There are still many questions unanswered about how Holmes, now 24, went from the “quiet teen” in California to an alleged mass killer in Aurora, Colo. But just hours after the massacre, a clearer portrait was emerging of his life leading up to it. . . .
Almost every major political leader in the U.S., including President Obama, offered their condolences by the end of the day. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, however, offered a cold assessment of the gunman that had torn apart his state.
“This is the act apparently of a very deranged mind,” Hickenlooper said. “We will come back stronger than ever, although obviously it will be a very, a very hard process.”
Read together, the assessment of Holmes, one that presents him as a “normal” and “all-American kid” (his family even traces back to the Mayflower) — one who is now accused of a heinous and unthinkable crime — requires explanation.
The coverage seems to imply that until recently, Holmes was living the American Dream. In seeking to explain why he became a deranged killer, the focus of the media has been to search for answers as to “why” he would do such a thing. Speculating how something must have changed in recent months (citing his decision to drop out of school), Holmes has been imagined as essentially “good.” From criminal profilers citing a potential “detachment disorder” and possible mental illness, to Congressman blaming the massacre on supposed “attacks” on Judeo-Christianity; and others questioning the impact of popular culture, there has been a consistent effort to provide an explanation for why someone like James Holmes could have committed such a savage act.
Why? Why do we seek to “blame” something other than Mr. Holmes (along with a society that regulates cars with greater oversight than guns)? Why so much effort to create a narrative of a “good kid” who committed an unthinkable barbarous act? Americans like to think of this kind of violence as an anathema to who we are as a country and as a culture (despite statistics that suggest otherwise), and are reluctant to think that someone like James Holmes — an “all American kid” — could be a mass murder, a monster living in our midst.
As I argued in “The Privilege to Murder?” — my inaugural essay about the Aurora massacre:
Whereas black or brown and “criminal” are interchangeable in the public’s mind; and “Muslim” and “terrorist” are deemed inseparable, an “all American kid” accused of shooting into a crowded movie theater, who allegedly killed 12 and wounded 58 more; who purportedly bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and planted bombs at his booby-trapped apartment, necessitates explanation.
According to Riché Richardson, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University, “It is so unsettling that the word “terrorist” continues to be associated by implication with who is perceived as ‘foreign.’ Words like ‘gunman’ obscure the larger implications of mass shootings. This kind of violence functions as a form of domestic terrorism.”
In reality, this kind of violence is in many ways a part of our violent history and culture, and we have to start recognizing that there is no “typical” face of violence — it is not the black kid killing people in gang shootings, the Mexican cartel member, or the “Muslim terrorist.” It can be, and often is, the (white, suburban) kid next door.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness was just published by SUNY Press in May of 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard