The single most depressing thing about the shootings in Aurora is that we’ve seen all this before. Whether it’s Columbine, or Virginia Tech, or the attack on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona, the progress of mass death in modern America has a tendency to follow the same basic script: an unhinged person gains easy access to firearms and the consequences are devastating.
By now, there’s a pattern – both to the events themselves, and to the way they are reported in the media – that illustrates, sadly, how little seems to be learned from one to the next. Here are some things to watch for as the story unfolds over the coming hours and days and weeks:
1. Almost everything reported in the immediate aftermath of the incident turns out to be distorted or wrong
After Columbine, everything we thought we knew in the first few days, from the number of shooters, to their motivation, to their affiliations at school, was based on overhasty information-gathering – some instances the fault of the media, and others the fault of the inexperienced local police.
The 24-hour news stations have an insatiable appetite on a story like this, and fact-checking goes out the window. Watch out for armchair psychologists, profilers and detectives who know nothing and can only speculate – often wildly.
2. Everyone wants to use incidents like these to promote their own agenda
It took the rightwing blogosphere crazies two minutes to blame the shootings on Middle Easterners, or see some dark political plot by President Obama to bolster his re-election campaign.
We can expect people to blame Hollywood, as they did after Columbine, and perhaps even the filmmakers of The Dark Knight Rises (whose villain, after all, wears a mask, just as James Holmes, the man named as the suspect shooter, appears to have done). Back in 1972, Stanley Kubrick himself withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in Britain because of a string of copycat attacks. In the US, in 2012, expect the filmmakers to adopt a strictly defensive posture.
3. These incidents tend to occur to predominantly white, suburban communities previously thought of as all-American, safe and friendly
Columbine was a classic example of this. But so were the shootings in a school in West Paducah, Kentucky (1997), and at a Baptist church on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas (1999).
4. Because of saturation media coverage, one mass shooting tends to trigger another
The criminal profiler Park Dietz has studied this, and shown that one attack tends to spawn another (usually less serious) within two weeks. There are a lot of unstable people out there with guns, and the power of suggestion is considerable.
5. Whatever people say about guns, or gun control, in the wake of these horrific episodes, little or nothing ever changes
It will be interesting to see if Aurora is an exception to this rule. The controversy over “stand your ground” laws in many states, and the related shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida earlier this year, have generated the first serious conversation about gun control in years. The scandal over the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms’ “Fast and Furious” gun-monitoring operation on the Mexican border has had a similar effect.
In the past, though, mass shootings have led to token reform of gun laws, at best. And, in some instances, it has led to even laxer regulation – the thinking being that the more citizens are armed, the faster they can stop a killer by putting a bullet in his brain. However, after the Trayvon Martin case, which involved a Neighborhood Watch operation run amok, this argument may be harder to make.
6. Everyone talks about healing, but the healing can’t start until the media leaves town
Victims and their friends and families are inclined to talk to the media in the first flush of shock after the shootings, but they are barely in control of their emotions and the experience sometimes serves to traumatize them still further. Psychologists and veterans of school shootings say mourning has to occur in privacy, not on national television.
After a student killed two classmates and himself in Springfield, Oregon in 1998, the school principal banned the media from his campus, and never let them back in. It will be a while before the dead of Aurora can truly rest in peace.