Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trying to Make Sense of Senselessness

Trey Smith

Americans, sadly, have a tendency to dismiss attempts at understanding people like Holmes as a bleeding-heart exercise in criminal sympathy. Columbine was the exception. Usually, we refuse to reckon with the complex causes of violence, let alone its future prevention, and instantly inscribe these crimes into a framework of inexplicable evil. Think of Timothy McVeigh, who spent years being radicalized in anti-government circles – and yet, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was considered only an "all-American monster".

There was Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who was "the essence of evil" rather than a complex human being whose crimes might have been prevented. Most notoriously of all, there were the attackers of September 11, 2001, regularly spoken of not only as monsters, but as "animals" or "vermin" – and, of course, animals and vermin aren't entitled to due process.

9/11 marked the height of this very American tendency to push horrors beyond all understanding, as the philosopher Judith Butler argued in the months after the attacks. "We tend to dismiss any effort at explanation", she wrote, "as if to explain these events would accord them rationality, as if to explain these events would involve us in a sympathetic identification with the oppressor".

It's as if we think evil is somehow contagious. Instead of trying to understand why people do horrible things, we say that nobody will ever understand them, and that to try to makes you as evil as the killers.

~ from James Holmes' Dehumanization Threatens to Obscure Causes of Violence by Jason Farago ~
There are no such things as monsters. They don't live under children's beds and they don't come out late at night to claim the innocent. They don't go marching through New York City or Tokyo smashing cars and knocking over buildings.

As Farago states so well, humans who commit unthinkable atrocities don't lose their membership card for our species. Just like the rest of us, they have flaws and foibles. Just like the rest of us, they have abilities and joys. As much as we might like to think otherwise, none of them are monsters.

Yes, such individuals commit monstrous acts, but these people share far more in common with most of us than what differentiates them.

As I've written before after these kinds of unspeakable tragedies, I think this is what scares us the most. We intuitively understand that the factors, variables and emotions that led them to commit heinous acts reside in all of us. Where we differ is that they actually carried out what, for many of us, resides only in the darkened areas of our own hearts.

Who among us has not gotten so angry that, for the briefest of moments, we felt we could kill someone? Who among us has not, at one time or another, done something wholly irrational that hurt -- physically or emotionally -- another person or ourselves?

Maybe I'm more in tune to these prospects because I suffer from mental illness. Maybe the fact that I must deal with almost daily visual and auditory hallucinations makes me contemplate this sort of issue more than the average person. I don't know if that is the reason or if it's something else.

What I do believe is that every person who has ever walked this earth -- if something were to go haywire in their brain -- could turn into a James Holmes. It could be you. It could be me. It could be all of us.

Monsters don't commit atrocities, humans do.

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