Aurora, American violence, and amnesia

The massacre at a Colorado movie theatre offers an opportunity – and a responsibility – for national soul-searching.

James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theatre and wounding dozens more [GALLO/GETTY]
James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theatre and wounding dozens more [GALLO/GETTY]

What happened in the Aurora movie theatre at midnight on July 20 was certainly an acute personal tragedy for the victims and their families, and a life-threatening scare for all those who escaped the gunman’s lethal rage.

But it was also more than this. It was one more brutal day of reckoning that throws light upon the darkest sides of US political culture. The gunman – reportedly a self-proclaimed impersonator of Batman master villain, the Joker – apparently bore no personal animosity towards those he killed. His mimicry of this fictional icon substituted a murderous narrative for the entertainment that the folks in the theatre had gathered to watch.

In the recent past, we are reminded of the Tucson shooting of Arizona Congressman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 by an obsessive young man later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that took 33 lives and left 17 wounded in a rampage on a college campus. And because Aurora is on the edge of Denver, it recalls another Colorado tragedy, the 1999 killings at Columbine High School that took the lives of 12 students, a teacher and the two teeanged shooters who committed suicide.

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There is by now on such occasions an almost ritual template of national grieving led over by the president, exhibiting a formula of acknowledgement and validation that, above all else, ensures the avoidance of individual and collective soul searching. The victims and families are made the genuine object of deep sympathy and the perpetrator is associated with evil who either has perished while perpetrating his deadly deeds or, if in custody, as in this case, is promised “the full force of the justice system”, in President Obama’s words. The president uses strong words of attachment to express a bonding with the survivors, citing his own awareness as a father and husband, and at the same time creates maximum distance from the killer, whom he promises will be soon forgotten while the lost loved ones will be long remembered.

This pattern of response is a miniature replica of George W Bush’s treatment of the 9/11 attacks: namely, condemnation of the perpetrators and their leaders as pure evil who will be brought to justice by the full weight of the United States military and an outflowing of sympathy and love for those who suffered loss on that fateful day. What was missing in Bush’s response, and here again in the reaction to Aurora, is any realisation that in addition to grievance and vengeance, there is an invaluable soul-searching opportunity before us. While condemning the criminality of the acts, Bush would have served the country better if he had asked whether such horrendous violence might have been prompted by a sense of desperation associated with unmet legitimate grievances, as well as whether meeting violence with greater violence would lead to a more secure, peaceful, and just world.

In the Aurora incident, a different kind of self-questioning might have certified Barack Obama as the kind of leader that the country needs at this point, especially in the run-up to the November presidential elections. Should not a leader at the very least have asked whether the promiscuous availability of sophisticated weaponry to virtually anyone in the country serves the security of the people at this stage in the nation’s history? Is it not shocking that assault weapons capable of shooting 60 rounds of ammunition per minute are readily available at stores and over the internet? And should a president ignore the presumed “wisdom” of his political minders by seizing the moment to advocate gun control, or, more bravely, called for the total prohibition of pistols and non-hunting firearms?

Would not such a call by a president in the midst of a political campaign have started the debate the country so desperately needs? And with great delicacy, might not a inquiring leader have wondered whether it was such a good idea for families in the US to expose their underage children to a PG-13 film of great violence and mythic evil that was being shown in a public theatre after midnight?

Since 9/11, we have grown accustomed to submitting to the claims of homeland security in ways that encroach on our traditional liberties and sanction humiliating intrusions on our private lives. How can we explain to ourselves the total exposure of our movie theatres and shopping centres to crazed, gun-toting individuals and an array of nomadic sociopaths, while we scrutinise juveniles, the disabled, and the elderly before allowing their entry on a plane?

The point was not lost on National Rifle Association fundamentalists. Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, minced no words in his assessment of the Aurora events broadcast the day after by BBC: “It is very sad that there was a no-guns policy in that theatre and nobody had thought to take a gun with them anyway.”

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The logic is impeccable, even if its translation into actual policy would be the darkest of days. Pratt went on to spell out his worldview by saying: “[T]he idea that you tell people they’ve got to go into a public place without a firearm is setting them up for this kind of disaster.” In effect, in our violent society, do not leave home without your best weapons. And since your assailant is quite likely to have a semi-automatic assault rifle, as Holmes reportedly did, your most prudent move would be to walk around with a light machine gun or maybe a supportive private militia. Such surrealistic logic requires no refutation, or if it does, we are more lost than even I imagined.

One last observation that should not be too far removed from Obama’s response to Aurora – which in fairness, is the standard response expected, maybe required, of any American leader. This is the authority that Obama has assumed to approve drone killings carried out anywhere in the world, against citizen and non-citizen alike. The target, and whoever else is unlucky enough to be in the vicinity, has no chance to protest this orgy of extra-judicial executions, another innovation of the post-9/11 world where anything goes – so long as “the other” can be presented as “evil”, and the killer cast as “good”. Note the inversion of victim and perpetration – at Aurora the evil one is doing the killing, while in drone warfare it is the targeted person that lawlessly loses his or her inalienable right to life, and the drone operator and their chain of command that is supposedly doing good.

If we are to heal ourselves and transcend the immediacy of the pain inflicted by such spectacles of mass murder, we need the cultural courage to look inward as well as outward. Admittedly, it is not only the United States that lacks this courage – but this is our country, and its patterns of violence that shake the pillars of world peace and security. We have this soul-searching opportunity, and hence a responsibility. If we cannot count on our leaders to be responsible, can we not at least count on ourselves?

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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