Shooting at Aurora’s Century 16 Theater

My wife, Joyce, and I are standing near the Century 16 Theater Complex in Aurora, Colorado, speaking with a shaking 20-year-old Chris Ramos, a barista at a neighborhood Starbuck’s. His unsteady hand holds a movie stub from the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.” It proves that he was in the fifth row of Theatre Nine just ten hours ago when a gunman burst in through an emergency exit wearing a gas mask and threw what Chris thought were toy bats into the air, as part of a promotion of this latest Batman movie.

He realized that the “toys” were tear gas canisters and watched as the man opened fire.

“The first sign that something was wrong, “says Ramos, “was when the guy next to me got shot. I shielded my seventeen-year-old sister on the floor. I started crying not because I was afraid, but because the tear gas stung my eyes.”

When the gunman stopped shooting about sixty seconds later, ten people around Ramos were dead and two more would soon die at the hospital. According to Chris, the killer calmly walked away, “as if nothing had happened.”

Colorado had been hit once again.

In late June 1984, I drove over to the Denver townhouse where a week earlier radio talk show host Alan Berg had been assassinated by neo-Nazis. I placed my fingertips in the fresh bullet holes in his wooden garage door, as a way of recalling my interviews with him in his studio — and of saying goodbye. Fifteen years later, Joyce and I drove out to Columbine High School a few days after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had gunned down a dozen fellow students, a teacher, and then killed themselves. The feelings at Columbine were so powerful that I remembering holding onto to a chain link fence and watching the mourners around me weep.

Thirteen on a scorching July morning, we’re at the Century 16 Theater watching Chris Ramos tremble with adrenaline.

The obvious thing all these events have in common is that they occurred in or close to Denver. What isn’t so obvious and what connects this latest mass shooting to so many others in our country is that they’ve all been carried out for one reason — the release of pure rage, a rage that’s become commonplace throughout our entire culture.

This August, my newest book, A Death in Wichita: Abortion Doctor George Tiller and the New American Civil War, describes how he was assassinated in the foyer of his church in May 2009. In every one of the examples cited here, the killers or killers were expressing their unexamined emotions — they have no other goals and don’t even try to get away. Social theorists and scientists will spend countless hours analyzing the individuals who do this, but not so much time looking at the emotional culture we’ve created, promoted, and rewarded throughout the past several decades. Hatred and demonizing have become fast career paths in the media, politics, religion, and beyond.

This toxic environment foments violence and the violence is getting more creative. The alleged gunman, James Holmes, was a student of neuroscience at the University of Colorado’s Medical Center before dropping out. He’d meticulously plotted how to get his weapons into the theatre and how to get the most bloodshed for his buck. He’d studied medicine and the saving of lives — but now he was applying his thoughts to the taking of lives.

What links all these acts of domestic terrorism together is the mental instability of the shooters. After studying and writing about this phenomenon in book after book for 25 years, I believe that the encouraging of divisiveness and hatred within our society, from the top down, has a profound effect on people struggling with mental and emotional instability. Those highly-paid media commentators who relentlessly attacked Dr. Tiller in public for years refused to acknowledge any responsibility when someone then showed up and murdered him in his church. Just as the neo-Nazi sympathizers who spewed anti-Semitism contended that their behavior had nothing to do with Alan Berg’s death. It’s very easy to focus our attention now on James Holmes or on the next mass shooter who springs up in America. It’s much more difficult to look in the mirror of the mainstream culture we’ve created where hatred is packaged and sold purely as entertainment. The victims of that culture are virtually impossible to count…

Chris Ramos is still shaking and staring off into space and talking to whomever will listen to his story. He’s been up all night and the police have interviewed him and other witnesses at the Gateway High School auditorium. He’s standing on a burning asphalt parking lot, but seems unaware of the heat, until Joyce leads him out of the sunshine and into a shaded area. When this story and so many others like it are referred to in the future, the reports will only mention the dead and the physically wounded. They won’t include the people like Ramos who’ve just watched the person next to him gunned down. As we’re leaving, Joyce tells the young man to take advantage of the psychological counseling being offered to the survivors of the massacre, but he doesn’t seem to hear, as he keeps talking and trying to process what he witnessed last night.