Tag Archives: New York Times

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.

Aaron Alexis, PTSD, mass shootings, mental illness and video games: the real call of duty

AARON-ALEXIS_2674463b

As more details emerge about Aaron Alexis, the gunman in yesterday’s Washington D.C. navy yard shooting that left 13 people — including Alexis — dead, many news outlets have been focusing on claims that he played violent video games “obsessively,” up to 16 hours a day. This is according to friends, who said he had a habit of playing Call of Duty for long hours. Some have connected this detail to claims that Adam Lanza and Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty at length.

But here’s the thing about the Call of Duty franchise: just eight of its games have sold 124 million units. While some of those sales were probably to the same people, it drives home the point that this is a best-selling game title. And when more than half of Americans play video games, that’s a whole lot of people playing Call of Duty. If it were going to lead players to commit mass shootings, we’d be seeing many more of them than we are.

(I was interviewed this morning on KGO Radio by Ronn Owens on this topic; follow this link to hear his program on Alexis’ interest in video games. I come in around the 19:50 mark.)

And here’s the thing about Alexis: it appears that he had been suffering from mental illness for more than a decade. His symptoms started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which he was a first responder. He was hearing voices as recently as six weeks ago. He “carried a .45 handgun tucked in his trousers with no holster ‘everywhere he went’ because he believed people would try to steal his belongings,” the Telegraph reported. I’m not a psychologist, but it’s clear there was much more going on with Alexis than his love of a good first-person shooter, and even when police were confronted with signs of his paranoia and delusions, they said “No further action was required.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that a man like Alexis, who was clearly trying to make a peaceful life in service of others, and who was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness, couldn’t and didn’t get help. It’s heartbreaking to think that because he — like Lanza, Breivik, Holmes, Loughner, Harris, Klebold and so many others — slipped through the cracks somehow, 13 more are dead.

Jayne Gackenbach’s research suggests that soldiers and servicemen like Alexis who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder actually fare better when they play games like Call of Duty; such games reduce the number of nightmares they experience. Maybe the problem, at the end of the day, is that Alexis didn’t play enough video games; maybe he just couldn’t get the nightmares to stop, no matter what he tried.

I want to stress that while many suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness, most of the time it doesn’t make people violent, either. But we need to know more about the nexus between psychological and neurological issues and the compulsion to commit mass violence. Culturally, it’s beyond time for us to destigmatize mental illness and amp up our mental-health resources so people like Alexis can get help before things get out of hand. Otherwise, these elaborate forms of suicide will continue unabated.

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.

Popular live-action zombie game accidentally summons ghosts of school-shootings past


The idea of playing zombies is a popular one. But did a group at NCSU (not pictured) take it too far? Photo by Flickr user rodolpho.reis.

Last week, officials at North Carolina State University went on alert after two students reported seeing someone with a gun on campus.

The sightings happened during a game of Humans vs. Zombies, which took place on campus grounds. The campus did not go on lockdown. Also, nobody located the “gunman” or the item witnesses thought was a gun. Was it a toy weapon? Or did they mistake some other object for a gun? In a slideshow of HVZ games at the New York Times, some players are wearing and carrying toy weapons, so it’s possible.

According to the Humans vs. Zombies web site, the game was founded at Goucher College in 2005. It spread quickly, and is now played at more than 650 colleges and universities, high schools, military bases, summer camps, and public libraries worldwide.

The NCSU game was probably planned weeks in advance, but it had the misfortune to come off the day after nearby Wake Technical Community college went on lockdown after a man threatened a student there.

Still, the game’s leaders are sensitive to the fears surrounding school shootings. This Washington Post piece details some of HVZ’s groundrules in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings:

Weed and the other game organizers, who are known as moderators, or “mods,” turned serious. They’d called this meeting to make sure each player had signed two legal forms instituted in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, and to emphasize the most important rules of the game: Don’t shoot nonplayers [and] don’t use or carry guns visibly in academic buildings.

Of course, some will wonder why kids would want to play such a horrific game. Like any roleplaying game, HVZ lets people try on new roles and personalities — and band together to become heroes for a little while. From the HVZ web site, again:

Many players report that Humans vs. Zombies is one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. The game creates deep bonds between players, instantly removing social boundaries by forcing players to engage as equals and cooperate for their survival.

The whole situation raises some interesting questions, and I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on them:

Given the frightening gunman-involved massacres on college and high-school campuses, are students today right to be vigilant and report problems to authorities?

Should students playing games like “Humans vs. Zombies” forego using toy weapons in order to avoid frightening their peers?

Should students be able to tell the difference between a real gun and a Nerf weapon?

How will Knox shed the “She-devil” image?


American Amanda Knox was acquitted today of murder charges after spending four years in an Italian prison.

How do you return to your life after being accused — even convicted — of killing your friend in a “Satanic rite” involving rough sex? How do you live down being called everything from a “She-devil” to “Foxy Knoxy?”

That’s what Amanda Knox must figure out. Today, she was acquitted in an Italian courtroom of murdering her friend, Meredith Kercher, in 2007. Originally, Knox was convicted of the murder, but a higher court released her this evening.

From the moment she was arrested, Knox was dragged through the mud, by tabloids and prosecutors who saw in the fresh-faced 20-year-old Seattleite some kind of kinky, bloodthirsty occultist, and they spared no effort in letting the world know what they thought of her. Now, as she returns to her former life, echoing the release of the West Memphis Three, it seems that the only sex games or Satanic practices were in the minds of the prosecutors.

In a New York Post piece, Nina Burleigh breaks down how the Knox trial turned into a “witch hunt”:

[Prosecutor Giuliano] Mignini always included witch fear in his murder theory, and only reluctantly relinquished it. As late as October 2008, a year after the murder, he told a court that the murder “was premeditated and was in addition a ‘rite’ celebrated on the occasion of the night of Halloween. A sexual and sacrificial rite [that] in the intention of the organizers … should have occurred 24 hours earlier” — on Halloween itself — “but on account of a dinner at the house of horrors, organized by Meredith and Amanda’s Italian flatmates, it was postponed for one day.”

Likewise, Candace Dempsey writes for the Seattle PI about the parallels between the Knox case and the West Memphis Three, down to the prosecutor’s obsession with sex and the occult:

In the Amanda Knox and West Memphis cases, even high-profile reporters at major networks cling to exciting crime theories, no matter how loony or baseless. … In Amanda’s case, tabloid journalists are of course the worst offenders–still enraptured by the satanic four-way drug-fueled orgy that made them so much money, even though it was just a sexual fantasy on the part of prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Independent experts have rejected the DNA that put the two college students at the crime scene.

There is also the matter that plenty of people celebrate rites on or near Halloween — Satanic or not — without killing anyone, because murder and human sacrifice are not part of their practices. In other words, even if Knox was a devout Satanist, she wouldn’t have been any more likely to murder than if she belonged to any other religion.

If you were Knox today, what would you do? Would you make an effort to clear your name? Or would you ignore the bad press, hoping it would eventually be forgotten?