Op Ed

Aurora, Colorado and How We React to Tragedies in the News

By now you’ve probably all heard about the Aurora, Colorado, shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. As I’m writing this, 12 people have died and another 58 are wounded, and I fervently hope that number hasn’t changed overnight. There are many ways to react in the face of such tragedy, but time after time you can count on certain tropes that range from merely missing the point to outright hateful.

Racism/Islamophobia. One of the first issues the media felt they had to address was whether or not the shooter had ties to Islamic terrorism. Did anyone really think that overseas terrorists were going to target, of all things, a Batman movie in a fairly ordinary city in Colorado? It’s not exactly a high value target on the international scale, but mentioning it feeds into the notion that Muslims are our most dangerous enemy. Once we got that stunning revelation out of the way, the reports were remarkably silent as to the racial identity of the shooter. When crime suspects aren’t white, the news usually mentions their race fairly prominently, but when the suspect is white, his or her photo speaks for itself.

Victim blaming. Among the audience members at the theater were several children; 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan was killed, a 3-month-old baby was shot but survived, and many others escaped with their families. Take a look at the comments on any story about this and there’s a chorus of comments along these lines:

facebook screencap, identities obscured. Comment 1: Why would you bring a baby and a young child to that movie? They probably shouldn't have been there in the first place. Comment 2: ^^^ This. And it was a midnight showing... Ending at almost 3am. I imagine these parents will not be nominated for parents of the year anytime soon.
From Facebook. One of many examples.

The people making this sort of statement usually fall into two camps. To the people who just really hate kids interrupting their movies, this is not the time to go airing those grievances. Other commenters are parents trying desperately to believe that nothing like this would happen to them because they would never take their kid out so late. Sadly, horrible things happen every day and making the parents feel worse for trying to do something fun with their kids is just cruel; they feel guilty enough already. Whether or not The Dark Knight Rises is appropriate for young children or whether kids should be up that late period is entirely irrelevant to the shooting. Blaming the parents for putting their kids in danger is completely ludicrous because no one expects the movie theater to be dangerous, not even the people without kids. James Eagan Holmes is the only person to blame in this situation.

Another set of victim-blamers question why no one fought back. Mike Adams of Natural wrote

Again, I’m not blaming the people there, I’m just bewildered that nobody fought back. It doesn’t make sense. Unless, of course, the very fabric of American culture is now so passive and afraid that people have forgotten how to take action in the face of fear.

The article is filled with that sort of mean-spirited blustering and worse, and I really recommend against reading it. I have zero patience for anyone saying that people are cowards for trying to get away from a damn assault rifle. Even if people wanted to tackle him, it’s not exactly easy to get through movie theater aisles in the best of conditions, much less in that sort of chaos.

We need more guns! After every mass shooting in this country, there are people who insist that the situation would have ended so much better if only people in the line of fire had been carrying guns. Some people go so far as to turn this into a single-issue political career, as in the case of Luby’s shooting survivor and former Texas State Representative Suzanna Gratia Hupp. In the Aurora shooting the introduction of more guns almost certainly wouldn’t have helped and would very likely have resulted in more casualties. The theater was dark and filled with smoke from the grenades Holmes had set off, people were running in all directions which lessened the likelihood of anyone getting a clear shot, and he was dressed in body armor that would have protected him even if anyone had managed to fire at him. More guns create more chaos, because how are the police (much less other observers) supposed to know whether all of the shooters are co-conspirators or merely trying to help? One of the men who disarmed Gabrielle Gifford’s shooter was very nearly shot himself by someone who ran across the parking lot to help and saw him holding the gun he had helped take away from Jared Lee Loughner; in 2009 an off-duty cop with his gun drawn was killed by fellow officers in Harlem while pursuing someone he’d caught breaking into his car. The presence of more guns doesn’t necessarily equate a better outcome, and there are way too many things that can go wrong to make any sort of blanket statement like this.

This is just a setup to take away my guns! In the wake of any shooting tragedy there are calls to finally do something about the huge number of guns on our streets, and this inevitably leads to hysteria that the government is going to start marching into people’s homes and taking away all of their guns. Just, no. The assault weapons ban passed by Clinton ended the sale of the sort of  high-capacity clip that Holmes used in his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, but the ban expired in 2004 and manufacturers were quick to reintroduce all the weaponry that suddenly became legal again. If the legislature can’t even be bothered to renew sensible legislation like the Brady Bill, what makes people think that all of a sudden they’re going to decide to take away all the guns? The NRA alone spent $2.9 million lobbying Congress last year, along with huge donations to political campaigns (88% of which have gone to Republicans during this election cycle). Yes, there’s always a public outcry for better laws in the wake of these tragedies, but that’s only because nothing happened every other time a mass shooting happened. The guns aren’t going anywhere. Even worse are the conspiracy theorists who think the government planned the attack to further its supposed agenda. There’s so much wrong with the following picture that I can’t even wrap my head around it.

