Reflections on the recent shooting in Colorado


Readers of this blog know that I am very slow to respond to breaking news. I am usually far behind even other bloggers, let alone news media commentators, in giving my take on such events. It is not out of laziness (ok, maybe a little) or being out of touch. I follow the news closely and usually am aware of things soon after they occur.

But I have learned to not jump to conclusions about the persons and motives involved when tragedies like the Colorado shooting occur, because the first reports are almost always wrong. It does not make sense to post something that essentially says, “Something big happened that you have undoubtedly heard about already from every news source. Your guess is as good as mine as to who did it and why.”

And yet it never fails to amaze me that people are willing to speculate based on the flimsiest of information, thinking that basic knowledge of search engines turns them into sleuths. If the suspect’s name were something like John Smith, it would be hopeless for amateurs to try and identify him. If it were extremely unusual (like mine), it would be easy to zero in. The worst case is this one, when the suspect’s name (James Holmes) is fairly common but not too common. It becomes tempting for amateur sleuths to try and identify him and easy for them to think that they have done so when they are very likely to be wrong. If people would wait just a day, they would have more to go on, though it is wise to exercise caution even then.

News agencies are not immune to this temptation. Some are so eager to try and be the first with a scoop that they throw caution to the winds. For examples, ABC News’s Brian Ross announced on the air that there was a Colorado Tea Party person with the same name as that released by police. Others have scoured Facebook to try and get photos and information on the suspect, forcing totally innocent people with the name James Holmes to issue disclaimers for fear of becoming targets of hate themselves.

The most common reason for such rampages is that the killer’s mind snapped for some reason and caused him to lash out at family and loved ones, co-workers, or strangers. But that does not satisfy the TV talking heads. One popular device to kill time on TV is to bring in so-called ‘profilers’ to mindlessly speculate about darker motives based on the flimsiest of factors. Other speculators have an agenda that they seek to get out there that they hope will be confirmed by the facts when they come out, such as that the killer was a Muslim terrorist or that his act was caused by the decline of religion or that it says something about the psychology of the nation as a whole.

Recall the crazy speculation that followed the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. A minor conservative pundit named Debbie Schlussel made a complete fool of herself over that tragedy by insisting that the authorities were hushing up the fact that the killer was a Muslim terrorist. She does not seem to have learned her lesson and this time around is suggesting, with equally dubious evidence, that the killer was part of the Occupy movement.

People who have no direct connection to the tragedy and useful information to contribute should just chill out and wait. Uninformed speculation can do a lot of harm and never any good.

The big debate is of course the one about whether it is good policy to allow anyone to have easy access to lethal weapons. I am not as reflexively opposed to the ownership of guns as most people who share my general political views. I can understand the argument that people should have the right to own guns and have written about this issue in the past (see here and here). Where I differ with many of the gun rights advocates is that I think certain restrictions to purchase and ownership are desirable, such as a waiting period and background checks, which would prevent some killings, though it would have been unlikely to have prevented this latest tragedy.

An old cartoon by Tom Tomorrow is sadly accurate.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    Debbie Schlussel is a whackjob who sees Muslim terrorists under every bed and in every closet.

  2. says

    I think certain restrictions to purchase and ownership are desirable, such as a waiting period and background checks

    I think the original intent of having a militia that was not under control of the government (directly) was a good one, especially as I watch the US stumble into the waning days of being a republic before it transitions to a febrile empire. I’d favor restrictions on private weapon ownership, counterbalanced by dramatically downsizing the DoD and increasing the size of the various states’ National Guard units. It’d have to be coupled with further mechanisms to prevent Washington from sending the National Guard outside of the, um, nation.

  3. Tim R. Mortiss says

    “Regular nutritional intake being necessary for the maintenance of good health; the right of Americans to buy & eat Big Macs shall not be infringed.”

  4. Rory says

    What is particularly upsetting about this rush to explain is that some of the narratives constructed now on the basis of the flimsiest evidence will persist long after the facts are known. You don’t have to ask very many people to find someone who still thinks the Columbine shooting was committed by the ‘trenchcoat mafia,’ or that Klebold and Harris were bullied nerds striking back at the popular kids who abused them.

    Neither of those are remotely accurate, but when have facts ever gotten in the way of a good story? In 15 years they’ll be saying that Holmes was wearing a Joker costume and asking “Why so serious?” as he targeted those audience members wearing Batman costumes.

  5. stephenyutzy says

    What really bugs me about these tragedies is that they focus so much on the gun, not on the person actually pulling the trigger. Dan Baum writes about this in Harper’s:

    Compare that to the coverage and conversation after Anders Behring Breivik murdered sixty-nine people on the island of Utøya in Norway, a year ago next Sunday. Nobody focused on the gun. I had a hard time learning from the news reports what type of gun he used. Nobody asked, “How did he get a gun?” That seemed strange, because it’s much harder to get a gun in Europe than it is here. But everybody, even the American media, seemed to understand that the heart of the Utøya massacre story was a tragically deranged man, not the rifle he fired. Instead of wringing their hands over the gun Breivik used, Norwegians saw the tragedy as the opening to a conversation about the rise of right-wing extremism in their country.

    I have to assume that the differing narratives are because here there are politicians trying to push their agendas by exploiting a tragedy, whereas if the tragedy is overseas it’s much easier to actually stop and think before pontificating.

  6. says

    I think the differing narrative was because Breivik is a white racist christian nationalist – and nuts. It’s a bit harder for the religious to say that a religious nut went nuts because of someone else’s atheism.

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