeling from a mass shooting one year ago. Is there some way that role-playing could hasten Oslo’s healing? Would such pastimes only reopen barely healed wounds? Or would it depend on the type of game?

That thought brings me to a commentary that ran in the Baltimore Sun in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings, arguing (once again) that our media is too violent. Douglas MacKinnon writes:

After the tragedy in Aurora, I spoke with some teenage boys of friends of mine. Each and every one admitted to playing violent video games. Some on a daily basis for hours at a time. When I asked them how many “bad guys” they kill in these games (often times in the most gruesome and graphically visual ways imaginable), one of the boys said, “Oh, over the course of a year, I kill thousands of bad guys.”

There are more than 100 million “gamers” in our county. It stands to reason that if as a demographic, they are virtually slaughtering hundreds of millions of “bad guys,” then some may become desensitized to killing actual human beings and some may be pushed over the edge. In fact, the maniac in Norway who murdered tens of children admitted he used violent video games to practice his targeting.

His argument: especially in light of Aurora and Oslo, kids need to scale back their use of violent media. This, despite the fact that kids are killing “bad guys.” If we want to be black-and-white about it, Holmes and Breivik were “bad guys.” Yes, they’re real “bad guys,” and the guys in the video games are fictional. So is the killing. Most kids are well aware of the difference. It’s adults who seem to have the problem.

I’ll say it plainly:

Anyone in a real mass-shooting situation, or anyone close to such a situation, would feel frightened, horrified, powerless.

So how do you think killing some “bad guys” afterward might make them feel?

Powerless?

Probably not. We need to give kids — particularly kids suffering through horror — opportunities to reclaim feelings of agency. Role-playing games and video games provide ample opportunities.

Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!”


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.