Fitting the 'mass murderer stereotype'

In the early hours of Friday 20 July, 10 minutes into a midnight screening of the new Batman sequel The Dark Knight Rises, a gunman entered into a Colorado movie theatre and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58. Shortly after his rampage, James Holmes calmly and freely gave himself up to the authorities. Within hours of the attack, rumours and theories were soon being thrown around the media, as the public became enticed in a continuing battle about what exactly led James Holmes to commit such an atrocious crime.

It wasn’t long before the public were hearing apparent details of Holmes’ life, which he supposedly lived in isolation. In light of further revelations, a ‘mass-murderer profile’ began to emerge of Holmes, who, like many other similar perpetrators, seemed to have suffered from an accumulation of issues that inevitably pushed him over the edge, leading him to murder. An exhaustive list of revelations of apparent truths about the criminal included; that Holmes was struggling with his PhD university course; that he was a member of the Tea Party; but that he was also a member of the ‘Occupy’ movement; that he was fixated with violent video games and movies; that he had recently suffered relationship problems; and that he was a frequent marijuana smoker but was also hooked on prescription drugs.

Since the story first emerged last Friday, bloggers, journalists, and even psychiatrists have attempted to dissect every strand of information possible in order to try and determine Holmes’ exact state of mind in the moments during and leading up to the incident. James Holmes is said to have calmly told police shortly after the incident that he had taken 100mg of the narcotic prescription painkiller, Vicodin, which is reported to cause euphoria, paranoia and, in rare cases, hallucinations. ‘Coincidently’ (or more than coincidental, for many conspiracists) this was the same drug found in the system of Heath Ledger, the actor who played the Joker in the previous Batman film ‘The Dark Knight’, when he died from an accidental overdose in 2008. However, according to a 2010 survey completed by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), it emerged that 44% of Americans regularly took at least one prescription drug. Vicodin is taken by thousands of people every day, the large majority of whom do so without becoming violent.

Yet, in what many see as an explanation of the crime, what really emerged in the days following the attack was yet another example of the public blame game. Holmes’ mass murderer profile fitted the ‘stereotype’ – a ‘drug-taking-violent-right-wing-left-wing-loony-recluse’, and the attack was quickly dismissed as being a result of drugs.

But can the blame really be pinpointed directly to any of these mental issues of the individual? Or should the incident be treated more as a social issue? If people really want to find ‘reason’ behind Holmes’ actions, the problem may go deeper than James Holmes and his state of mind.

Everyone knows that all drugs, legal or illegal, carry risks of bad reactions. But in this particular case, Holmes taking Vicodin does not explain his elaborate plans, apparently made months before the attack. Intent lies behind his actions, and whether that derived from a mental illness or from mere irrational thinking, is something that will be greatly explored and debated in the coming weeks. Despite sometimes causing temporarily disillusion for some users, using the simple excuse of ‘being high on drugs’ does nothing to explain complex and irrational human behaviour, hence it is wrong that drug use and other scapegoats have been identified as the direct causes. The attack was clearly the product of a very intelligent, albeit ill, mind, and was facilitated because Holmes was able to easily acquire and use assault weapons.

It seems that in tragic situations, most people like to blame bizarre human behaviour on a quick and plausible scapegoat in order to provide some kind of ‘explanation’, as they struggle to understand motives behind such atrocities. However, while it's tempting to search for something someone could have done, a sign someone could have read, a way a concerned and alert citizen could have intervened and prevented the massacre, all of the clichéd media narratives in the world can't ultimately make sense of the senseless.

We see this issue arise in the majority of all violent incidents in society, most recently seen in the 'Miami Cannibal' case and his alleged use of bath salts. Drugs are often the most common scapegoat, a reason why the idea fast transpired to become Holmes’ key motive behind his attack, something which the media have very quickly latched onto. M E Synon wrote an article in the Daily Mail earlier in the week, who said (in an attempt to defend America’s private gun laws): “the origins of such slaughters go beyond private gun ownership”, before going on to say: “there are almost always drugs involved in such killings.” Drug use can easily be etched into tragic crimes, like this, as being the primary catalyst, despite little scientific evidence to prove that drugs cause violence and murder more than a gun does.

It is a human’s natural psychological response to tragedy to attempt to make sense of something that seems, for the large majority of us, truly unfathomable. Attempting to ‘rationalise’ the actions of such events does not make it any more understandable.

In retaliation to many of these arguments, others have argued that Holmes killed because of an American’s easy accessibility to guns. However, spree killings happen in many cultures and have happened throughout history, but just how many people commit a spree killing is determined by what weapons they can get. Again, guns themselves do not cause massacres as such, but easy access to weaponry does cause a higher death rate.

So what really made James Holmes murder 12 people and attempt to murder another 58? In all likelihood, only himself and only the choices he made. People are not machines, and cannot be deciphered like them. Ultimately, what happened in Aurora was an act of randomness, facilitated by deadly weapons and liberal gun laws. Trying to pinpoint the motive to an exact reason is an inadequate and pitiful excuse for certain acts of human behaviour that we sometimes just cannot understand.