A Colorado Massacre Postscript: Why Does It Happen Here?
Of course it had to happen on July 20, the anniversary of the single most stupendous achievement in the history of our species. And in a way, it paints a sorry symbolic portrait of a great nation in decline. From 1969 to 2012 — a mere 43 years — we’ve gone from walking on the moon to witnessing a massacre of innocents by a lone gunman at a Batman movie in a suburban multiplex.
I probably shouldn’t read too much significance into the date the killer chose to carry out his deadly deed. It’s obvious that he picked July 20 because that’s when “The Dark Knight Rises” premiered at a midnight show in Aurora, Colorado. But, given my general pessimism about the state of this Union, I couldn’t help noting the date and thinking back to that other July 20 that so many of us baby boomers remember so vividly.
My brother and I can still recite Neil Armstrong’s final words as the lunar module closed in on its target: “Forward, forward… drifting to the right a little… contact light.” That was the moment: the touchdown, the goal achieved. And good old Walter Cronkite, as boyishly exultant as the rest of us, shouted a simple sentence that drove it all home: “MAN ON THE MOON!” The Eagle had landed.
So why does it happen here, almost routinely, with such sad and predictable results, in the same nation that sent men to the moon? Is it our national gun fetish — or something deeper and even darker?
And why are the perpetrators so eerily indistinguishable from one another? It’s always the same, isn’t it? Young single male. White (usually). Quiet (always). Kept to himself mostly. Unwilling or unable to form intimate relationships. Frustrated. Very frustrated. A bit grandiose. And obsessed with guns.
We don’t really know what kind of devils got into the head of James Holmes. A stellar student until very recently, he fit the classic mass-murderer profile like a size-10 foot sliding into a size-10 shoe. But most lonely young men who fit the same profile don’t launch homicidal attacks on random crowds.
Young Holmes had been an academic superstar… his prowess in school undoubtedly formed the core of his self-esteem. One of his former classmates recalled that the kid never had to take notes; he just sat there in silence, absorbed everything by osmosis and aced his exams. But maybe the doctoral program in neuroscience forced him to bump up against his intellectual limitations for the first time in his life. (I bumped up against mine a little earlier, in high school physics and calculus… and I have to tell you it took years to recover from the shock.)
Holmes’s grades began to crumble; he was about to be put on academic probation when he withdrew from the doctoral program at the University of Colorado. The world suddenly must have seemed sinister and unreal to him… as sinister and unreal as a Batman movie. What a joke… and so the former wonk metamorphosed into The Joker, that malevolent archvillain and Batman nemesis with the grotesque grin etched permanently onto his face.
Did the young man’s first brush with academic failure drive him to bitterness, despair and bloody revenge fantasies? Did it poison his shy, bookish, grade-dependent nature? Was it enough to drive him insane?
We could speculate that America has become a hard-driving culture in which failure is not an option. And yet Japan is, if anything, even more hard-driving and intolerant of failure. But here’s an eye-opening statistic for you: in the U.S., the annual gun-related death rate per 100,000 people (including both homicides and suicides) is 10.27 — among the highest in the world. In Japan, the figure is 0.07 — among the lowest in the world.
Guns simply are not indispensable props in Japanese culture. By contrast, Americans have been romancing them since since the days of the lone frontiersman with his buckskin jacket and trusty Pennsylvania long rifle… a potent symbol of American manhood and independence. The Western gunfighter and Prohibition gangster long ago entered American lore, along with leathery, gunslinging cinematic role models like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
An American man’s sense of personal failure — his inability to live up to culturally imposed standards of success and manliness — can turn lethal in the presence of guns. The possession of a long, cold steel weapon bolsters his sense of potency. He begins to imagine himself a stoical hero in the Old West tradition… a hardened maverick half in love with violent death.
Because, you see, in addition to being a success-driven and gun-loving culture, America is also a narcissistic culture. Just as we love to believe that any American can succeed with enough grit and hard work, we love to believe we’re special. (The Japanese don’t.) With a little imagination, we envision ourselves as heroes in the making… even celebrities. Walter Mitty is alive and well, and today he carries a Glock. James Holmes carried two of them, along with an assault rifle and an old-fashioned Remington shotgun.
Right-leaning men (and plenty of women) in America today seem to be wedded to their guns — or at least the concept of guns — as a form of resistance to encroaching government and its entangling tentacles. If the Second Amendment were to be repealed — if it suddenly became illegal for Americans to own guns — why, the feds could confiscate our property without a peep and we’d all become slaves. Or so their nightmare fantasy goes.
But what if we simply outlawed assault rifles and other semi-automatic weapons that spray sudden death toward crowds of hapless victims? I can’t think of a single peacetime use for such weapons — except to make it easy for psychopaths to commit mass murder. And yet the NRA and its amen corner would go all apoplectic if we took their semi-automatics away.
I wonder how many intruders they expect to be breaking down their doors in the near future. I wonder how many shots per minute would satisfy their lust for the heroic superpowers denied to them in life?
So how do we get our gun crisis under control without triggering an armed rebellion from the NRA crowd? In The Cynic’s Dictionary nearly twenty years ago, I proposed (only half-facetiously) that we should allow everyone to own guns but suspend the production of bullets. We probably don’t have to go that far. But it’s definitely time to push for an unconditional domestic ban on assault weapons, which should be strictly limited to use by the military in foreign wars.
And let’s toughen 0ur standards for granting gun permits. We already put prospective drivers through a rigorous battery of written and hands-on tests before they can earn their licenses. Let’s do the same for firearms.
With over 250 million guns already in private hands here in America, it won’t be easy to stuff this unwieldy genie back inside the bottle. But since the worst gun offenders are usually young and inexperienced, we can raise the bar to make sure that prospective gun owners are fit to use firearms. If they fail, or if they violate gun laws, we simply deny them a license the way we would deny a license to a clueless driver. End of story. The Second Amendment doesn’t prevent us from subjecting gun owners to more intensive screening.
Fair enough? I think so. After all, in the wrong hands, both guns and cars are deadly weapons. We need to be at least as vigilant with gun owners as we already are with drivers.
Still not convinced? Just ask the parents of the twelve people whose lives ended prematurely in that Colorado movie theater on the 20th of July.