This piece originally appeared in The Age
And so it is again. A young man, preposterously armed, strikes down strangers in cold blood. As chillingly distinctive as the Aurora massacre might be, there is nothing distinctive about his nihilism.
It is cheap and murderous, the shabby stuff of solipsists, a currency used by thugs the world over.
And that might be all we can say about James Holmes for now. When an act as violent and publicised as this occurs—and it occurs a lot in America—we attempt to ascribe to the perpetrator qualities as uniquely vile as the crime.
We play amateur psychologists, each one of us an Agent Clarice Starling, assigning the alleged killer preconceived personality traits.
We’re almost always wrong, but we reveal plenty about ourselves in the process.
Recently I have been researching two separate stories: one about bikie gangs and a much longer one about a murder. I’ve learnt a lot. The first is that senselessness is our enemy. In the face of the unanswerable we become smaller, chastened, afraid. We fill the silence with shouts. We don’t have much choice. We are unstoppable meaning-making machines. It’s how we’re wired.
We still aren’t comfortable with Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. We squirm when the heinous and the ordinary are wedded.
To explain Hitler’s crime—almost cosmological in scale—we suggested sexual perversion, some grubby kink in his masculinity. He had just one ball, he lusted for his niece, he was a coprophiliac, he had a freakishly small penis.
As the journalist Ron Rosenbaum wrote: ”It is somehow more comforting to view Hitler as a monstrous pervert in his private life. Then his public crimes can be explained away as arising from a private pathology, from his unnaturalness.” He’s right to censure Freudian analysis at its most puerile, but our search for what is causally significant continues.
As for bikies and mobsters, you have to sift through a lot of refuse—hypocritical reports and profiles that transform organised thugs into mythic creatures, while flagellating them for spitting on the social contract. It’s pantomime.
The wild success of the Underbelly series best illustrates our slobbering, prurient interest in sociopaths. But we subtly exonerate ourselves for our interest when we cheer the fact that Carl Williams has been beaten to death. The twists of our rationalisations could compete on the gymnastics mat in London.
There’s little of interest here. These guys are numbingly ordinary in most ways. What I’ve discovered are cheap cocktails—a dull blend of confused and hyper-inflated masculinity laced with greed, loneliness, rage and hypocrisy. Guys who loathe the addicts of the drugs they supply. Guys who draw a line between themselves and the muggers of old ladies, while shooting men dead before their children.
We’re never mute for long in the face of meaninglessness. We’ll always assert ourselves. We’ll make meaning, even if it doesn’t make sense. But while we’re so desperate for answers, it might be worth thinking if our appetite for cheap and salacious reporting encourages others to make the leap from murderous ideas to reality.
Forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz has his own ideas about what’s causally significant in mass shootings. The media, he says, shouldn’t inject these stories with steroids. Don’t show potential killers the hot buzz of notoriety that can be theirs. ”Don’t have photographs of the killer,” he has said. ”Don’t make this 24/7 coverage … and don’t make the killer some kind of anti-hero.”
Meanwhile, in America, the familiar sequence of massacre, 24/7 coverage, public bereavement and political stalemate plays out. Meanwhile, in America, there are as many guns as people—and far more arms than adults.
In America, the horse may have bolted. Still, a staggeringly sized black market is not a reason to allow the mentally unstable to purchase sub-machineguns.
So well may the bourbon-soaked patriots bellow ”give me liberty or give me death” but if liberty means an unfettered access to AR-15s then you can very easily have both.
We might as well as anything take meaning from the acts of heroism that night—at least three victims died shielding their girlfriends from the bullets, an extraordinary ratio. They rejected nihilism. Their impulses were given shape by others; they were given shape by care and courage.
These are the impulses of creation—they died expressing life.