Friday, 3 August 2012

Just a Thought

In the aftermath of the Aurora shootings the media are picking apart the tragedy, exploring various aspects such as gun ownership and violence in films.  This is all accompanied by appropriately reverent quotes and mourning for the deceased, and less reverent photos of the carnage and grieving relatives (thank you Daily Mail). 

Without doubt, this is a tragedy.  Friends and relatives of those who died have suffered hugely traumatic losses, and the whole community has been shaken. 
However, my first thought as the news stories began to break was feeling sorry for the gunman.  This was worrying – am I a messed up individual who relates to psychopathic killers more than their victims?   After much pondering, I think the answer is no (sigh of relief all round).  However, I do think it's something to do with relating to the underdog.  More specifically, the misunderstood underdog.  Now I am not suggesting that this particular bloke is a traumatised, misunderstood little lamb, and certainly not at the expense of the horror that has happened.  However, I'd like to step away from that story specifically and look at the whole thing more generally. 

There is something I find incredibly irritating about the reaction to this kind of atrocity.  Mainly, it's the public outpouring of grief.  Not the genuine, heartfelt distress from media-harassed family and friends, but a sort of jumping-on-the-bandwagon from everyone else.  I think the UK may be worse than the US in this respect – the death of Princess Diana being a notable example.  However, in the bloke-with-a-gun type massacres, this response seems... oh I don't know... hypocritical.  On the one hand, you have an individualistic, consumerist society that indicates you are worth as much as your bank balance; a society that alienates and excludes people, especially those that don't fit into the narrow definition of 'normal'.  In the US you also have an awful lot of people that frankly, are probably not to be trusted with guns yet can legally own them.  On the other hand, when it all goes horribly wrong, people seem not only shocked but surprised.  People can be cold, cruel and heartless with impunity, yet certain acts are seen as horrific and terrible without any consideration of cause, effect, and a sort of sliding scale of evil.  I think it's best summed up in the lyrics of Jack Johnson's 'Cookie Jar': 
It was you, it was me, it was every man
We've all got the blood on our hands
We only receive what we demand
And if we want hell then hell's what we'll have

Next, there is the way the perpetrator is unmasked as being an oddball, an outcast, someone who's always been different; obscure people from their past are dredged up to confirm this.  They are the bad guy, the freak who blighted the lives of good people.  Now, how many 'oddballs' have you met?  How many people who could be described as being different, strange, a loner, or whatever else?  And how many of those people have gone on to commit murder?  This labelling just seems to be a way to see the perpetrator as different, 'out there' and as far removed from 'normal' people as possible.  This was highlighted for me in the wake of the Cumbria shootings two years ago, when one newspaper painted a picture of the killer as a pathetic loner who still lived with his mother, comparing him to his successful brother (one of the victims), who was well-off with a house to match.  But what if the brothers' roles were reversed?  They'd probably have described the killer as a greedy rich man and his brother as sacrificing his career to care devotedly for their elderly mother. 
Anything can be distorted to fit the desired narrative, and the desired narrative is utterly black-and-white.  The bad person vs the good people.  The freak who spoils it for the rest of us.  It's as if they are to be feared and ridiculed for being different as much as for the crimes they've committed - which leads to perfectly harmless 'oddballs' being inadvertently scapegoated too. 

It seems to be a sort of collective defence-mechanism, to pin all the blame on the individual rather than face the monumental task of unpicking the wider faults in systems and society.  Whilst I would like to think that most people, when pushed, would not opt for mass-murder (though they might if requested to, as Milgram's notorious 1961 experiment revealed), the question remains as to whether individuals who commit atrocities might not have done so in different circumstances.  I believe that anyone who commits such an act is mentally disturbed – perhaps not under current definitions, but something has clearly gone very wrong somewhere along the line.  It all gets quite complex and philosophical at this point – how much our choices are affected by past experiences, the old nature vs nurture debate, and so on.  But still, these questions should be asked.  There are lesser crimes and other undesirable behavoiurs that aren't criminal, yet still cause a huge amount of pain and grief for people.  I've no doubt that people who commit atrocities have suffered in these ways, and while it's not an excuse it does go some way to explain the reasons.  But no, we keep on setting it in black-and-white terms and all the other stuff is swept under the carpet while we point the finger and it's all about freak bad people.

On a personal note, I think this stuff really gets to me because I have often felt like 'the underdog' myself.  I know what it's like to be misunderstood, judged and labelled with life-changing consequences.  It seems there are certain things that are practically universally 'entitled' to compassion (losing a loved one, for example), whilst other situations that may cause untold distress are disregarded.  It also depends on how an indivudual expressess their distress – many may not recognise how to to do this in a constructive way, or do not have access to therapists or counsellors.  Again, it comes back to the good people who are allowed (rightly) to be outraged and upset when they are hurt, whilst the hurt they may have inflicted on the bad people is ignored.  It's just not fair.
It's time to look beyond the labels and recognise human distress in all it's forms - only then can we start to do something about it.

*** I started this post over a week ago, and in the meantime more information has come to light, including the fact that James Holmes (Aurora killer) was seeing a psychiatrist***

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