Monday, June 8, 2015

The Tragedy Factory

Stephen and Joyce Singular, The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth

On July 20th, 2012, graduate student James Holmes entered a midnight movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, wearing tactical battle armor and carrying military-grade semiautomatic rifles; the ensuing gunfire killed twelve and injured seventy. Three days later, the supervising judge in Holmes’ trial slapped a gag order on everybody involved, meaning that, two-and-a-half years later, we still know very little about that fateful night.

Veteran true-crime authors Stephen and Joyce Singular thought they’d seen every depth of human depravity. But as long-term Denver residents, the simple proximity of this attack amplified their heartfelt reaction. They survived Columbine; now they’ve survived Aurora. But events especially blindsided their college-age son, Eric, in ways they never anticipated. So they decided to investigate this shooting, to see what it says about today’s society.

Though violent crime overall has decreased sharply since 1990, "mass" shootings, federally defined as shootings having four or more fatalities, has catastrophically increased. Recent years have seen mass shootings happening, roughly, every two weeks. In 2000, Barry Glassner scoffed at alarmists decrying the “epidemic” of mass shootings. But in 2015, such language is no longer hyperbolic. The Singulars go further, characterizing mass violence events like Holmes’s, not unfairly, as “terrorism.”

Just how typical James Holmes really is remains debatable, the Singulars concede. His crimes are so extreme that legal precedents don’t exist for many trial stipulations, meaning attorneys are venturing into virgin courtroom territory. Yet considering that, six months after Holmes attacked a movie theater, Adam Lanza attacked an elementary school—an event the Singulars consider thematically, if not causally, linked—the Holmes trial’s precedents will have far-reaching legal consequences.

Confessed Aurora theater shooter James Eagan
Holmes, with his attorney
Our authors cannot address the Holmes case directly. They gather information from diverse news sources and collate it between two covers, some for the first time But their Holmes-specific data derives entirely from the public record, thanks to the judge’s unilateral gag order preventing anyone involved, even private citizen witnesses, from speaking with journalists. Therefore, their trial coverage mixes informed speculation with very, very indirect interviews covering… erm… related generalizations.

Therefore, the most informative parts happen when the Singulars step away from the case itself. Guided by their son, Eric, they investigate the culture which nurtured Holmes, Lanza, and their entire generation. During a period where virtually all other crime statistics have decreased, deadly mass violence, mainly perpetrated by young white males, has become painfully ubiquitous anymore. The Singulars’ discoveries, though not wholly unexpected, nevertheless have a deeply chilling effect.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say, and the Singulars don’t, that today’s youth experience a more violent culture. Rather, under Eric’s guidance, the Singulars recognize that, from pop culture to religious anomie to the 24-hour news cycle, today’s youth experience a bleaker, more apocalyptic culture. From dystopias (The Matrix) to emasculation myths (Fight Club) to news coverage of environmental catastrophe, today’s youth see little future approaching, unless it’s deeply diminished.

American youth today work longer hours for lower pay, postpone adulthood to stay in school longer, and have diminished prospects of social mobility. Mental health problems are at an all-time high, while access to mental health treatment is at an all-time low. And in today’s changing media climate, young adults largely don’t share compatible cultural referents with their parents. New media hasn’t just changed society; it’s changed the audience’s brains.

This cultural analysis requires some distancing. From George Orwell’s 1984 to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, dystopias and emasculation myths have long existed. Work generated reward during Eisenhower’s time, but historically, that’s the exception. Today’s conditions represent a failure of promises parents made to children now hitting adulthood, sure. But I suggest today’s problems differ not in kind, but in consciousness saturation, from generations past.

Nevertheless. Many of today’s young adults face an unremittingly bleak atmosphere, and few easy outlets. James Holmes had no friends, little meaning in his work, and almost complete isolation from neighborhood and community: known causes of significant mental health problems (cf Dr. Stephen Ilardi). And considering the judge’s universal gag order, we cannot even productively discuss how these conditions evolved, much less how to prevent them multiplying in the future.

The Singulars’ account of James Holmes and his culture suffers some irregularities too large to ignore. Its subjective testimony, lack of primary sources, and sometimes naive suggestion that young people really understand their own situation, leaves visible scars on their narrative. But they ask questions we cannot bury by mocking their systemology. Numbers prove violence is more common. James Holmes may be, not an outlier, but a harbinger.

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