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Can We Make Sense Out of a Senseless Act?

Dark Knight Massacre Raises Important Questions about Society

It was a dark night at midnight on July 20 when James Eagan Holms shot up a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado killing 12 people and wounding 58 others, with 11 in critical condition. The killer brought four guns — two semi-automatic pistols, an assault-style rifle and a shotgun — to the movie theater and used the emergency exit to retrieve them from his car along with his helmet, body armor and a gas mask. At first he was just a silhouette, taken by some in the audience for a stunt that was part of one of the summer's most highly anticipated films. Shortly thereafter he used gas canisters to create a fog-effect, sprayed the ceiling to terrorize the patrons, and then proceeded on with the massacre. Can we make sense out of this senseless act?

My first reaction is to say what I have believed for several years that we have a sick society. How else can we explain 27 mass killings in the U.S. since 1982 (a mass killing is when 5 or more people are killed). How else can we explain the senseless murders yesterday in Aurora? Or, six dead and 18 others wounded on January 8, 2011, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, at a public meeting held in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Arizona. Or, the Fort Hood shooting that took place on November 5, 2009, when U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 29 others -- the worst shooting ever to take place on an American military base. Or, the April 16, 2007 mass murder at Virginia Tech when Seung-Hui-Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others -- the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history. Or, the Beltway murders that took place during three weeks in October 2002 in Washington, D.C., Martyland, and Virginia. Ten people were killed and three other victims were critically injured in several locations in sniper attacks by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. Or, the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999 when two senior students at Columbine High School in Colorado went on a shooting spree in which 12 students and one teacher were murdered and 21 students were injured.

By definition we can’t make sense out of these senseless, random acts of violence. The only explanation is we have a sick society. Yes, these are isolated incidents. But, violence has become endemic in our society. It is glorified in the movies, on television, and in video games such as ‘The Walking Dead,’ a PlayStation favorite. That video has been rated M for mature audiences and begins with a warning: Blood and Gore and Intense Violence.

Some might tell you murders are down across U.S. cities. I don’t buy it because I have no confidence in the statistics used to make that claim. Regardless, how can we explain that in 2012 through July 19 the Chicago murder rate is up 31 percent from last year, with 289 Chicagoans killed?

Our ethical challenges as a supposedly civil society go deeper. In the Dark Night Massacre two young parents brought their three-month old child to the midnight showing. How can we explain it other than to say we have too many irresponsible parents who place their selfish needs over common sense and the welfare of their child? How can we make sense of the senseless death of two young children this past May in Texas and Missouri after their parents “accidentally” left them all day in hot vehicles.

It says a lot about our culture that when James Eagan Holms entered the Aurora theatre many patrons who saw him in what appeared to be SWAT-type clothing seemed to believe it was part of the movie experience and somehow connected to the performance. Have we become so inundated with images of violence as to be unable to distinguish what is real from what is not real?

We will talk about it, dissect it, analyze how it can happen, and ruminate about the senselessness of the act. Then, time will pass, as it has before, and it will be forgotten except by those directly touched by the tragedy at the Aurora movie complex.

Will the presidential candidates discuss it? Perhaps, but only from the perspective of gun control. Gun control is important but not the answer to senseless violence. The bad guys will always find a way to acquire weapons and do bad things and there are many conscienceless sellers out there who place profit above all else.

I have blogged about it many times before. The first step in reversing the effects of a disease is to recognize that one exists. It won’t happen. We are oblivious as a nation to the fact that we are a sick society. We are told these tragedies are rare. We are told that less than one percent of homicides in this country involve five or more victims. What we aren’t told is that a major cause of the decline of the Roman Empire was a decline of morals and the sadistic cruelty towards both men and beasts in the arena.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 21, 2012