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Neil Steinberg: What if the shooting means nothing?

Updated: August 22, 2012 6:09AM

The grim ritual begins anew.

First the shock, delivered with the dawn Friday morning. A massacre at a midnight screening in Colorado of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” A dozen people killed, 58 wounded.

Then the shooter is introduced — James Holmes, 24 — and ushered into the pantheon of heavily armed, deranged Americans. A growing list. He was taken alive, so we’ll get the chance to know him well, better than we could ever want to, to take a good long look into whatever psychological cesspool he has crawled out of, an extended tour of a very small, sad and not-all-that-interesting place.

We’ll happily forget him, despite the periodic reminders. Holmes gets to go to prison for the rest of his life. You have to wonder if that thought occurs to these shooters, and if it does, how they can still go through with it. Maybe they assume they’ll die in the process. Maybe they don’t care. In the photo, Holmes smiles. Why do they always seem to smile?

This being the Internet age, the punditry is unleashed immediately, no time for contemplation required: What was a 3-month-old baby doing at a midnight screening? Hollywood wonders how the massacre will affect the movie’s box office. Christopher Rapoza posts a photo of his wound on Reddit, a social news site. People joke, but perhaps that can be forgiven — some things are so awful that you have to joke. Or maybe it should not be forgiven — maybe it is a symptom of the exact indifference to humanity that helps cause this kind of thing in the first place.

Not that we know what caused it, not that we can ever know, though causes aplenty will be disinterred and rinsed off for public inspection. A lonely childhood, no doubt — it never is the captain of the football team who does this sort of thing, is it? A love of guns.

Ah, guns. We might talk about them, but why bother? Our hearts won’t be in it. That ship has sailed — 311 million Americans and about as many guns. They keep the fear at bay. Holmes had four guns when he was arrested. Plenty for the job. He shot 70 people, including that baby, who lived, and a 12-year-old, who didn’t.

Besides, the conclusion you draw depends on the conclusion you start with. Gun-control advocates — if there are any anymore — will point out that it’s still far too easy to get guns, that people with serious mental illness have no trouble arming themselves.

Gun devotees are already saying that if only the audience had been armed, why, they could have returned fire, and the death toll might be less. An armed society is a polite society. Or maybe it’s a society where 12 people die every single night in gunfights over parking spaces instead of 12 in rare theater slaughters.

So an armed standoff, of sorts, and even having the debate at this moment seems crass, dipping your fingers into the still fresh blood of the victims to sketch out your case in crimson.

What do I think? I’d be tempted to say this means nothing. Aurora, Colo., is still a generally safe, middle-class suburb. There is no reason to seize upon the still-rare, irrational act of a madman, amplified by an overabundance of weaponry, and say it represents something significant about America. There were thousands of 24-year-olds at midnight Thursday who slept the sleep of the innocent, after a day of study, or work, or some other activity, who didn’t send 70 fellow citizens to the hospital or the morgue. Why can’t their lives be analyzed, their acts considered as reflecting back on all of us?

But that’s not how it works.

An ideal society would deny these shooters the fame that so many seem to crave. We’d number them instead — Holmes could be “2012 Shooter A.” We’d recognize that the details are meaningless — lots of people are mentally ill, or lonely, or suffer, and still they don’t kill anybody. Maybe somebody was mean to Holmes once — so what? Who cares?

We should reject the search for reasons as a charade, a clutch for cold comfort. Whether he shot those people as a statement against global warming or because he views the government as an illegitimate occupying force or because he’s upset the Dark Knight trilogy is coming to an end, in the final analysis, what does it really matter? Will it bring back the dead? What comfort will it give to all those people who lost a loved one early Friday? All those people whose lives are now a series of hospital rooms and operations, of pain and fear?

And we don’t live in that ideal society, do we? Our politics are a poisonous Manichaean fistfight between factions who have lost all respect for each other. Our free time is spent submerged in an online netherworld where many of us parade our darkest biases and reflexive contempt with no ramifications whatsoever.

So what is our duty here? I guess we are obligated to pay attention, and to try not to view this tragedy as routine, to try not to harden ourselves against this most recent horror, to pretend that we can change ourselves so this will never happen again, when we all know that it will certainly happen again.

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