Written by Roxanne Bauer, Editor-in-Chief
On July 20, 2012 Jesse Holmes entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, releasing tear gas and shooting into the audience. He killed 12 people and injured 58 others. The shooting spree was planned and Holmes’ apartment contained trip-wires attached to grenades and 10 gallons of gasoline.
While the incident became an immediate news story and occupied the minds of many Americans, it was also newsworthy and caused emotional reactions around the world.
I am currently participating in an Urdu language course this summer in Lucknow, India. After the news of the shooting reached India, conversations naturally moved toward the terrible tragedy.
At the language institute, one of my instructors asked me, “how such a thing can be possible? The shooter is from a nice neighborhood and had no reason for killing someone else. I, myself, live in a terrible place but would never think of doing that.” This was an uncomfortable question. She was right. My only response was that no one really knew why Holmes decided to enter the cinema and kill innocent strangers. A cultural shift had taken place in the US that emboldened some people to engage in violent activity. Although, no one really knows how this shift happened or what has changed.Americans are also largely unaware of how privileged they are, and this may contribute to their emotional behavior and Nietzsche-like approach to life.
One south-Asian student with whom I discussed the matter said that, “terrorists are bad no matter where they are. No matter what his [Holmes] reasons, he resorted to a terrorism act.” I did agree with this student, and then considered the probability that Holmes might be labeled as a terrorist. It seems that the American mass media will most likely not call Holmes a terrorist, but instead will label him as a sociopath or a radical. The use of the word “terrorist” is so political and carries with it so many connotations and images that using the word in reference to Holmes might seem erroneous despite the fact that he fits the definition for one.
The way in which Holmes is labeled also immediately brought to mind the varied and separate ways the US deals with domestic criminals and homegrown terrorists and the ways it deals with international terrorists. Clearly, there are legal and rhetorical disparities between the two categories that do not seem fair.
The question bothered me, and I decided to ask my host mother what she thought about the incident. She said that she thinks societies are becoming too individualistic and that social ties are becoming weaker. “Here in India, there is less violence in the South where they are more traditionalist. Up North, where we are, there is more violence because people move around more and take care of each other less.” She may have a point. Many mass shooting perpetrators do exhibit behavior that could be classified as anti-social, lonely, or off-putting.
I also asked her what she thought about my classmate’s comment about terrorists. She continued to say that there is a difference between shooters like Holmes and suicide bombers. “Suicide bombers think drones kill many innocent people so they are justified if they kill a few innocents along with their target. People who shoot into a movie theater are not fighting in a war- they want to be martyred without going to the trouble of standing up for something.”
My host father then chimed in that, “when people are given too much freedom and not enough discipline, they do these things.” He maintains that people need to be taught what is right and what is wrong and should then be made to feel shame when they do not follow the rules. He, too, may have a point. In the US, we pray for criminals along with victims, we allow for insanity defenses even when people do not exhibit clearly unstable behavior, and we argue that more social services need to be provided to prevent people from thinking violent thoughts. We do all this because, surely, it could not be possible that a rational person would kill innocents.
While these arguments only paint part of the picture, they do reveal what people around the world think when such tragedies take place.
One of the greatest benefits of cultural and scholarly exchanges is that they foster exchanges of ideas and allow for these conversations to take place. Finding solutions is important, and creating discussion and listening to alternative voices can help inform those solutions when they are attained.
On a personal level, I also feel that even if we did not generate any viable solutions, the discussions were inherently important for their own sake. They allowed us to learn from each other, to discuss issues that were important for both cultures and they paved the way for future discussions to take place.
I disagree with those who say we should not politicize the tragic deaths of innocent people. Some stories are inherently political, and if we refrain from discussing them, we lose the ability to contribute to how the stories evolve. Not exercising our right to speak out does not honor the victims, but working together- through discussion- might lead to real progress that could.