By GENE HOWINGTON
There are patterns in the world and this is illustrative of one of them. There is a tragedy, some horrid even where a lot of people have died senseless deaths and often for doing nothing more egregious than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The media grabs the story. There is sensation reporting. There are third-parties who use the coverage to promote their own pet causes. In the end, when the coverage fades and the cameras turn to the next “big thing”, you are left with the essence you started with: tragedy. Somewhere, somebody is missing someone taken from their lives by violence or accident. The public memory fades, but the private pain lingers on longer.
Take for example the coverage concerning the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. If you possess even a minimal level of empathy for your fellow human beings, twelve dead and fifty-eight wounded when their only crime was wanting to see a movie can only be properly described as tragic. Among the dead are a man who had been celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday (Alex Sullivan), a member of our Navy (Petty Officer Third Class John Larimer), a twenty-four year old aspiring sports journalist (Jessica Ghawi), and a six year-old girl (Veronica Moser Sullivan).
As the aftermath unfolded, people with various political agendas trying to monopolize on this shooting to promote their pet causes came forward, some in a most heinous manner. During a radio interview on The Heritage Foundation’s “Istook Live!” show, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said that the shootings were a result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs” . . . and questioned why nobody else in the theater had a gun to take down the shooter. Gohmert in one fell swoop illustrated that not only is he a base political opportunist, but that he apparently doesn’t understand the 1st or 2nd Amendments very well – a common affliction among Texas pols. Others pols used this tragedy as a way to promote their anti-gun agendas, their pro-gun agendas and the Twitter-verse filled with statements from “our leaders” about this tragic event and all of them in some way self-serving. And what are we left with now that the media has moved on to fresher “product”? Somewhere, somebody is still missing someone taken from their lives. The private pain lingers. After the media heat, the cost is still the same for those touched personally. The facts are important. The human cost is important. The memory is important. The media and political spectacle? Not really. Putting aside the hangers on and the sensationalism, what underlies these kind of senseless acts of violence? Madness, certainly. Even madness has root causations even if it doesn’t always posses logic.
The accused gunman at Aurora had dyed his hair red and told the police he “was the Joker”. The gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary had a fixation with violent video games. A young Missouri teen who killed one of her young friends did so because she “wanted to see what it felt like”. A detachment from reality is often present in dealing with violent psychopaths and sociopaths. However, violence is a part of our entertainment culture and it has been since the first stories were made up and retold around a fire on the African veldt. There is the fantasy of violence. There is the reality of violence. They could not be more different in outcome. This kinds of episodes this where the line between fantasy and reality have clearly been crossed in some meaningful manner causes one to question how does the fictional impact the real. Does this problem distinguishing between fantasy and reality exist in the individual or in society itself? The answer might be “a little of both”.
Consider this: one of the elements of drama is that the hero (or something or someone the hero holds dear) must be in peril. It creates tension, it moves the story. You cannot have drama without an element of danger or risk and very often that danger or risk is portrayed in the form of physical violence. As a species, we are wired to find this entertaining. There is nothing wrong with a bit of wish fulfillment in seeing the hero overcome adversity as entertaining.
The reality is starkly different. Witness real heroes like Jon Blunk who was killed defending his girlfriend Jansen Young during this rampage. Witness Jarell Brooks, a 19-year-old from Aurora, who put himself at risk to help Patricia Legarreta and her two young children escape, but not before he and Legarreta were wounded. Witness Eric Hunter, a 23-year-old from Aurora, who found two wounded girls and dragged them to safety in an adjoining theater before blocking the door to Theater 8 and preventing the alleged gunman from spreading his gunfire in to a new room of innocent theater goers.
All three possible outcomes. Death, wounding, escape from physical harm. All three equally heroic in that other lives were saved, some of them strangers with nothing in common but a love of the same kind of cinema and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a funny thing about heroism though. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” In real life, the tragedies and the heroics are real and have real consequences. The hero does not always win the day as they are prone to do in fiction.
Does our propensity for dramatic entertainment, let alone dramas involving violence, feed a propensity for violence? This is a question as old as drama itself. On one side of the argument is the catharsis argument put forth by Aristotle in Poetics; that in viewing tragic events, the audience’s negative feelings like fear and pity are purged. This line of reasoning was later supported by psychologists and psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud and A.A. Brill. On the other side are modern researchers who have found correlations between watching violence and the rate of violence in society, but causal connections between the two in the general population have been difficult to pin down. What is clear is that “exposure to media violence does not produce violent criminals out of all viewers, just as cigarette smoking does not produce lung cancer victims out of all smokers. This lack of perfect correspondence between heavy media violence exposure and violent behavior simply means that media violence exposure is not a necessary and sufficient cause of violence.” (“Media Violence and the American Public” by Brad J. Bushman and Craig A. Anderson, Iowa State University, American Psychologist, June/July issue, p. 482, 2001.) That a small segment of society seems particularly susceptible to being prodded in to violence through the consumption of media violence though seems undeniable. To me, this seems to comport with the rate in society of people with mental problems revolving around empathy like sociopaths and psychopaths. People who lack empathy would naturally not connect the actuality of violence with the fantasy of violence as they don’t care about the impact of their actions on others to begin with. Correlation is not causation and the root causes of violence are more complex than just a person’s entertainment choices. There are also environmental, social, economic, and personal history to consider. Some people in certain situations are simply going to be more prone to violence. While causation in the general population has been found in desensitization toward violence and violent entertainment, causation of real life violence with fictional violence has been more elusive although desensitization in itself has been can “[increase] aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviors, and decreases helpful behaviors.”
As a society, do we have a duty to mitigate all factors that can induce violent behavior in individuals? Even if that susceptible segment of society is a very small percentage of society? With complex compound causation, this is a practically impossible task, and even if “perfect mitigation” of contributing factors was had there are a certain percentage of society that are going to be violent psychopaths no matter what their environment is like. Where to do we draw the line a social inputs that can encourage violence and personal responsibility for individual action? Consider this as well: do we have the same duty to mitigate when the violence perpetrated by sociopaths and psychopaths is economic (as in the banking industry shenanigans that birthed the OWS movement), is purely psychological (as seen in pathologically verbally abusive spouses) or is purely political (as in the religious far right attempting to trample history and the Constitution to institute theocratic laws if not outright theocracy)?
Perfection is not possible. Evil cannot be eliminated or mitigated in the world for without it we have no definition of good. The perfect removal of error from complex systems is a mathematical impossibility. Does that mean we should not try?
What do you think?