Only in America: The tragic inevitability of the Aurora massacre

By Kevin Bloom 24 July 2012

It’s a massacre that most agree could only have happened in the United States, and that’s not just because of the gun laws (or lack thereof). In hindsight, it appears that it was only a matter of time until someone like James Holmes took the complicated relationship between media and violence in America to an entirely new level. By KEVIN BLOOM.

In the killing spree visited upon the movie-going citizens of Aurora, Colorado, on Thursday 19 July, the references and self-references from film to reality and back again pointed to something deeply disturbing at the heart of American pop culture. The rest of the world, on hearing the tragic news, responded with quiet yet unmistakable consistency: this type of madness is made in the United States, we told ourselves; it’s a disease inseparable from one of Hollywood’s darkest fetishes.

Whether or not the knee-jerk response is based upon any objective truth about gun massacres — for obvious exceptions, think Norway last year, or Dunblane in Scotland in 1996 — the fact of the matter is that America itself believes the curse to be a creation of its distinctive national psyche. 

Just witness writer and journalist Adam Gopnik, never one for hyperbole or hysterics, in the pages of the New Yorker a few days ago: “Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue. Does anyone even remember any longer last July’s gun massacre, those birthday-party killings in Texas, when an estranged husband murdered his wife and most of her family, leaving six dead?”

For Gopnik, the 1950 noir classic Gun Crazy is still the finest cinematic representation of his country’s enduring romance with gratuitous and inexplicable gun violence. In Joseph H. Lewis’s tale, the male protagonist is introduced to the audience as a young misfit who breaks a store window to get at the object of his desire, a firearm. A gaunt and awkward loner who’s emerged from reform school and the military, it’s his femme fatale lover — equally obsessed with guns — who teaches him how to turn the thing on human beings.

In 1992, James Le Gros and Drew Barrymore appeared in Guncrazy, a film that, while not a remake of its forerunner, was still very much inspired by it — in both films, the murderous couple are motivated by nothing so much as their erotic obsession with each other. 

It’s a genre, of course, that’s fat with examples. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who were amongst the first gun-toting celebrity criminals of the American century, had numerous films dedicated to their story, the most famous starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in 1967. But in 1937, only three years after the real-life Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed and killed, there was already Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once

As for Terence Malick’s masterful Badlands, the film that marked the director’s debut in 1973, the genesis was to be found in the true story of Charles Starkweather who, at the age of 19, went on a gun-toting rampage with his 14-year-old girlfriend that resulted in the death of ten innocents.

Noted Vincent Canby in the New York Times review of Badlands soon after its release: “[The protagonists Kit and Holly] are not ill-housed, ill-clothed, or ill-fed. If they are at all aware of their anger (and I’m not sure they are, since they see only boredom), it’s because of the difference between the way life is and the way it is presented on the small screen, with commercial breaks instead of lasting consequences.” 

And so we come to 24-year-old James Holmes, the alleged shooter in the incident that claimed 12 lives last week. Where Bonnie and Clyde and the protagonists in You Only Live Once could blame at least some of their rage on broad social forces — for instance, the Great Depression — Holmes is more like Charles Starkweather (aka Martin Sheen’s Kit), a member of the desensitised mass media generation run amok.

Where he’s unlike Starkweather and the male leads of the “killer couple” sub-genre, however, is obviously in his loner status. Holmes is essentially a single, media-literate killer with only his numbness for an excuse, which would make him similar to the vast majority of contemporary American mass murderers.

Except for this: by identifying himself as “The Joker” in Batman, by opening fire in a crowded cinema during the premiere of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises, he has taken the complicated interplay between media and violence in America to an entirely new level. This is no longer “commercial breaks instead of lasting consequences,” it’s the intractable persona of the actual perpetrator inserting himself into the ethereal realm of film.

How else to explain the morbid detail that Holmes, after calmly telling detectives who he was — “I’m The Joker,” he’s reported to have said — immediately informed those self-same detectives that he’d ingested Vicodin, the drug found in the system of actor Heath Ledger when he died of an overdose in 2008? (Ledger, it will be universally remembered, played The Joker in Nolan’s previous Batman film The Dark Night, and was drawn to the euphoric and hallucinogenic properties of Vicodin).

In fact, on Sunday, in solitary confinement at the Arapahoe Detention Centre in Colorado, Holmes was spitting at guards and still playing the part immortalised by Ledger. As one prison insider said of him: “He hasn’t shown any remorse. He thinks he’s acting in a movie.”

Which would appear to be the point. Question is, has America really given birth to a whole new class of mass murderer, someone who defies the previous categories? Currently, the fact that Holmes did not kill himself after his shooting spree — and therefore deliver the expected denouement to his macabre performance — is seriously confusing the country’s top psychologists.

“The precise knowledge of what makes these people tick is harder to come by than in a case of a serial killer who is studied very carefully by psychologists on the defense and prosecution,” noted Dr Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Usually you’re dealing with an angry, dissatisfied person who has poor social skills or few friends, and then there is a trigger that sets them off.”

Whatever trigger set Holmes off, FBI profilers are calling him “very high functioning”. The University of Colorado said it was investigating whether he used his position as a neuroscience PhD student to order materials that he’d used to booby-trap his apartment — incredibly, he had only recently withdrawn from the course, after undergoing an intense three-part oral exam, and law enforcement officers had to use a robot to disarm the trip wires linked to the explosives in his home.

Predictably, in the aftermath of the slayings, mainstream media in America have been focusing on the country’s gun laws. This is something they do after every sad catastrophe of this nature, and given the fact that the Second Amendment and the so-called right to bear arms is seen as a fundamental liberty (not to mention an issue that no president hoping for re-election would ever go near), who can blame them? 

Nevertheless, seeing as the Aurora massacre was in more ways a popular culture event than any other event of its kind, it’s to the popular culture that devastated citizens may want to look for insight and solace. And here, seeing as everyone is in agreement that the gun laws are not this time (or any time in the near future) going to change, perhaps Chris Rock is the man for the job.

Remember what he said after the Columbine shootings?

“Everybody is talking about gun control. Got to control the guns. Fuck that, I like guns. If you’ve got a gun, you don’t need to work out! Cause I ain’t working out. I ain’t jogging. No, I think we need some bullet control. I think every bullet should cost five thousand dollars. Five thousand dollars for a bullet. Know why? ‘Cos if a bullet cost five thousand dollars, there’d be no more innocent by-standers. That’d be it.”

The ridiculousness of America’s avoidable but doomed-for-repetition national malaise is summarised right there, in one short irony-infused paragraph. And lest we forget: before the shooting, James Holmes legally and cheaply bought 6,000 bullets (3,000 for his handgun and 3,000 for his assault rifle) over the Internet. DM

Read more:

  • “One More Massacre,” in the New Yorker
  • “Mass Murderers, Unlike Serial Killers, Are Hard to Profile,” in the Daily Beast

Photo: James Eagan Holmes makes his first court appearance in Aurora, Colorado, July 23, 2012. Holmes, the man accused of shooting dead 12 people in a Colorado movie theater during the midnight screening of the new Batman movie early Friday, made his first appearance in court on Monday, sitting silently in a red jailhouse jump suit and with his hair dyed bright red. REUTERS/RJ Sangosti/Pool


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