Once upon a time, a male perpetrator wearing combat gear and armed with x semiautomatic pistols and x assault rifles entered a xxxxxxxx and shot xx people, xx of them children, before turning one of the guns on himself. Xx people died at the scene and xx at a local hospital.
No motive is known, which hasn’t stopped myriad pundits and mothers of disturbed youth and other self-proclaimed experts from cherry-picking as-yet-unconfirmed details to fill the vacuum created by a lack of information that commonly follows in the wake of massacres. Joining the speculation bandwagon, I’m guessing that most people are motivated by a fear of the unknown that makes them desperate to organize the chaos of what has happened. This attempt at sense-making happens every time a killer bloodies a public space.
Dave Cullen, who published a ten-year investigation on the Columbine massacre, wrote after the Aurora, Colorado, shooting last July, “Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.” He does identify a few common traits and three categories of mass murderers, but he emphasizes that these traits have not helped to predict future incidents.
Most troubling, in my opinion, is the tendency to enshrine victims and perpetrators in a binary set of good and evil. The perpetrator is labeled a “monster,” while the victims are “saints” or “heroes.” And both epithets are true, but such language is incredibly powerful in that it shuts down discussion about the complexities of the individuals involved.
There’s a well-intentioned desire to honor the fallen and a fear of sympathizing in any way with the perpetrator. Such responses are designed to prevent us from imagining ourselves as victims or realizing we may know a potential perpetrator and, thus, bear some responsibility to help prevent future massacres. The last thing we want to do is relate to these characters, which is what they are to us. Psychic distance serves as a valve that helps us feel connected to some degree while managing the flow of the horrible truth.
Which makes it possible to push the horror away. For most, violence remains intermittent and, hey, the homicide rate has actually been going down. Between spirited if short-lived public outcries to each massacre of mostly middle-class white people, gun violence typically occurs to people of color and/or the poor. Thinking about any of that would be too painful. Speaking up about gun control might be politicizing the situation.
Furthermore, without crime, what would we have for entertainment in our culture? Not that the crime fictions we enjoy are based on fact. I mean, they are, but fictional fact. Those aren’t real characters in the morgue. They just die for the sake of the story. Their grisly ends are just imagined. We’re not a violent culture. We’re simply entertained by fictional violence. And we get off on the catharsis. And we get off on getting off.
We’re just filling the vacuum of the unknown. We can close the book whenever the terror becomes too much for us. Or at least some of us can.