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 another question…
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. 07.28.12