Friday, July 20, 2012

Can We Talk About Aurora Shootings Rationally?

The news says that twelve people are dead and many more wounded.  The death of anyone, especially when unexpected, especially when the person is in the prime of life, and even more so when the death is intentional, does serious damage to the lives of the people around them.  There is the loss of the years the slain would have lived.  There is the inability to tie up loose ends - try to work out disruptions in relationships, get projects completed, raise children.  There are the financial and emotional impacts on surviving family members and friends.  There are the impacts in the victims' workplaces - the work undone, the need to replace the victim, and the emotional impacts on co-workers.

My brother died as a young man in an unexpected accident and that has left a hole in my life forever.   I feel for those killed in Aurora and the unfairness of having their lives cut short.  I feel even more for the people left behind who now must continue their lives without them.  I also feel for those who were wounded.  Some may have relatively minor injuries that will not interrupt their lives too significantly or for too long.  But the emotional and psychological impacts will last a long time.  Others will have injuries that severely disrupt their lives for a long period of time, maybe forcing them to make permanent adjustments in how they live.

I hope I've made it clear that I do not take this lightly.  This is, what some call, a significant emotional event.  Louisa May Alcott is credited with this truism:
“Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us - and those around us - more effectively. Look for the learning.” ― Louisa May Alcott
While I can find a number of references to 'significant emotional event' on line, most are from people using the concept, say in management for example.  But I'm having trouble finding good, empirical, original sources.  One I did find that looks at prisoners says:
Without positive intervention following significant emotional events, particularly when they were traumatic in nature, all resorted to self-medicating, diverting, and/or burying their childhood pain. Every individual had been, is, or will be a victim in some way or other to trauma that causes loss of meaning. One in every two men in this study experienced the death of a loved one as a significant emotional event. One in every three listed growing up in a single-parent home; in most cases the custodial parent was the mother. And one in every five listed experiencing some form of traumatic physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse in childhood. When questioned later, four in every five verbalized acceptance of childhood abuse as "normal' and therefore did not list it as significant in their list of Steppingstones. Many also accepted as normal parents self-medicating with illicit drugs in their presence. Without therapeutic intervention shortly after these events, they became at greater risk for antisocial behavior, low self-esteem, depression, low educational attainment, underemployment, substance abuse, mental illness, and suicidal ideation. The Intensive Journal enabled them to deal with their issues in a safe, supporting environment.
This study says that we need positive intervention for these events.  I'm not sure how those of us not directly impacted by a horrifying news story can use this sort of collective significant event to reexamine our values.  It used to happen on network news, but now we all retreat to those cable news programs or websites that cater to our biases.  But let me think out loud, let me look for the learning. 

1.   What is the impact of violence in our popular culture?  There's lots of research in this area, though it's difficult to prove clear cause and effect relationships. If watching violence is so bad, why don't most people commit such crimes?  Some might argue that the incidence of domestic violence is quite high.  But domestic violence existed before graphic Hollywood violence.  Is there more now? Are there some people who are more likely to copy the violence they see on the screen or video games? What are their characteristics?  How do we discover the important factors and even more vexing, how do we apply that knowledge to people who have committed no crimes?  Is film violence even therapeutic for some?

The movie was graphically violent.  From a description of The Dark Knight Rises posted on Wikipedia:
Kyle attempts to flee Gotham but is arrested on kidnapping charges while Bane traps the majority of Gotham's police underground, setting off bombs throughout Gotham, killing the Mayor in the process, and destroying any means of exiting Gotham by land. Converting Wayne's project into a nuclear bomb, Bane arms an anonymous citizen with the trigger who will detonate the device should anyone leave Gotham – unbeknownst to the citizens, the bomb will detonate regardless in five months. Bane also frees the prisoners of the Dent Act – reading Gordon's stolen speech – while members of Gotham's high society are dragged from their homes and sentenced to death by Jonathan Crane. A small resistance is mounted by Gordon, Blake and other remaining police officers who primarily track the Bomb's location as it is transported throughout the city in one of three trucks. A failed incursion by Special Forces results in the federal government blockading Gotham, turning it into a "No Man's Land."
I can't help but ponder the irony of a theater full of people who went to see two and a half hours of graphic screen violence being confronted by real life violence.   A macabre twist on The Purple Rose of Cairo.  It will be interesting to hear what the shooter says about how he picked that audience.

