When James Holmes' mother was approached by reporters early Friday morning her initial unguarded comment, "You have the right person," suggests the family knew he was troubled in some way. We won't know for some time but, like Jared Loughner, Holmes is of an age when schizophrenia frequently takes profound hold.
Why there, why now? An unnamed source said the the Holmes described himself as "The Joker" after his apprehension. We need not blame any one movie though. When it comes to ideation there is no shortage of historical, social, and media cues. It would be hard to count the number of "faceless, black-clad tactical officers" featured in films and TV. Glocks and Remington 870s are traditional weapons of law enforcement, both on TV and in the real world. The AR-15 is this generation's idea of the rifle and standard kit for American police and the US military on the news and in the movies. Ludicrous amounts of firepower wielded by heavily armored bad guys was on display at the North Hollywood shootout and in action pictures like "Heat."
The scene at Holmes' apartment is chilling. The mad bomber who sets booby traps in his home is straight out of "Speed." Cleverly-crafted, homemade bombs were Theodore Kaczynski's calling cards. The use of a bombing primarily as a distraction was arguably Anders Breivik's intention. One hopes the bomb squad can safe the scene and then collect the evidence needed to help authorities better understand Holmes' intentions, or at least the depths of his illness.
Does art imitate life or vice versa? We sit in movie theaters and in front of our giant flat screens watching our heroes and villains dish out and absorb impossible amounts of violence and mayhem. We pull the trigger on nests of aliens, invading armies, and hoards of zombies in ever more realistic "first person shooter" video games. We do these things to entertain and distract ourselves. In this horrible case Holmes' seems to have been impressed by many of these action entertainment tropes, enough so that he spent thousands of dollars on real arms and equipment in the last couple months.
Unlike cases of massacre followed by suicide, Holmes is alive, which may permit a clinical diagnosis. But even if the etiology of Holmes' rampage comes to be completely understood there will be little comfort for the victims, their friends and family, the community, and my peers in the security profession. The idea that a bright young man descended into madness, hatched a horrible scheme, acquired a powerful arsenal, and perpetrated a vicious attack on his neighbors will remain a tremendous tragedy and a sad legacy for us all.
There are reflexive calls for more gun control, without any serious consideration for how such an idea might be implemented in the real world. On the other extreme there is a newer voice, that from proponents of the "Shall Issue" citizen concealed carry movement, for even more guns in more Americans' pockets, just in case something like this happens. One hopes there will be time for us to consider how to prevent these communal horrors while protecting our threatened sense of American individualism. For now, perhaps we can all agree that the world would be a better place if James Holmes had not been able to acquire the weapons he used to cut down his neighbors Friday morning.
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