by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last forty-eight hours, you have no doubt seen the coverage concerning the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. If you possess even a minimal level of empathy for your fellow human beings, twelve dead and fifty-eight wounded when their only crime was wanting to see a movie can only be properly described as tragic. Among the dead accounted for up to this point are a man who had been celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday (Alex Sullivan), a member of our Navy (Petty Officer Third Class John Larimer), a twenty-four year old aspiring sports journalist (Jessica Ghawi), and a six year-old girl. Some less responsible outlets are reporting this little girl’s name (Huffington Post, looking your direction), but other more responsible outlets are not. I will not post her name for the same reason others have declined: the little girl remains unidentified because her mother, also a victim of this horrific crime with gunshot wounds to the neck and abdomen, remains paralyzed in hospital and has not yet been told of her daughter’s death. Even in reporting on events, sometimes a little discretion goes a long way and does not impair the “public’s right to know” in any substantive manner.
Over the next few days, you will see many attempts by people with various political agendas trying to monopolize on this shooting to promote their pet causes. In fact, it has already started and in a most heinous manner. During a radio interview on The Heritage Foundation’s “Istook Live!” show, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said Friday that the shootings were a result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs” . . . and questioned why nobody else in the theater had a gun to take down the shooter. Gohmert in one fell swoop illustrated that not only is he a base political opportunist, but that he apparently doesn’t understand the 1st or 2nd Amendments very well – a common affliction among Texas pols. Others pols are already using this as a way to promote their anti-gun agendas, their pro-gun agendas and the Twitter-verse is filling with statements from “our leaders” about this tragic event and all of them in some way self-serving.
I urge you to ignore these opportunists for a moment and to think about something else related to the Aurora shooting.
Multiple outlets are reporting that the accused gunman, James Holmes, had dyed his hair red and told the police he “was the Joker”.
There is the fantasy of violence. There is the reality of violence. They could not be more different in outcome. This presents the issue of instances like this where the line between fantasy and reality have clearly been crossed in some meaningful manner. Does this problem exist in the individual or in society itself? I submit the answer might be “a little of both”.
Consider this: one of the elements of drama is that the hero (or something or someone the hero holds dear) must be in peril. It creates tension, it moves the story. You cannot have drama without an element of danger or risk and very often that danger or risk is portrayed in the form of physical violence. As a species, we are wired to find this entertaining. There is nothing wrong with a bit of wish fulfilment in seeing the hero overcome adversity as entertaining.
The reality is starkly different. Witness real heroes like Jon Blunk who was killed defending his girlfriend Jansen Young during this rampage. Witness Jarell Brooks, a 19-year-old from Aurora, who put himself at risk to help Patricia Legarreta and her two young children escape, but not before he and Legarreta were wounded. Witness Eric Hunter, a 23-year-old from Aurora, who found two wounded girls and dragged them to safety in an adjoining theater before blocking the door to Theater 8 and preventing the alleged gunman from spreading his gunfire in to a new room of innocent theater goers.
All three possible outcomes. Death, wounding, escape from physical harm. All three equally heroic in that other lives were saved, some of them strangers with nothing in common but a love of the same kind of cinema and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a funny thing about heroism though. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” In real life, the tragedies and the heroics are real and have real consequences. The hero does not always win the day as they are prone to do in fiction.
Does our propensity for dramatic entertainment, let alone dramas involving violence, feed a propensity for violence? This is a question as old as drama itself. On one side of the argument is the catharsis argument put forth by Aristotle in Poetics; that in viewing tragic events, the audience’s negative feelings like fear and pity are purged. This line of reasoning was later supported by psychologists and psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud and A.A. Brill. On the other side are modern researchers who have found correlations between watching violence and the rate of violence in society, but causal connections between the two in the general population have been difficult to pin down. What is clear is that “exposure to media violence does not produce violent criminals out of all viewers, just as cigarette smoking does not produce lung cancer victims out of all smokers. This lack of perfect correspondence between heavy media violence exposure and violent behavior simply means that media violence exposure is not a necessary and sufficient cause of violence.” (“Media Violence and the American Public” by Brad J. Bushman and Craig A. Anderson, Iowa State University, American Psychologist, June/July issue, p. 482, 2001.) That a small segment of society seems particularly susceptible to being prodded in to violence through the consumption of media violence though seems undeniable. To me, this seems to comport with the rate in society of people with mental problems revolving around empathy like sociopaths and psychopaths. People who lack empathy would naturally not connect the actuality of violence with the fantasy of violence as they don’t care about the impact of their actions on others to begin with. Correlation is not causation and the root causes of violence are more complex than just a person’s entertainment choices. There are also environmental, social, economic, and personal history to consider. Some people in certain situations are simply going to be more prone to violence. While causation in the general population has been found in desensitization toward violence and violent entertainment, causation of real life violence with fictional violence has been more elusive although desensitization in itself has been can “[increase] aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviors, and decreases helpful behaviors.”
As a society, do we have a duty to mitigate all factors that can induce violent behavior in individuals? Even if that susceptible segment of society is a very small percentage of society? With complex compound causation, this is a practically impossible task, and even if “perfect mitigation” of contributing factors was had there are a certain percentage of society that are going to be violent psychopaths no matter what their environment is like. Where to do we draw the line a social inputs that can encourage violence and personal responsibility for individual action? Consider this as well: do we have the same duty to mitigate when the violence perpetrated by sociopaths and psychopaths is economic (as in the banking industry shenanigans that birthed the OWS movement), is purely psychological (as seen in pathologically verbally abusive spouses) or is purely political (as in the religious far right attempting to trample history and the Constitution to institute theocratic laws if not outright theocracy)?
Perfection is not possible. Evil cannot be eliminated in the world for without it we have no definition of good. The perfect removal of error from complex systems is a mathematical impossibility. Does that mean we should not try?
What do you think?
~ submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger
UPDATE: The names of all the victims have been officially released by the Arapahoe County coroner’s office. These are the names it is important to remember. Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6, Jessica Ghawi, 24, Alex Sullivan, 27, Jonathan Blunk, 26, John Larimer, 27, Matt McQuinn, 27, Micayla Medek, 23, Jesse Childress, 29, Alexander Jonathan (AJ) Boik, 18, Alex Teves, 24, Rebecca Ann Wingo, 32, and Gordon W. Cowden, 51.
A Personal Note to the Aurora Victims and Their Families and Friends:
My sincerest condolences. May your loved ones lost live on in your memories and may your memories be long, robust and full of happiness. May the wounded heal and take every advantage of their good fortune at surviving this senseless act of violence. May this harm done to you and yours not keep you in the depths of lament, but transform to a celebration of life – both theirs and yours. Peace, love and long life.
NOTE: For those of you waiting for the next Propaganda installment, I’ll either publish it tomorrow or publish next weekend depending upon time constraints. I thank you for your patience in the face of breaking news.