A friend posted film-critic Roger Ebert’s commentary on yesterday’s mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

I side with Ebert on his major premise–that this horrific event is not reflective of a “violent nation,” but instead, the actions of a warped individual who created an opportunity for attention. Agreement ends there because Ebert insists that this phenomenon can be solved by taking guns out of the hands of American citizens. He points out that we are the only crazy nation that allows its people to own guns.

Banning guns will not solve this problem, because as Ebert has said, mass murder isn’t a violence problem…it is something else entirely. Before I present my analysis of just what that is, consider what former President Bill Clinton had to say in a CNN interview two days about his guilt over not taking action to stop the civil war in Rwanda: “Most of the people who were killed here were killed with machetes, so I don’t think that there was anything we could have done to stop the violence.”

And then consider the eerie coincidence of one of the victims of James Holmes’ shooting spree:  Jessica Ghawi happened to survive a similar shooting in a Toronto, Canada, mall just last month.  I’m not up on Canadian gun laws, but I assume that they are more restrictive than ours, which are based on a single, yet powerful sentence in our Constitution. Or we have more in common with our neighbors to the Great White North than we realize….

A friend once told me that she did not allow her kids to play with toy guns. So, her son made one by nibbling the edges of a slice of toast and pointed it at his sister. If people want weapons, they will make them.
If people want to hurt people, they will find a way, law be damned. If people want to hurt people to generate an audience, they will create the means to do it.

We are not a violent nation, influenced to take our own lives at the beckoning of a rock song, or to shed blood because we’ve annihilated zombie armies day after day on our X-Boxes. Study after study has posited that being exposed to violence in the media, or in our neighborhoods and in what should be the sanctity of our homes, however, has desensitized us to violence, creating a nation less empathetic to the harm done to others, and a nation less likely to draw a  distinction between fictional violence and real violence.

While this desensitization may play a role in Holmes’ actions, it is only part of an obviously much greater  problem. While he may not be able to feel for the victims of his murderous spree, the fact that the rest of us are so strongly affected  demonstrates that we have not suffered deep damage from all the bloodshed we have seen –an  instinctive compassion and respect for life remains at our very core.

Logic eliminates our access to firearms as the root cause of Holmes’ attack. If that premise were sound, these horrific displays would be much more frequent.  And if Holmes wasn’t simply desensitized to violence, or lacking empathy, or a video-game junkie seeking revenge on the bullying world, what, aside from an almost certain  diagnosis  of mental-illness, could explain this?

Ebert points out that this 24-year-old with a strong record of academic success wanted attention of the worst kind. He may have been angry, or frustrated in some way with the hand that he’d been dealt–we do not yet have any clue about this just yet–and for some reason, he decided to either seek revenge  on this cruel world, or seek an audience.


AUDIENCE.

James Holmes wanted and got an audience.

He stole the stage in a sold out show. He said, “I am more powerful than this movie. Notice me.”

Mental illness is surely at the root of his choices, but the desire to take the stage and be noticed fueled the fire.

And for this, I do blame  our media, and specifically, the media celebrit-ization of the average American citizen, a transformation I have witnessed in my students over the 15 years I have been teaching.

Once MTV’s Real World. reached cult status among the college crowd (around 2000 or so), I noticed a disturbing phenomenon in essay content. Students began writing confessionals, decadent  tales of their prom-night escapades, drug use, nights out with friends, criminal behavior, gossip-soaked dialogue.   Yes, people have always written these things in their diaries and journals, but they did not create them for public consumption.

Reality TV saturated the listings just as young people were expanding their lives in MySpace…a place where they could be seen.  Then, began the practice of self-photography. Young people began pointing the camera at their own faces, and capturing themselves in the restroom mirror, and sharing with the world, perhaps because they could.  Our technology allows us to be  pseudo-models, too.

Facebook provides yet another even bigger stage  for us to perform, get noticed, and achieve a pseudo-stardom, at least among our 1,189 pseudo-friends.

 

Our technology has proved the perfect vehicle for this reality-show rhetoric to eek its way into our life narratives.

And while we are achieving celebrity on the World Wide Web, reality TV continues to make stars out of the most unlikely, if not despicable, characters. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi wasn’t  discovered in a drugstore and transformed into a Hollywood legend,  a la  Lana Turner. She didn’t work her way up the celebrity ladder with talent and moxie, like Madonna. She is a nobody just like the rest of us, whose ridiculous, bawdy behavior appeals to our prurient interests. Every one of us could be a “Snooki,” if we were willing to put on a show.

James Holmes chose to put on a very different show and cast himself as the villain. He used guns, armor, and tear-gas as his props. If they had been banned, he would have found or fashioned his weaponry. As every actor knows, the show must go on.

 

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