Holmes, Guns, and Terrorism: We Need to Ask Different Questions

The last 72 hours have been an important exercise in understanding how a public tragedy is framed, or taken as a call (against) arms.  The mid-night movie theater tragedy in Aurora, Colorado has led to a renewed call for gun regulation, a regulation of movie violence, and anxiety about loners, as if addressing these problems would have pre-empted the Aurora massacre. I worry that we jump to certain policy conclusions. Those policies may be excellent on many grounds, but often they are exploited during tragedies like the Aurora massacre, a tragedy that is quickly being sculpted to fit the foregone conclusion instead of being analyzed to see if there are deeper answers—or even better questions to ask.

Let me be clear: I think the stricter regulation of guns is urgently needed.  But I’m not convinced by the Brady Organization’s insistence that an earlier and effective regulation of guns would have prevented some version of this tragedy from happening. I do think that the massacre in Aurora is an important lightning rod by which to raise the issue of regulating, outlawing, banning guns from easy access by an American public.  Yet, James Holmes, the young man who was witnessed by many as he shot 71 victims in an Aurora, Colorado cinema, would probably have found a way around the regulations. Described as a “brilliant science student,” by some media reports, he had no prior criminal record, attracted no prior attention from law enforcement officials, whether for speeding tickets or parking tickets.  He’d never had a run-in with college officials at UC Riverside, where he had done his undergraduate work, nor at CU-Denver, where he had formerly been a Ph.D. student in the neuroscience program—at least as far as I’ve heard.

Even if Holmes had been deterred by stiff anti-gun regulation, he might have skirted it by buying guns illegally, or by using some other weapon—explosive or chemical—to carry out his plans. We don’t have enough information yet to know what he intended.  We know that his plan was fairly long in the making, with records of his gun purchases dating back to the end of May 2012.  If he was capable of that kind of foresight, then he could certainly have concocted a home-made version of napalm or other chemical weapons that could have led to widespread destructive damage. In fact, as I write this, Colorado police have succeeded in disarming the booby-traps that Holmes set in his apartment, and have reported that some of them consisted of various chemicals that would explode when mixed. Holmes ordered and received some of his ingredients through the mail as early as four months ago. Clearly, he was capable of long-range planning that could have circumvented gun laws.

Holmes’ actions resembled those of Malik Nadal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 on the Fort Hood U.S. Army Base back in 2010.  Yet, with the exception of an astute piece by Salon’s David Sirota, few have noted that Holmes’ actions were “terrorist” in nature.  As Sirota points out, Holmes is merely described as “a white American male.” That short description, it seems, is sufficient to identify his actions as those of a deranged loner. By contrast, Malik Nadal Hassan, because he was Muslim, was immediately described as a “terrorist” even prior to any evidence.  Ironically, only today, the FBI released a report indicating that FBI personnel “failed” to anticipate Hassan’s actions, even though they had intercepted his emails months before the attack, 20 of which were addressed to Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by the US in September 2011.

Hassan’s emails apparently alternated between political ramblings, including whether it was permissible to kill innocents for a valuable target, and pleadings with al-Awlaki to find him a wife.  In retrospect, it seems, those emails were read as being insufficient to identify Hassan as being a potential terrorist, and thus the report accuses the FBI of mistakes, although in a mealy-mouthed fashion, the same report exculpates all individual members of the FBI. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that even the FBI is unsure of how to define or anticipate a terrorist action.

To read mainstream media on various cases, Holmes’ profile is not appealing enough to be classified as a “terrorist,” although it does seem to fit the general profile of North American mass murderers: such as the Tucson attack on former US Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others (Jared Lee Loughner;, AZ, 2011); Columbine (Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris; Colorado, 1999); Virginia Tech (Seung-Hui Cho, Blacksburg, 2007); Dawson College (Kimveer Gill; Montreal 2006); the École Polytechnique Massacre (Marc Lépine; Montreal 1989) among others:  young, white, partially-white, or Asian, middle- to upper-class North American male.  And yet, the massacres committed by these men, if we eclipsed their names and ethnic origins, are much more extreme acts than those for which many young men have been detained indefinitely or convicted: men like Syed Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Hysen Sherifi, Omar Aly Hassan, Zihad Yaghi.