Still shot of Batman with the following text superimposed "Batman massacre was a staged psy-op. Shooter kicks in steel reinforced exit door of movie theater; impossible: doors only open inward. Shooter, dressed as Bain, the movie's villain, dressed head-to-toe in body armor and wearing a gas mask, tosses in a few canisters of tear gas; citizens cannot buy canisters of tear gas. Initial reports of shooter having one or more accomplices; now changed to "lone gunman." 71 people are hit - even assuming 100% accuracy, one man would have to change weapons and/or switch magazines several times to achieve this. Incident happened in Aurora, Colorado - a suburb of Denver which has the strictest "gun control" laws in the entire state; movie theater was apparently a "gun free zone." Incident happens just as govt is trying to pass UN gun ban???"
Fuck this fuckery

Ableism and armchair diagnoses. As of Sunday afternoon when I’m writing this, the police in Aurora haven’t released any information about Holmes’s motives or mental health, but that hasn’t stopped speculations. Countless articles wonder if he was depressed or even struggling with his sexuality; “experts” who have never met Holmes suggest that he’s a paranoid schizophrenic; columnists wring their hands about the failure to treat the mentally ill. And as usual, you’d best gird your loins before wading into any internet comments on the topic. But we don’t yet know if he’s mentally ill or if so what his diagnosis might be, and speculations of this sort further stigmatize conditions over which people have no control. The vast majority of mentally ill people will never have any sort of violent outburst, and it does them a disservice to arbitrarily assign illnesses to a killer with no evidence to back up the allegation. Do we need better support for people struggling with mental illness? Of course, but for right now that has no place in this discussion.

Gaffes. In the rush for the news networks to be the first to bring breaking news, sometimes they really put their foot in it. It’s understandable that in the chaos following such events there are bound to be mistakes in the details, such as the initial reports of 14 dead being revised to 12. But we do expect some degree of accuracy on facts that are easy to confirm. ABC had to issue an apology after claiming on air that James Eagan Holmes was a member of the Colorado Tea Party Patriots; in fact it was 52-year-old Jim Holmes, no relation. Other people unfortunate enough to share a similar name have been harassed on Facebook. And maybe the most horrifyingly insensitive gaffe came in the form of the following tweet:

Tweet from Celeb Boutique reading "#Aurora is trending; clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress. ;) Shop (partial url)"
Oh. Hell. No.

The tweet was deleted several hours later and the company issued several apologies, claiming that they never actually looked to see why Aurora was trending and blaming a PR team outside the U.S.

The Blame Game. And of course, no tragedy in America would be complete without looking for completely absurd things to blame it on. There are claims that the fault lies in the violence of the movie itself, or that old canard, video games. Texas Representative Louis Gohmert says it’s due to “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs.” Pastor Rick Warren blames evolution in a tweet reading: “When students are taught they are no different than animals, they act like it.” And lest we think that only conservatives can draw wild conclusions about motives, here’s a list of tweets blaming Rush Limbaugh for connecting the villain Bane to Bain Capital. The mind, it boggles.

With all these distractions flying about, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters: the people who were killed, injured, or simply terrified due to the inexplicable actions of James Eagan Holmes, and the families of those affected. The 12 people who have died thus far are:

  • Jonathan Blunt
  • A.J. Boik
  • Jesse Childress
  • Gordon Cowden
  • Jessica Ghawi
  • John Larimer
  • Micayla Medek
  • Matt McQuinn
  • Veronica Moser-Sullivan
  • Alex Sullivan
  • Alex Teves
  • Rebecca Wingo

May they rest in peace.

By [E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

13 replies on “Aurora, Colorado and How We React to Tragedies in the News”

Thank you for some well-spoken sanity on the coverage of this event.  I agree that many of these topics are worthwhile conversations at a later time.  But much of these conversations and errors were being make before the victims were even removed from the theater.  This time could have been much better spent discussing ways to support the victims, their families and supporting the community in the difficult day that are surely to come for them.   I do appreciate hearing reports of the many acts of heroism that occurred in those terrible minutes of terror because it reminds us that the everyday average person faced with  an extraordinary situation acts with amazing focus, intuition, and utter selflessness in the chaos.  Those are the people that deserve more media attention then the  creepy killer.

Re: armchair diagnosis/ableism: Not to mention Joe Scarborough Trying to say the Killer is Autistic despite no evidence to the fact. UGH.

ASAN Press release demanding retraction Petition Demanding a Retraction
Coverage of an Award winning (and recently come out as Autistic) Journalist demanding retraction (Note, this is covered on Mediaite which has some foul language)

Open Letter by an Autistic Woman Blogger To the Media about what the impacts of the Arm-chair Dx and Ableism have on people with disabilities, and cites how high a rate we are victims. Both those of us with Mental Health Disabilities and those of us with Developmental Disabilities (Like an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis) are at a higher chance of being victims of violent crime, including abuse.



I’m going to go ahead and agree with Heather Spohr on this:

I’m not saying that a discussion about the appropriateness of children at movie theaters should never be had. It is a valid conversation topic, and one I know people will be very passionate about. However, I thought it was in poor taste to discuss it online that day while the bodies of the deceased were still literally laying in the theater. Talking about it that day was, by virtue of the timing, shifting some blame onto the victims. Someone compared it to asking why the rape victim was in the bar full of drunk men.


