Like most people, I was horrified by the senseless
shooting (12 dead, 70 injured) at the movie theatre in Aurora,
Colorado. Unlike most people, I had the experience of actually looking
into the mind one of these awful creatures who feels it is his inherent
right to inflict pain and suffering on the innocent.
In June of 2000, I had a young student in a screenwriting class I was
teaching at UCLA Extension. He was 18, and therefore, a bit younger
than the typical Extension students who tend to be in their late 20s or
early 30s. He was also completely oblivious to others in the class,
frequently arriving late and noisily in a manner that seemed to be
deliberately disruptive. During classes he would interrupt me or other
students by blurting out whatever question popped into his head at any
moment, as if it was his right to get an answer then and there. I
admonished him several times about respecting his classmates by first
raising his hand (this is the only rule of class conduct I absolutely
insist on). But he seemed to get the message only when I completely
ignored his questions, reminding him, once again, to raise his
hand, which he then did, albeit reluctantly, as if it was abject
punishment. My student also didn’t work very hard at his writing,
missing many of the classes and turning in less than half of his
homework. As I remember noting in his final assignment, his writing
would have been much further along if he had taken the time to attend
class and had done the assigned homework.
I never gave him another thought, until some seven months later, there
was a news story about how a UC Santa Barbara student had killed four
young people and seriously injured a fifth near the campus where he was
attending college. The Isla Vista Massacre, as it came to be called,
wasn’t committed with a gun, but with this student’s 1991 Saab, which he
drove into his victims at some 50 miles per hour. If there had been a
bigger crowd, I’m sure that the death toll would have been higher. It
was certainly no accident. After committing these horrible murders he
climbed out of his car and shouted out “I am the Angel of Death!”
Thankfully, the crowd that had gathered at the scene subdued him before
“The Angel” could do more harm to others.
When I heard the news, I was shocked, but not completely surprised.
Though I knew him only a little, I felt that there was something wrong,
something twisted in his view of the world. I don’t remember actual
story details from his final project which was a beat sheet (an outline)
for a motion picture screenplay. But I remember that it was about a
young person who felt disrespected and persecuted by those around him.
The movie’s “hero” took revenge (or planned to take revenge, I don’t
remember details) on those who had wronged him. I do remember
commenting in my notes that I thought his hero was not justified in his
actions and needed better motivation. My comments, as they usually are,
were more about technical aspects of his storytelling, rather than
about the morality of his subject matter (I really try not to impose my
moral or political views on my students). But, in retrospect, I was
given a unique glimpse into the mind of a potential murderer. After
all, by reading his writing, I was reading his private thoughts, which
leads me to the question: could I have done something about it?
I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I still wonder about it.
But thinking it through, rationally, I know that there was nothing I
could have done. I didn’t really know him at all, but for his
infrequent attendance, his writings and his outbursts in class. And
other than an obvious anger at society which manifested itself in his
story outline, there was no indication that he might actually express
that anger through mass murder. But there certainly had to be others
around him, closer to him than I, who knew that something wrong was
going on in his head. He was known to other students as "Crazy Dave."
Could they, or someone else, have done something to intervene?
Likewise, could those who knew the Aurora murderer have done something?
Isn’t it worth being a bit nosy or intrusive into some other person’s
life if our intervention might prevent the murder and injury of innocent
people, as well as the toll that takes on those that love them? I
think that, though it may be uncomfortable to do so, we have to ask
those questions of the people we know. As a society, we have to ask
Is there something going on in our culture that is contributing to these
horrible murders? I wrote in a previous essay about a decline in
civility as an outgrowth of current behavioral standards in popular
culture. Mass murder is this issue on steroids. Isn’t it obvious that
there is something in our arts and entertainment that is contributing to
these incidents? Are we really oblivious to the messages we are
sending in our popular music, movies, TV and video games?
The Colorado killer dyed his hair orange and told the police after his
arrest that he was the Joker, characterized in the previous Dark Knight
movie as the agent of chaos and destruction for its own sake. If you
model yourself on such a character, what is the logical outcome? The
Columbine killers dressed in the style of Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in The Matrix movies, and wrote about “going NBK” (a reference to murderers Mickey and Mallory in Oliver Stone’s movie, Natural Born Killers)
before they murdered a dozen innocents in Columbine High School. In
preparing this essay, I remembered one other killing that was inspired
by Natural Born Killers. I was shocked to find that there wasn’t
just one incident of copycat killers who modeled themselves on the
“heroes” of that movie; it now numbered over 13 different incidents of
copycat killers with at least 36 murder
victims. If Oliver Stone had any human decency he
would do all he could to denounce the film and pull it from
distribution. Instead, he makes other hyper violent films like the
recent Savages, and he’s celebrated for it by movie critics.
And it’s not just films; hyper violent video games like Doom, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft
(which are all basically about shooting others) also play a part,
although they are rarely called on it. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian
crazy who murdered 77 people (in a country with very strict gun laws)
stated that he trained for his shooting spree using a holographic device
while playing Call of Duty. He said it helped him gain target acquisition.
Following the movie theatre murders in Aurora, the community of film critics rallied to the defense of The Dark Knight Rises,
and almost universally insisted on a need for stricter regulations on
guns, as if that was the real problem. One film critic who has the
courage to take on the industry is City Arts film critic Armond
White, who put it this way “For years now, we’ve all read movie reviews
that justify a culture of death and destruction. Can we ever recover
from movies’ spiritual decline over the past few decades? Standard
praise for 'dark,' 'wicked,' 'twisted,' 'subversive,' 'transgressive'
dramas or comedies has lowered film culture. Can we continue to pretend
this has no effect? That it doesn’t influence the already deranged? That
legislated gun control answers a spiritual and aesthetic crisis?”
I’m not saying that violent entertainment shouldn’t be made, but it
should, at the very least, be acknowledged as having an influence on our
culture. It should also be looked at critically for its potential
effect on cultural morality, particularly on the most troubled among
us. What kind of message is being sent? Do the bad guys get away with
it? In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory did. So essentially did The Dark Knight’s
Joker, who ended up in prison, presumably awaiting a sequel (which, if
not for Heath Ledger’s death, would likely have already happened). As a
writer, I question the morality of every bit of fiction I write. I
have my own version of the Hippocratic Oath, which begins: first, do no
harm. We worry so much about air and water pollution, but is it worth
making a buck to pour artistic pollution into our culture? I wonder how
many other writers and filmmakers apply such a standard to their work.
It’s so easy for us to criticize junk food for its negative effects on
our physiques, but how much longer can we ignore the effects of junk
entertainment on our brains?
It’s also facile to blame guns, and seek to change our gun laws, just
because a mass murder was committed with guns. My former student
committed mass murder with a car. Timothy McVeigh committed mass murder
with a bomb made of fuel oil and fertilizer. In the end, it’s not
about guns, cars or fertilizer. It’s about us and our values.
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