Grist For The Mill

I am breaking two pledges to myself this morning. First, I was not going to add my voice to the hysteria surrounding the shooting in Aurora, Colorado yesterday. Secondly, I was going to take a day off from blogging to reflect on the events of that dreadful day. But here I go, adding grist to the mill.

The event itself has been covered in depth by the media and we will be hearing again and again about the “tragedy” — that overused and misunderstood word — until we are sick of it. There will be calls for gun laws — as there should be when a young man can walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon that fires off “50 -60 rounds in a minute” — not to mention the other weapons he had in his possession. We will be hearing from his neighbors what a “nice young man” he was — a “bit quiet” and “a loner.” At this point no one knows why James Holmes did what he did, as though you could probe the motivations in a sick mind and come up with anything that makes sense.

But what astonished me most as I watched CBS News last night with mouth agape and wonder in my eyes was the interviews with some of the people who were there. One young man in particular was interviewed carrying a three-month old baby and standing next to his wife and two young children. It occurred to me: what on earth was this man thinking taking those young children — and that baby — to a movie at midnight that promised to be violent from beginning to end? What is the matter with us that such a thing would seem perfectly normal?

We don’t know for sure whether watching violence makes us violent, though there is considerable evidence that there is a connection, if not a causal relationship. All animals learn from imitation and humans are animals. It follows that we also learn from imitation. And if we see violence on TV, in the movies, and in our video games hour after hour it would be reasonable to infer that we might be encouraged to walk into a store, buy an automatic rifle and a couple of handguns with some of our extra cash, and plan a shooting. The wonder is that it doesn’t happen more often!

The gentleman who moderated the news program began the show by calling this the “largest killing in the history of this country.” This is hyperbole if it isn’t downright false. What about the killing of thousands of native people? What about the Civil War? What about our long history of killing one another? We are a violent people and have been since we landed on this continent. No one quite knows why though I do think it has to do with our tendency to solve problems with weapons rather than with our minds — comparing our detective shows with those that come out of Britain, for example. And it also has to do with the escalation of violence in the media that surrounds us on every side, as Michael Moore suggested when he probed the causes of the Columbine shooting. But I don’t profess to know THE cause. I just know that the climate we live in promotes violence and when it occurs as it did in Aurora, Colorado on July 20,2012 we shouldn’t be too surprised — though we should most assuredly reflect deeply on the implications of such acts.

12 thoughts on “Grist For The Mill

  1. Thanks Hugh. I am saddened by all of this as well, but in particularly for the parents whose children went to see a movie and did not survive. I am with you on the ability for Americans to buy assault weapons which fire multiple rounds as I have long been a gun control advocate. People outside of America can look objectively at this topic and see America as a wild west show. It is ironic that we Americans worry about traveling abroad, when others outside America worry about coming here. Here is a test for your readers. Pick up any local paper and look to the “Local News” section and count the number of homicides, shootings and suicides. Or watch the local news and count the number of stories. As tragic as Aurora is many of the deaths are caused by people you know who carry out a grudge or some form of perceived disrespect with a gun.

  2. I too was appalled that the young couple took their baby and four-year-old to a late movie. Ann Curry defended them, bleeding heart that she is (which I love about her), but what kind of parents are they? Get a baby sitter, stay home, or wait until it comes out on DVD!

  3. Hugh, the newsman was incorrect, even aside from the mass killing of American Indians, the Civil War or 9/11 — even in terms of a single gunman cutting loose on a group, there have unfortunately been others in which there were more dead than this one in Aurora: Charles Whitman killed 16 from the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966, 21 were killed in the McDonald’s shooting in California in 1984, 14 were killed at a post office in Edmond, Okla, in 1986, 23 were killed at a Luby’s Restaurant in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, 13 killed at Columbine, 35 killed at Virginia Tech. The sad thing is there have been so many they blur together, and people think the latest ones are always “the worst.” Our history is laced with these events.

    That’s not even counting the massacres that didn’t reach 13 or 14 dead: Red Lake, Minnesota, school shooting, Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooting, Long Island subway shooting in 1993; and so many more.

    Europe is catching up, unfortunately, at least in the mass-murder events: Norway last year, 91 killed in that massacre; a school in Scotland, 1997, 16 children killed by a gunman; a school in Finland in 2007, eight dead; the French gunman earlier this year killed seven.

    There are probably psychological similarities between some of the gunmen, but the one obvious common denominator: guns.

  4. Very good column. Every day, in some form or other, I wonder whether the vast bulk of Americans are stupid or evil or crazy. I suppose it’s some combination of the three. However that may be, to me these regular mass killings are not the mystery they seem to be to most people. The country was founded and underwent much of its development, literally, on slavery and genocide. Organized education has always been, primarily, about making docile workers out of people. The central organizing principle of the economic system is greed. Add the irrationality of religion and the ubiquity of anti-intellectualism and, well, as you said, “The wonder is that it doesn’t happen more often.”

  5. Great post, Hugh. I think it is improtant to not let this opportunity pass us by without thinking about how to prevent these types of events in the future I thought the Roger Ebert article in the NYT was interesting where he made a bit of a link to the movies and then a strong link to the media response after. It was chillling to read about other people considering similar acts watching the press coverage and thinking this is a way to get publicity. He has a good point. We were appalled about the baby too. Such a sad event I wish some good could come out of it, but I am skeptical that it will after nothing happened after Gabby Giffords was shot. Such a sad reality in our country. Thanks for the great post. You can take tomorrow offf to reflect! Today, we fight. 😉

    • There will be a brief flurry of activity and concern and then attention will turn back to the economy! Thanks for the comment, as always.


      • My son directed me to this information regarding the connection between viewing and becoming aggressive. It’s called the “Bobo Doll Experiment,” and was conducted in 1961 and again in 1963: “Bandura found that the children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to act in physically aggressive ways than those who were not exposed to the aggressive model. For those children exposed to the aggressive model, the number of imitative physical aggressions exhibited by the boys was 38.2 and 12.7 for the girls. The results concerning gender differences strongly supported Bandura’s prediction that children are more influenced by same-sex models. Boys exhibited more aggression when exposed to aggressive male models than boys exposed to aggressive female models. When exposed to aggressive male models, the number of aggressive instances exhibited by boys averaged 104 compared to 48.4 aggressive instances exhibited by boys exposed to aggressive female models.

  6. As long as the media continues to plaster the picture of the gunman across America’s television screens, others will follow in some sort of sick hunt for twisted fame. I am coming to despise mainstream media.

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