I really feel for the parents who brought their kids to the theater that night, especially the mother of the six-year-old girl. She is going to blame herself forever. She doesn’t need to hear it from anyone else.

Do yourself a favour and stay away from, it’s a cesspit of wack conspiracy theories. I also saw some ‘commentator’ hypothesising that because Holmes was a loner, he must have been autistic, and his parents clearly didn’t raise him right. HULK SMASH.

While I agree it would have been crass to start talking about US gun law in the immediate aftermath, I do think this gives people a chance to debate it RATIONALLY), given the election year. From what this non-US observer can see, it’s bizarre and dangerous; every few years someone does something like this – never mind the day-to-day gun violence – and nothing is changed to prevent it happening again.

Agreed re: Heather Spohr; she really hits the nail on the head. I usually don’t read natural news but the article came up in one of my searches and I made the mistake of reading it. I literally had to close the computer and go to bed; there was a lot of bullshit I had to wade through writing this and that was the last fucking straw. I would love to see a rational debate, because there are so many things that could be done to make gun ownership safer and keep people bent on destruction from getting their hands on this sort of arsenal but wouldn’t infringe on everyone else, but it’s a battle of extremes and no one will budge an inch.

Ok, so. Not that dissecting that giant ball of crazy that is that crapdate conspiracy theory is something that needs doing, but re: the issue of the number injured vs bullets used. He had two Glocks. A factory magazine holds 17 bullets. There is a Glock clip that holds 31 bullets. AR-15’s typically hold 30 but can hold more. So even with minimum loading (and the shooter is said to have larger magazines than normal) we are looking at 64 bullets, plus whatever shells were in the shotgun. In a crowd a bullet can go through more than one person. 71 is not at all an unreasonable number. Bah.

I cannot for the life of me figure out the point in letting civilians own a AR-15 (which, lets be clear here, is a M-16 that is not full auto). And I enjoy target shooting. We can tighten up gun laws without loosing any real freedom to own guns.

At the same time too, I wanna say, can we just wait a week to have this discussion? Can we let people grieve a little before we make this the next political ground?

Holmes had clips for the AR-15 that held 100 damn bullets that can fire in about a minute. He didn’t even have to reload or grab another gun to do substantial damage. And emergency doors swing outward so that people don’t get crushed up against them a la the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. He didn’t have tear gas, he had smoke bombs (and about 10 seconds on google will find you sites that sell both, whether they’re supposed to or not). Initial reports are always hazy. I’m pretty sure Denver has pretty lax gun laws comparatively, and clearly he violated the “gun free zone” so I don’t even know what that was supposed to mean. And bizarrely, we’re less likely to go anywhere with the UN arms ban after this because people will go apeshit that the situation is being exploited for political gain.

Nice try, asshole.

Well, the AR-15 is a semi-automatic weapon, which sounds impressive, but it just means that it automatically loads a round and ejects a casing so it can fire exactly as fast as someone can pull the trigger. If you don’t fuck around with aim, that can be pretty fast, but when I see people pointing to how fast the gun can be unloaded, I get the impression they think there is some sort of automatic firing going on and there isn’t.

Still guns of that power and clips of that size aren’t really things you need in your life unless you are fighting a war. And I’m kinda against private citizens arming themselves for war.

Same thought here, Opifex.  It’s very disturbing that seemingly anyone can get their hands on weapons like those described above, let alone so many.  Yes, you do have a right to carry and bear a weapon, but the government does have a say in how much responsibility you have to bear if you choose to exercise that right.

This is an amazing piece, Hillary. So many thoughts and just, oh goodness. It was strange hearing the news, because with it happening so late at night in the US, we heard pretty quickly here in the UK.

Have to admit, initial thoughts are on gun control. It’s just mind-boggling the way weapons are a part of US culture. We watched Bowling For Columbine just a few weeks back and I felt quite ill watching it. For some to think the shootings are a conspiracy seems to exacerbate the feeling that there are some in the US with an arrogance (for want of a much, much better word) that can only (and does) end badly. I don’t know. I just find it bizarre.

Also? On the mental health points, a person who is mentally ill is more likely to be a victim of violence than to be the one who’s violent. And if the shooter is mentally ill, so damn what? Schizophrenia isn’t a member of the NRA. Out of interest, there was a case here some time ago about a man with Paranoid Schizophrenia who had murdered two people and – one of the few occasions of thanks to the Daily Mail – it was mentioned how his family had been crying out for help. In the case of diminished responsibility, it’s time to start looking at how that situation was able to arise. Care can’t be perfect, it can’t prevent every tragedy, but a society needs to take responsibility  for those who aren’t able to do so for themselves. It does though, if not handled properly, feed into the stigma of mental illness.

The victim blaming is simply awful. Sure, there’s a whole discussion to be had about parenting, but the parents are not responsible for someone else attempting to harm and kill their children.

In short: great article.

Thanks; I’m glad you enjoyed it. I know plenty of responsible gun owners, but it infuriates me that as a group they’re unwilling to allow the most basic restrictions that would make this sort of incident much easier to prevent. And the victim blaming and wild speculations about mental health annoy the shit out of me.

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