Sorting Through the Posts – Making Sense Out of Violence, Information, and Discussion in the Wake of the “Batman Premiere Shooting”
We’ve been here before.
This afternoon I walked into the living room, feeling the need to take a break from the report I was working on for the past forty five minutes. I walked into the living room to take a quick break. My wife, who was sitting on the couch working on things for the upcoming school year, asked me if I had seen this, her index finger extended toward the television screen. News coverage from CNN was on. I didn’t know what this was in reference to. I asked, “what’s this?” She quickly responded, “there was a shooting at a screening of Batman in Colorado.” I quickly went back into the office, opened up a search window via Google and began to type in Batman, when autofill popped up with Batman Premiere Shooting appearing as the first result. I clicked on it and began to make my way through the list of search results.
I read what local news stations were reporting, I read what national news stations were reporting, I viewed YouTube footage that had been posted almost immediately after James Holmes had opened fire on the crowded audience who had gather to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film.
Noticing the activity that was popping up on Google (as well as any other search engine), I logged into Twitter to see what people were posting there. Needless to say, there was an extensive chain of Tweets under #theatershooting. As I was making my way through the chain of Tweets I noticed that new Tweets continued to flow in at an approximate rate of 20 new Tweets every 35-40 seconds. This continued this was for the next fifteen minutes.
Of course, there is still more pouring in. There is still lots of coverage flooding in on television and web news channels. More and more footage is being uploaded to YouTube. We can see from the Tweets that news organizations are reporting information as updates are being made available, while individual users are posting prayers, well wishes, and consolations to the twelve who died in the theater and the fifty who were injured.
I’ve also been able to find information about James Holmes. I’ve been able to find out when he graduated high school, what high school he attended, and that he was a student in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Colorado-Denver.
I’ve been listening to various police and law enforcement press conferences as the sound from the television in the living room is filtering back to the office. As I stop and think about the piles of information that are flooding before my eyes and ears, I think that the best way to process this is to write about it. I logged onto my WordPress account, opened up this blog and began to type into the text box. My mind jogs back to April 16 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech University killed 32 people and injured 17 people, before turning the gun on himself. I remember it quite vividly, as I was a graduate student at Ohio University at the time. In this case, there was also lots of information about Cho, what happened on the Virginia Tech campus, how police responded, all before the inevitable, burning question of motive was raised. Much was made out of the websites he visited, the movies he watched, the journal entries that he wrote. These things combined help to paint a portrait of an individual who felt trapped and isolated, someone who had no where to turn to in order to express and engage with those thoughts and feelings. This must have been even more frustrating for Cho, who as an English major focused on the process of communication and expression that takes place when you create a piece of writing. In the end he couldn’t be identified as “a lone gun nut,” a familiar phrase that has traditionally been used to try and explain people such as Charles Whitman, Lee Harvey Oswald, David Hinckley, and Mark David Chapman.
A few months later I had graduated from OU, and I was teaching in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, there was still talk about what had happened at Virginia Tech. In the November/December issue of Academe, Richard E. Miller, a friend and colleague at Rutgers, wrote an essay entitled, “The Fear Factor,” that reflected on the Virginia Tech shoothat’s that had occurred approximately six months before. At this point it had become common to ask, is there anything we can do in our classrooms to help students, to make them feel as if they are not so isolated that an eruption of violence is the only option they have in front of them. In response to the question of what, if anything, we as educators can to do try to help produce an atmosphere where reflection, and not violence, is seen as a real possibility for arresting such events in the future, Miller writes:
If we are to offer an alternative to the violent options that are now always just a click away, then we’ve got to foster an equally powerful counter-experience—one that cultivates optimism and resourcefulness and resilience. Confronting the limits of one’s own understanding is a scary business, but this is the task that lies forever before all who are committed to the life of the mind. A tolerance for ambiguity, patience in the face of uncertainty, calm while the earth moves beneath one’s feet: these are the attributes of a mature mind, attributes that can be acquired through introspection and then expressed through action in the world we have, a world always just outside the reach of full understanding.
This is not simply a metaphorical offer that Miller is presenting here. It is a serious offer that lets students know that they are not just going through the motions when they are in our classes. The process of education is not a static tradition, where the student simply receives canonical bits of texts and information for the sake of keeping the tradition of English, or History, or Philosophy alive. Education is not a time capsule where various disciplines and programs store things from the past. Engaging in the process of learning, or more specifically, as Miller identifies in his essay, “confronting the limits of one’s own understanding,” is a necessary component of growing to understand yourself, and understanding what your place in the world could be. To clarify, I am not saying that education is the golden key that will unlock the door to a future that is free of violence. Such an outlook would be foolishly naive. Rather, I am suggesting that an effort be made by teachers, by programs, by universities and colleges, by all schools, to embrace a pedagogy that unambiguously identifies the value in education as a process where students can explore the limits of their understanding, and use that as a means of building up a strong sense of who you are and what your place in the world could be.
As important as this perspective seems to be right now, this doesn’t seem to be the case. There are two things which I’ve noticed while listening to interviews with politicians, public figures, and social commentators – one is the standard party lines fighting for, or against, gun control legislation, and two is the casual use of the term “evil.” What is so unsettling is that these two points seem to be used as a one stop response that is intended to cover all points. This is illustrated perfectly by comments that Newt Gingrich made when he was being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN this afternoon. When asked if the massacre that occurred at the Century 16 movie theater signaled the need for reconsidering the current state of gun control laws, Gingrich confidently replied that it wouldn’t have made a difference. The reason for this was presented in painfully simple terms – according to Gingrich, this was an evil act that needs swift retribution. Stricter gun laws, or new federal gun registration wouldn’t be an appropriate response. Instead, Gingrich advised that harsher sentences be distributed, sending an unequivocal message that evil, criminal activities will not be tolerated. Gingrich’s response seems to have an inherent common sense appeal. Such an act is unimaginable. I cannot begin to fathom what was in this man’s mind as he went out to his car, suited up, and returned to the theater auditorium. However, this seems to be incredibly problematic to me. That is not because I fail to see how these actions could be identified as horrifying, unconscionable, or devastating. Obviously, this is a tragedy that anyone would find to be both frustrating and heartbreaking. It is something that we would not expect to hear reported on the news, or read on a news crawl on a website. Yet, it is only a year and a half since the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona. five years since the shootings at Virginia Tech, and thirteen years since the massacre at Columbine High School. What that would seem to indicate is that this is not an isolated incident. This is certainly an uncomfortable feeling to confront. It requires us to acknowledge that this is not something that can be shuffled out of our collective memory. What is necessary now is to be willing to confront what we don’t know. We need to take the things that we do know, the violence, the grief, the anger, and be prepared to ask what is behind an eruption of violence such as this. We cannot afford to dismiss this as simply being an evil act of an evil person. It is crucial that we move beyond the flood of information that we find through various media outlets. This is the time for us to confront the aspects about our world and ourselves that we are uncomfortable in acknowledging. We’ve been here before. Now is the time for an honest exploration of our country, our culture, our communities, and ultimately, ourselves.