Despite the MPAA rating,  ("PG-13  -  Reasons:  Intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language")   The Guardian quotes one eyewitness,
"There was gunfire, there were babies, there were kids, there was blood everywhere." 
What is our attraction to ever more realistic scenes of people being massacred?  Were there any people in the theater who also enjoyed the real violence?  Or do we all have a good grip between fantasy and reality?   What about the shooter?  How does seeing these things impact us?  What can we learn from the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who come back with PTSD and other disorders and those who don't?

2.    How should we approach the availability of guns in our society?

How has the National Rifle Association come to have such power over our lawmakers that gun control can't even be debated these days?  Why are so many people so emotionally attached to free access to guns of all sizes?  Who is funding all this?  Why?

This question is worth a whole blog (not just a post, but a blog or twenty) to pursue.  As I try to find such blogs it appears most have staked a strong position against gun control and a few are strongly for.  (Am I wrong in my sense that there are more anti-gun control blogs and websites than pro-gun control ones?)  I would point out to advocates of open and concealed weapons who argue that
Criminals aren’t stupid - “gun-free zones” are the safest places to kill people and that’s why most of the mass murders in our nation take place at these locations. [from Right Remedy]
that Colorado is a state that allows concealed weapons and open weapons.   A call to Cinemark theaters was diverted to an answer machine by the operator, and hours later, hasn't been returned.  The person who answered the phone at my local Century 16 theater said there is a sign in the box office saying that no weapons are allowed in the theater.  I've never noticed the sign and no one is searched.  Nor have I heard that anyone pulled a gun and shot back in Colorado.  In any case,  the shooter was prepared for people with guns since he reportedly was wearing full body armor.

3.  Why do the deaths of 12 people in a US movie theater get as much or more media attention and affect us more than the massacres in other countries?

ThinkProgress reports that nearly 3000 Syrians were killed in June.  That's an average of 100 a day.  But President Obama and Candidate Romney did not stop campaigning because of their deaths.  They did for 12 deaths in the US.

I'm guessing that US residents can relate more to the people who died in a mall theater because most can imagine it happening to them.  They can't relate as well to Syrians. Is that OK?  How does it affect US foreign policy? 

4.  How many violent deaths in the US have been caused by the stereotypical Islamic terrorist and how many by white Christians?

I don't know the answer.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  How did you imagine the shooter when you first heard, before there was a name and a face?  There are a number of websites that address the question in different ways.  This Wikipedia page looks world wide, for example.

What's critical is that we work to understand what causes people to commit such crimes.  Some are mentally ill, such as schizophrenics who hear irresistible voices telling them to kill. I'm guessing we'll find out that is the case here.  If so, will that bring more money to study and treat mental heath issues?  But I'm inclined to believe that most violent anti-social behavior can be traced to how people are treated in their early lives.  How much love and approval did they get?  How much abuse did they endure?  Did their parents take them to violent films because they couldn't get a babysitter?  (In this case I think it's the parents' sacrificing their kids' needs in favor of their own that most bothers me.)

None of these questions have easy answers.  I'm afraid that most people will find ways to use such events to justify and maintain their own existing beliefs.  They won't stop to consider whether their approach to making the world a safer place (that's what both pro- and anti-gun advocates, for example,  claim is their goal) should be re-examined.  Too many people will think this is the kind of event that should cause 'the other side' to reconsider, not them.  But given the huge rifts among people in the US today, it's clear that everyone needs to rethink how effectively they are able to communicate with people they disagree with. 


  1. Good piece. Your questions are very relevant to such a horrendous event. I would like to know, like everyone else, why this seemingly bright kid with a good future who was raised in a middle-class neighborhood in San Diego, CA, a Phd candidate, went berserk! It will be helpful when more details come out about the shooter.

