Thus far, nothing of reliable note has been revealed about the motives of James Holmes, the arrested suspect behind the Dark Night Massacre, where a dozen people were murdered and others injured at an after-midnight premiere of the latest Batman movie. What we do know suggests intricate planning, and the planning suggests a rationale, irrational though it may be.
Holmes carried a shotgun, a high-powered pistol, an assault rifle and a knife. He was reportedly costumed in body armour and might even have employed smoke or tear gas grenades. Holmes’s apartment was deftly booby trapped, stymying police search efforts. In custody, the suspect has so far been unrevealing.
The explanation here might be as simple as a psychotic break with reality, as when Jared Lee Loughner murdered six people and shot 19 in Tucson as he attempted to assassinate Representative Gabrielle Giffords last year. Or there might be more of a narrative behind this, as there was with high school outcasts Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 13 people during an assault on Columbine High School in 1999.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not believe Holmes has any connection to terrorism, but for 71 people shot and hundreds who were at risk, terror is no longer just a synonym for radical Islam. Holmes fits the Bureau of Justice Statistics definition of a “spree killer,” which would include all workplace and school shooters, or highway snipers like John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, convicted of a Capitol-area killing spree in 2002.
Writer Mark Ames is the co-founder (with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi) of The eXile, the first alternative newspaper in Moscow, formed in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As an underground journalist in the era of Russia’s oligarch-fueled transition toward capitalism, he witnessed all manner of criminality and violence. In 2005 he wrote Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond. Ames contends that what he calls rage killings amount to acts of rebellion against a callous and uncaring society, where the perpetrators of these crimes have been subjected to lives of humiliation and unrewarded sacrifice.
To Ames, the frequent rage killings since the 1980s are symptoms of a sick society. Schools and workplaces have been the focus of most, and this is no surprise. These are places where people feel compelled to go and where the hierarchies of our society are made the most personal. For example, he tells us about Joseph Wesbecker, who killed eight co-workers and himself in a rage assault on the Standard Gravure printing plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Contemporary accounts dismissed Wesbecker as somebody who had snapped. Ames dug into the story and interviewed former colleagues years later to reveal that the unpopular Wesbecker had been purposefully assigned to work a dangerous and noxious piece of equipment called “the folder,” which emitted fumes that were causing his physical health to deteriorate. Wesbecker was assigned this task because he was the least popular man in the office. He was, by some accounts, tortured because his co-workers didn’t like him. In Ames’s telling, Wesbecker earns some understanding, if not sympathy.
What turned Ames onto writing about this topic was the reaction of his own friends to the Columbine killings. There was some surprise, he recalled during an AlterNet interview about his book, that something like Columbine hadn’t happened sooner. Bullied and berated adolescents can only take so much, particularly if they feel like they are looking forward to adulthoods with more of the same. Might Wesbecker have been Dylan Klebold three decades later, trapped in social and professional isolation?
The fantasy of the violent rage or revenge act is a fundamental part of the human psyche. It’s safe to say that murderous thoughts are indulged, at one time or another, by all people. The Columbine massacres were compared to the stylized violence of video games and The Matrix movies. It is possible that the anarchic violence of director Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman mythos had some inspirational effect in Colorado.
But we should probably look further back than contemporary culture. The Odyssey, a foundational text of Western storytelling and the epic from which so much else follows, ends only when a great letting of blood satisfies honour. Odysseus returns from decades of war and exile to find his house overrun with suitors to the hand of his wife and with the desire to take his kingdom from him. The returning hero, his son and their most loyal servant bolt the doors on this unarmed assembly and slaughter all but one of them, who they leave alive to tell the tale.
Ames argues that rage killings picked up in the mid-1980s, as the economy was restructured in response to globalization. As individuals face continued social and economic diminishment, the Odyssean fantasy of setting the world right with violence is too difficult for some to resist.
Michael Maiello is a Reuters columnist.