Palaima: Encourage all to nurture safer communities
Tom Palaima, Local Contributor Austin American-Statesman
Updated: 10:35 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Published: 7:04 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, 2012 Print version July 25, 2012
Driving up to Denton on Friday afternoon I received a call from the Fox news station in Austin asking me whether the shooting in Aurora, Colo., was connected with “The Dark Knight Rises” Batman movie that was playing in the theater where James Holmes is suspected of killing 12 and wounding 59 people.
For more than two decades, I have studied how human beings respond to violent acts in different historical and cultural settings. On Saturday, Austin’s CBS affiliate asked me how to talk to children about the Aurora shooting.
Like others before him, the Colorado suspect has stolen from us, young and old, the basic belief that we can go about our normal lives without being afraid. Driving from Denton to Austin on Interstate 35 the previous Sunday night in heavy traffic during torrential rains, I felt this social act of faith.
Driving an interstate highway under any conditions takes a village, citizens trusting other citizens to keep each other safe. Now we must use the same trust when we sit down together in a movie theater.
There are a lot of questions when innocent people are killed in what is normally a peaceful communal space. We have asked them since Charles Whitman went up the University of Texas Tower in August 1966.
Psychologists, sociologists, legal and law enforcement experts have examined the backgrounds and motivations of perpetrators, the triggers that prompt them to kill, the practical factors that enable them to do so.
If we all learned by heart the profiles that have been devised and applied them to every person we met, we would not identify every potential shooter.
Christopher J. Ferguson and two co-authors in the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations in 2011 analyzed false stereotypes and sound identifiers, based on a definitive 2002 study of 37 school shootings and 41 attackers by the U.S. Secret Service. Their analysis showed:
■ Fifteen percent of attackers showed interest in violent video games, about half in violent media in general.
■ Twelve percent of the shooters “had no friends.”
■ One-third were socially isolated.
■ Two out of three shooters, then, are well-socialized.
■ Only one out of eight was a true loner.
■ About nine out of 10 showed no more interest in violent video games and movies than ordinary teenagers or young adults.
■ Many “attackers” are good and likable students.
Holmes, who was arrested at the scene of the theater shootings, was so described by classmates in high school, college and graduate school.
Student peers described Colton Tooley, the shooter at the University of Texas at Austin in September 2010 who killed no one but himself, as bright, polite and helpful. I spoke with some of his teachers. They were bewildered and truly sorrowful for him.
Better predictors are internal:
■ Sixty-one percent of attackers suffered from depression.
■ Seventy-eight percent contemplated or attempted suicide.
■ Ninety-eight percent suffered a recent personal loss.
■ Seven out of 10 felt they had been wronged.
■ Very few of them had talked to a trained mental health counselor.
Did “The Dark Knight Rises” drive James Holmes to allegedly shoot random moviegoers?
Holmes dyed his hair and is reported to have said when arrested, “I am the Joker.” He left Batman paraphernalia in his booby-trapped apartment.
He did not choose the Batman film at random. He planned his attack.
The movie was an element in whatever fantasy he was acting out. So was his SWAT-team garb.
The movie provided the occasion, but not the core motivation.
If we had made it harder to acquire the kinds of weapons and the 6,000 rounds of ammunition Holmes bought, fewer people would have been killed or wounded.
Holmes might have been delayed in taking action long enough for his personal psychological crisis to pass.
According to President Barack Obama, tragedies like these remind us that we are a family united in grief.
It would be better to unite in kindness before tragedy strikes, to care actively for one another in our homes, schools, churches, work places and other public spaces, to be aware of others who may need help, to de-stigmatize seeking mental health counseling.
Colton Tooley and James Holmes prove that “normal” people living alongside us can feel alone and troubled. They can use strange reasoning. Whitman killed the two women he loved most to spare them the shame he wanted to cause his father by killing a dozen people at random with a rifle.
Teach your children to love and care for their friends. Tell them that troubled people can sometimes think and do very bad things, but we can love and protect one another, including helping those who need help get help.
Palaima is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin; email@example.com.