Holmes may have been geeky, quiet and a “loner.” But many of us, especially those who are writers, artists, intellectuals, scholars, were—or still are–geeky, quiet, and loners.  To identify someone as a loner merely means that we don’t understand his inner life. It doesn’t render that person mentally ill or eligible to be the next mass murderer.  In fact, many gregarious, socially outgoing individuals are capable of directing mass murder as well: just look at Bashir Assad, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi, George W. Bush, and of course, many others in the current Administration. Massacres can be engaged from distances as high up as 12,000 feet or as far away as 12,000 miles.

Did Holmes understand himself as Banes, the evil character in the Batman movie who shoots up the NY Stock Exchange? Perhaps. Is this cause for regulating the violent character of movies?  But aren’t many morality tales in the form of religious literature or movies violent at some level? Easily, I can think of Cain and Abel, the Kauravas and Pandyas in the Mahabharata, James Bond, Lara Croft, The Hunger Games… Aren’t we all moved by ideas at some level? Ideas about safety, security, evil, good, patriotism, terrorism, god, piety, virtue?

What is difficult to analyze is why morality tales induce some to take up arms, or deploy chemical warfare, or stab others. And for me, the question remains as to why certain innocent deaths are mourned not at all, especially when conducted at the behest of the state, and why only certain criminals are called to justice while others are glorified and urged to create more mayhem. I mourn the senseless deaths of those in Aurora, as I mourn the senseless end of the lives of many others—whether by shootings, aerial bombardment, chemical warfare, or indefinite detention. Stronger regulation of guns may be one important aspect of limiting the deaths of random civilians—not only for the general public but for the state as well. But given his adroit skills with chemicals and booby-traps, I suspect that gun regulation would not have stopped James Holmes.  We need to ask more probing questions that reflect some awareness about the larger implications of state violence in the last decade.

James Holmes was 12 years old when 9-11 happened. We don’t know how he understood the events of 9-11, but we can probably guess accurately that if he watched TV, or played electronic games, or read online media sites, then like many others who came of age in the last twelve years, he was intimately familiar with images of state violence on a daily basis.  He was probably also familiar with the roar of approval at the images of bombs, drones, chemical warfare that were deployed against many halfway around the world. What I write here does not exculpate Holmes in any way. I am trying to understand, beyond easy policy prescriptions and outside of immediate charges of “craziness” and sociopathic tendencies, what the world looks like to someone in their early twenties, someone who had no history of violence. I am also trying to understand, beyond corporate media exploitation of massacres and other local violence—exploitation that extracts sorrow and grief even when these expressions of empathy are offered generously—why we can’t mourn others who have been the victims of senseless attacks by our state when we are capable of empathy for many whom we don’t know.  What does a world in which violence is ready-to-hand, a click away, do to our young?

Dylan Rodrigues, the chair of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, gave an insightful talk years ago, when he pointed to the “carceral mentality” of the United States. He was discussing the forceful impulses of imperial powers to incarcerate men in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and pointed to these incarcerations as mirrors of the United States’ impulse to imprison African Americans in the United States. The impulse to incarcerate others “abroad,” was normalized because we had become accustomed to the ubiquity of prisons, and to criminalization and imprisonment as a solution to deal with “others” who make us uncomfortable—I would say—by their presence but also by their questioning of our ethics.

Can we say something similar about the normalization of violence?  Many school shooting sprees and other forms of massacres have occurred in North America alone in the last three decades. The question that seems to be avoided is why so many young middle- and upper-class white and Asian men turn to violence.  What are they thinking? What do they see? Chalking these up to acts of lunacy ignores the systemic character of these acts. The charge of lunacy blithely insists that such acts of violence are singular, occasional deviations from “normalcy.” But what is normalcy in our society, where 1 in 3 Black men can “expect” to go to prison in their lifetimes? When 1 in 5 women have reportedadmitted—that they were raped? When 17,000 people are murdered annually in the US (nearly 66% by firearms)?

Clearly, in terms of policies, gun control is an important element of trying to manage the easy access to deadly weapons. But it must be part of a broader view.  We need frank investigations into the massacre at Aurora—with questions that resist easy policy subscriptions.  We need the courage to face what we might find–that terrorists come in all colors and personalities and may not be detectable through a system of ever-increasing surveillance. We might have to admit that the war on terror is backfiring. We need to step up our criticism of the US Administration, and its role in glorifying violence through the wars that it wages, and facilitating violence in places that we aren’t ready to look: among whites, among non-Muslims, among the privileged. These possibilities, as terrifying as they are, might be more effective places to challenge violence.