A 24-year-old PhD student puts on a mask, walks into a Batman movie just after midnight, throws a can of tear gas into the room and shoots 70 people, killing 12 of them.
How does a seemingly normal, (as he came across in a video taken of him at science camp), 18-year-old boy become such a danger? What’s to blame? Media violence? Mental illness? Lack of gun control? Or, simply James Holmes himself?
Those who claim violence in the media as the culprit will note that James Holmes selected a movie – a Batman movie – as the setting for his massacre.
That he wore a mask, like some of the characters in the movie. They will draw similarities between the murders committed by the Columbine High boys, who were said by some to be imitating scenes from The Matrix, wearing long, dark coats, and between the eight, real-life murders associated with the movie Natural Born Killers.
Those who blame media violence would seem to be supported by The American Academy of Pediatrics, that has noted in its Policy Statement on media violence:
“Exposure to violence in media, including television, movies, music, and video games, represents a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents. Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”
And, by Dr. Dina Borzekowski, Associate Professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who states, “Absolutely, media is one factor leading to these terrible events. Besides the imitative effects seen in 50 years of research, studies show that violent media can change our expectations of what are normal behaviors and reactions. Exposure to violent media desensitizes us to perpetrators and victims. We are all affected, but only a small fraction of troubled people will become dangerous.”
Those who feel mental illness is to blame might know that James was within the average age of onset for such mental illnesses as schizophrenia (late teens to early 20s) and for mental symptoms such as psychosis. However, they might also take note of what Mike Fitzpatrick, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Executive Director’s had to say in his recent blog: “The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that ‘the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.’ He adds, “There are many reasons why violence occurs in our society, many of which have nothing or little to do with mental illness.”
Those who point to our gun control laws may claim that James Holmes would not have had access to the guns with which he killed his victims, or that his massacre might not have been as lethal.
Then there are those who would argue the contrary: that if the victims in the theater had had guns themselves, they could have used them for protection and stopped Mr. Holmes. Check out some of these statistics… …and note that there have been studies showing both that our gun control laws make us less safe by fostering more crime by perpetrators and that they make us safer by providing protection for victims.
And then judge for yourself.
Does the cause of the Colorado theater massacre lie in none of the above? Is it James Holmes himself that is to blame?
Can our children be driven to perform good or bad acts by external sources such as media?: Is nurture more influential than nature? Or, are people inherently good or bad, with nature being the prevailing influence?
While we may find the answers to why the Colorado theater tragedy occurred in part within our own belief systems, we will never, unfortunately, come to a full understanding.
Perhaps one sad truth about James Holmes and his new-found fame might best be captured by a line from The Dark Knight Rises:
(Bane): “It doesn't matter who we are... what matters is our plan. No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.”
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Anna Katzman is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in psychiatry, certified in child and adolescent mental health. She is a regular contributor to GalTime. You can visit her blog for additional information.