The tragic shooting in a Colorado movie theater, in which 12 people died and approximately 50 were wounded, has understandably caused both fear and confusion. Given that this shooting happened to take place at a showing of the new Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, I’m already fielding questions about whether Batman somehow caused, in whole or in part, this shooter to commit his crimes. The simple answer is clearly “no.”
At present we know very little about the shooter James Holmes, and so we’re obsessively focusing on some of the more superficial details of this case. It’s worth noting that The Dark Knight Rises is playing in 4,404 out of 5,331 total theaters in the U.S. this weekend (and many of those theaters are showing the movie on multiple screens). Had the massacre occurred a couple of weekends ago, we might have been parsing The Amazing Spider-Man or The Avengers or even The Hunger Games for “clues” as to the shooter’s motivation. Summer blockbusters tend to be violent, which brings us to the next misconception, which is that violent entertainment leads to actual violence.
At this point the argument that mass homicides can be explained, even in part, by violent entertainment is scientifically unproven, as I’ve noted with colleagues Mark Coulson and Jane Barnett in the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations. A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service found little evidence that mass homicide perpetrators consume unusual amounts of violent media. Few people doubt that violent entertainment is more available now than at any point in history. Yet as Stephen Pinker documents in his latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature, we are living at the most peaceful epoch in human history. It would probably be difficult to find very many young men in the U.S. who haven’t seen at least one of the Batman movies, yet despite this and all of the violent entertainment options available, youth violence has been steadily plummeting, and is at its lowest levels since the 1960s.
The shooter in this case, James Holmes, may or may not be a Batman fanatic, but if it wasn’t Batman it would be something else. Historically, most mass murderers share the characteristics of having antisocial personality traits, mental illness, and a feeling of being wronged by either specific individuals or society more generally. Unfortunately some of these deranged individuals will latch onto any one of a number of things as a distorted rationale for their crimes. Trying to make sense of it is pointless. Of course, many perpetrators don’t latch onto anything culturally, but simply kill as a response to their own wretched lives and the desire to make someone — anyone — pay. And most mass homocides don’t occur in movie theaters but in businesses or schools, often because the perpetrator is angry about events occurring there, either being fired, disciplined or receiving perceived mistreatment by peers.
But we tend to focus on the shootings with cultural overtones, and we read too much into those overtones. This is a common reaction of a frightened populace looking to fix random, usually uncontrollable events. The wishful thinking underlying this impulse is that if we could get rid of those “cultural” influences, mass homocides would go away. In some cases, knee-jerk speculation tends to be plain wrong. Much of the blame for the Jared Lee Loughner shooting in Arizona was initially placed on right-wing political speech, which proved to be a red-herring. And violent video games were blamed in the Virginia Tech Shooting, although official investigation revealed that the shooter did not play violent video games.
These events are tragic and frightening, but unfortunately, there are no quick, easy answers. We need to give investigators time to sift through the details. Instead of obsessing over Batman, let’s instead occupy our time with thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families.