The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Archive for July 2012

Colorado Movie Killings

with one comment

Where’s Batman When You Really Need Him?

After a random outburst of lethal violence in the United States, the journalistic herd picks up the scent of some overpowering question and starts banging away at it.

I doubt that the rush to understand killers like James Holmes — who decided he was the Joker from Batman, killed a dozen people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater showing the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” — ever finds anything useful out.

James Holmes, a killer in Colorado

These murders occasioned a new line of inquiry: Some reporters are asking whether Holmes, who quit a graduate program in neuroscience after flunking an important exam, is faking it, pretending to be crazy in order to escape punishment.

That bit of bizarre logic comes from William Friedkin, the movie director, who, of course, has a stake in deflecting blame from the movie business. I first read it in the Huffington Post, but they got the key quote from the Hollywood Reporter.

The question, however, is being asked by all sorts of reporters, some reasoning that a brain who studies the brain must have some special knowledge of how human beings think. That would be obvious nonsense to anyone who takes a half hour to read up on what neuroscientists actually are doing.

Let’s dispose of the motive: In order to escape punishment, a sane young man with some talent — at least to score well on college tests — decides to go out, kill 12 people and wound another 58, all strangers, knowing full well if his scheme works at faking insanity, he will spend the rest of his life in a hospital for the criminally insane. What a clever move, pal.

And let’s not forget that he must have really had it in for these random 70 people whom he’d never met. Or perhaps someone would like to explain why a sane person would go out and shoot strangers, after suppressing this dark desire for 23 years. Much less why a sane person would plan out such a shooting for weeks. Premeditation doesn’t predict sanity.

But far from blaming the movie industry, I think they’re above reproach on incitement of violence. Every bit as our overheated political cacophony was innocent in the Arizona shooting last year of a Congresswoman and 18 others by a nut named Jared Lee Loughner. Fiction is fiction, from comics to serious literature, whether depicting violence, sex, drugs, or soothing bucolic fantasies, and almost everyone recognizes it as fiction.

I never understood why crazy isn’t a complete explanation. None of us is entirely rational, all of us are to some extent neurotic, but there are a very small number of people whose wiring is mixed up, or whose chemical formula is confused. It’s a statistically insignificant number of people, and I seriously doubt that anyone, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, or philosopher, has a handle on this question. We might as well talk of angels and devils.

I doubt that the Bible of psychiatry, the DSM — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — gets to the heart of the problem, not any of the four existing editions, which contradict each other plenty, nor the coming fifth edition. This is a profession that went in one generation from the talking cure for those rich enough to afford it, to the drug cure for all those with some kind of health insurance, and it still can’t identify or explain the shooters — even after the fact.

About Holmes’s brain, specifically, I’m not surprised to see a totally spurious bit of speculation in the the New York Daily News, which pointed out that the killer had won a $26,000-a-year student grant from the National Institutes of Health. This is not surprising. Most grad students in the sciences receive similar federal support, because it’s the national policy to hang on to the United States’ lead in the sciences rather than just cede it to Europe or Asia.

But I think I better say now that not knowing is no reason to stop trying to know, because I believe that at sometime in the future people will know more, much more, about human brains. And we are built, in our haphazard way, to keep on trying to figure things out. Make no mistake, if we weren’t curious the way we are, we would still be scratching out an existence on the savannas in Africa, each of us surviving perhaps into our 20s by stealing hunks of dead animals from stronger, faster predators.

And ask away, we are. In the past day, I’ve read that someone once called Holmes a “dolt” in an article offered by USA Today. I wonder if the two reporters on that one, Marisol Bello and Dan Vergano, know of anyone who has never been called a dolt at some time or other.

Other lines of inquiry have uncovered that the killer paid prostitutes and advertised on sex web sites. This will go on for a week or two, and the herd will drift off to graze elsewhere.

Meanwhile, there is another strange development that is thoroughly contemporary: the families of some victims are asking the media to stop talking about the killer, and start talking about them. It seems to have started on CNN where a victim’s father, girlfriend and best friend talk to Anderson Cooper.

The bottom line for our society is this: There is but one clear lesson to be learned from this shooting, and it’s got nothing to do with the insanity of the killers or the suffering of the victims. It has everything to do with guns.

Holmes carried an AR-15, and a shotgun. The former is a military rifle, meant for killing people. No citizen needs one. I admit I know little about guns. I tried to find out more about assault rifles like the AR-15, and found this assessment of an assault rifle for home defense from a gun dealer in Indiana: “If used for self-defense, it’s likely to overpenetrate — go right through the attacker, through the wall of your home, through the wall of the next house and into somebody there.” The full article is here.

More guns mean more shootings, more victims per assault. Consider the Arizona shooting last year. One citizen in the parking lot was armed when the attack occurred. He drew his gun and nearly shot a policeman. Maybe if a few of the ordinary people in that movie theater in Colorado had their own AR-15s, they could have blasted Holmes away, and a few others in the process.

Underlying the destruction in Colorado, and this potential for killing everywhere, however, is a political problem. Gun owners vote, and they vote on the basis of gun issues, and almost no successful politician is willing to talk about gun control, certainly not the two guys running for president. Silence. Not a word.


Written by theunbiasedeye

July 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm