I don’t have to write many words to describe the thoughts we’ve probably all had about what happened in Aurora, Colorado just after midnight Friday morning. The only word I have to write is “Why?”
But whomever may answer that question one day will need many, many more words. Any belief to the contrary serves no purpose except to dismiss the horror and find comfort in that dismissal, if nowhere else.
We have likely all imagined – whether it was for a moment or for hours, once or several times over the last few days – what it must have been like to be in that movie theater. To be disoriented by the booming sound of the movie mixed with the booming sound of the gunfire. To be stunned and scared and spurred on to act. To be frozen. To be wounded. To lay dying, with the surreal images of a comic superhero looming large somewhere nearby, casting the only light into what has become an unfathomable kind of darkness.
We have likely all imagined what it must have been like for the families of the people in that theater when they learned about what had happened, when they got a call that one of their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers had been shot. When they sat beside the hospital bed trying to make a doctor’s words into some sort of syntax they could understand.
We may have even imagined what it was like for the police, the SWAT team, the paramedics to show up at a scene so chaotic and unexpected that it’s a miracle they managed to react as well as they did.
Did we imagine what it was like for the gunman?
No one wants to do that. No one wants to put themselves in the shoes of someone who would carry out carnage so horrific, so brazen, so indescribably savage and callous and wrong.
No one wants to think that it could ever, ever be them.
A year ago… ten years ago… twenty… do you think James Holmes thought it could be him?
Nothing I say in this post is meant to excuse or absolve his actions (and herein, I assume his guilt). I do not believe that is possible. Nor do I intend any moral relativism. I want that to be clear. It’s not that I don’t think he’s guilty. It’s not that I don’t think he deserves to be locked up somewhere. It’s that I think he is unwell, and there is good reason the unwell should not be regarded as anything less than human.
At this point, there is much we do not know about what happened in Aurora. We know even less – almost nothing at all – about what was happening in Holmes’ mind. It is tempting to think him a monster, a cold, cruel, heartless, evil being devoid of humanity or courage. Those whose lives have been forever altered by his actions have every right to feel that way about him.
But it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Once, he was a child. Once, he was a college student. Once, he was a son.
This is not the writing of a bleeding heart, but of a broken one. Because it is in our trashing of humanity that we show our inhumanity, and that works in more than one way. The calculated killings of 12 and woundings of 58, the careful traps and triggers laid out in Holmes’ apartment, are not the only symptoms of a disregard for life that will come of this tragedy.
Because there will be many of us who will dismiss him as a demon. A misfit. A coward. A rogue. A psycho. And never again think about his humanness.
Because it’s so, so much easier that way, and isn’t this hard enough as it is?
As a nation, every time a mass murder happens, we talk for days about what’s wrong with the country. What’s wrong with its young people, what’s wrong with society, what’s wrong with the laws. And then we do almost nothing. We put up crosses and teddy bears and floating balloons and we light candles and we leave the victims and their families to deal with the hole in their lives and the vacuum it’s created in their sense of what’s ordered in the world. And then it happens again. And again.
We could talk about gun laws, and I personally believe there is good reason to talk about that, because I believe they’re insufficient and I believe that any logical 2nd amendment protector could agree that no one needs assault weapons and no one needs six thousand rounds of ammunition, much less someone who’s never owned a firearm or been hunting before. We could talk about violent video games and violent movies and a lack of discipline from parents and from teachers. We could talk about drugs. We could talk about a thousand things.
What we should also talk about is the nature of mental illness and personality disorders, and how to deal with them.
But when that subject comes up, suddenly, we all get very, very quiet.
Again: we do not know what went on in James Holmes’ head. And it’s understandable that some of us can’t abide the implied degree of forgiveness that comes with acknowledging an issue of mental health. But today I saw the full video of Holmes’ hearing, and though I’m not an expert, my sister is well-trained, and she thinks the same thing I think: this is a man who is mentally ill or has a personality disorder.
My sister is a licensed clinical social worker with years of experience treating the criminally insane. She worked with men who were locked up not in a prison, but in a criminal forensic psychiatric facility, because their crimes, though grave, were spurred by mental illness or personality disorder. One of the most important reasons that people with these conditions should be in a psychiatric facility instead of a prison is that, if their condition is not treated, they will likely become more dangerous even to other inmates or correctional officers, and more dangerous to society if their crime did not carry a life sentence.
There are those who would argue that someone who’s crazy couldn’t have plotted out their attack so carefully as Holmes appears to have done. That’s not true. Psychosis of some kind – schizophrenia, for example – can drive an unwell person’s judgments and actions for as long as it lasts. It is entirely possible that psychosis dictated Holmes’ months of calculation, including ordering his ammunition and chemicals, and buying his weapons.
There are those who would argue that if he were truly that disordered, there would have been some sign, but so far we know of none. Also not necessarily true. Holmes happens to be at the right age for what clinicians call an initial psychotic break. It is possible that the break began, and thus his plot began. There are numerous cases of vicious crimes – though few as vicious as this – committed by someone in their early 20s with absolutely no criminal or psychological history prior to the crime. My sister alone has treated several such criminals. She treated someone who was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – ECT or shock therapy as it’s commonly known – and saw him slowly begin to realize just how disordered he was. She was a witness to his horror at who he had become.
Holmes fits a psychotic profile in another way: he was a graduate student in neuroscience who recently faced what the University of Colorado called an “intense” oral exam. Significant stress can trigger a psychotic break in a person in their early 20s who has never shown signs of mental illness before.
It also wouldn’t be surprising if Holmes says he doesn’t remember what he did. When we do something traumatic to this degree, the brain shuts down the memory-making or memory-retrieval system. It does so to protect us, so we don’t have to live with what we’ve done. It’s simliar to blocking out bad memories of something that happened to us in childhood. It’s inconsistent, but again, my sister worked with someone who had forgotten part of what he’d done. He wanted to see surveillance video because he couldn’t remember a specific part of his crime. (She didn’t allow it – she knew it might have fulfilled a fantasy for him.)
When we forget, or refuse to acknowledge, these very real things about the nature of the human mind and disorders, we ignore part of our humanity. When we dismiss someone as a nut or a monster, we remove their humanity. That is what allows crimes like these to continue. When we ignore the reality of mental disorder, we ignore what causes mass murder. Just as a criminal may disregard humanity in favor of killing, so too do we disgregard humanity in favor of a simpler, more satisfying, less painful answer to a deeply disturbing question: how could a human do such terrible things to other humans?
The answer, however complex, however dark, however impossible it is to put into words, lies in all of us.
Just like it lies in James Holmes.