    I'm sure readers will pick questions out of your blog piece to address. Way too many for me. The one question I would like to address is this one:

    "How has the National Rifle Association come to have such power over our lawmakers that gun control can't even be debated these days?"

    While I am a Progressive, Leftist kinda orientated person, I marvel how Liberals deal with the NRA. This organization, of which I know very little other than I do know that its power comes from two things... 1.) vast numbers of American people subscribe to their every political position... and 2.) the Arms Industry is powerful and politically astute and uses the NRA as its PR agents.

    The NRA isn't in some vacuum and has simply acquired power and influence in this country because they have money and a clear agenda. They have power and money, much like the AARP, because they represent a whole lot of people in this country who contribute money to their organization.

    If Liberals can not go beyond the Evil Organization concept for the NRA and appreciate what the NRA represents, there will never be any change and gun people will continue to win new legislative advances in nearly all 50 states. Look how the Concealed Carry Laws have swept across this country.

    I would bet you that there will be some angry people demanding new, stricter Gun Control Laws immediately and absolutely nothing will happen. A year from now nothing will have changed and the Colorado massacre will fade into History like Columbine.

    1. Schizophrenia tends to set in during the early 20's. It's possible he's never had any mental issues before.

      OTOH, he was over 18. Therefore, even if there were signs, his parents could not FORCE him into help/therapy nor could they have him admitted against his will.

      As a student, he was probably still on their insurance. So I don't think $$ was the issue.

      The biggest crime is that mental illness is ignored in this country. It's a stigma that can't be overcome. People don't want that on their resume. It's hidden in the closet.

      Too many of the mentally ill end up in jail instead of hospitals.

      There was a lot of help under President Carter for the mentally ill. He passed the Mental Health Systems bill only to have President Reagan make it obsolete.

      Massive deinstitutionalization led to a significant increase of HOMELESS mentally ill. Starting in the 2000's, they were simply drugged into tranquility with Prozac.

      We got what we deserve.

  2. I will give pause to think on this and reply later.

  3. There should be stricter gun laws. The states with the weak gun Laws lead the Nation in gun death.
    Also, the federal assault weapons act passed in 1994 would've outlawed both the AR-15 and the 100-round drum magazine Holmes used. But, the law wasn't renewed under President Bush and the GOP Controlled Congress.

  4. Doug, I understand some level of having a gun, but as akbright says, serious automatic weapons? I'm curious how much of the NRA membership supports all the stands organizational lobbyists take in Congress.

    Dis Gusted, I added a link to schizophrenia. I once had a student do a study on the topic of mental health stigma. She interviewed psychologist and psychiatrists to find out how many of their patients who had insurance, didn't use it. It was a high percent.

  5. Hi Steve,

    I think NRA members would support the NRA's position in Congress on just about every issue. When you're not into Gun Culture, it's not so obvious just how extreme the average NRA member is today. I've never heard an NRA member or local gun nut say they do not see any reason for a private citizen to have large-capacity magazines. Hell, I think about everyone who supports the NRA believes folks should be allowed to have machine guns and it's legal in Alaska with the proper forms filled out and I think the local Sheriff or local law enforcement must sign the form.

    I went to the gun range two weeks ago at Birchwood with a gun friend and there were three young guys, probably 25-30 years old, and they were all shooting fully-automatic rifles... weapons most people would call "Assault Weapons."

    We ended up interacting with them more than I would have imagined since one of them had a very small concealable semi-auto that blew-up in his hand. Some kind of ammo failure but it destroyed the gun and the fellow was bleeding and grunting as he walked around trying to be brave. We went over to see if we could help at all but he had a first-aid kit in his car and patched himself up.

    These guys were your average looking, neatly and cleanly dressed, all shaven, polite, and seemed like your neighbor next door... but they clearly believe in the right to possess and use machine guns. I would consider that very odd and I can't image what you would ever need it for other than for self protection against a large, roving band of Zombies.

    If you're looking for some faction in the NRA who are moderate and open to negotiating the kind of weapons that are legal today, I honestly do not believe that they exist. IMHO.


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