11:21 a.m. July 23, 2012

A Failure Of Paranoia

Voices hushed and faces grave, the pundits and experts were trotted out for this week’s Sunday talk shows. The topic: Friday's movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, that left 12 dead and 58 injured.

The guests sat at the roundtables and expressed varying degrees of shock, awe, sorrow, outrage, condolences, and talking points about gun control that felt as lukewarm as the cafeteria coffee in the untouched mugs in front of them. Few want to renew the gun control debate in an election year. Instead, almost everyone padded the issue with statistics and platitudes about the Second Amendment, the NRA, and how Americans — according to irony-deaf talking head David Brooks — will always find a way to get a hold of guns, and wouldn’t it be better if we just blamed society’s sick desire to be on TV?

One question got everyone fired up, though, probably because there was no real political liability in doing so: When someone we know is about to lose his mind and go literally ballistic, how can we attune ourselves to his madness? How can we, as a nation, make ourselves paranoid enough to see the warning signs?

The 24-year-old man who’s been arrested for the massacre in Aurora is named James Holmes. A neuroscience grad student from San Diego, he’d been studying at the University of Colorado before … withdrawing. According to interviews with friends and family members, he’d become shy. Isolated. A loner. A nerd. A smart aleck. A incredibly intelligent young man whose recent failures at school had driven him to a dark place. Dark enough to dye his hair blood-red, shoot up a theater full of people, and tell police when he surrendered that he was the Joker.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper had other words to describe him. On 'Meet the Press' and 'State of the Union,' he called Holmes “an aberration of nature,” “diabolical,” and “demonic.” He referred to Holmes as a “terrorist” — and then praised a young aide of his who organized 20 friends to see “The Dark Knight Rises” at a Denver-area theater on Saturday night, saying it proved “the terrorist hasn’t won.”

Then Hickenlooper, a devout Quaker, confessed that Holmes’ action made him want to “strangle that guy.” He demonstrated by making a strangling gesture with his hands, thus putting the “fist” back in pacifist.

Later, former Secretary of Homeland Security and body-scanner enthusiast Michael Chertoff offered these comforting words: “We have to look at it this way. There are 300 million of us [in America], and 300 million of us didn’t experience this.” Granted, Chertoff’s arithmetic is slightly off. If there are 300 million of us, that means 299, 999, 930 of us didn’t experience this. Still,
those are some great odds.

Then, reminiscing about the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, Chertoff spoke of the “failure of imagination” that kept killer Nidal Malik Hasan from being preemptively fingered as a potential mass-murderer.

See, it wasn't the Second Amendment's fault or the NRA's fault or "The Dark Knight Rises"' fault or even James Holmes' fault.

It was ours. We need more imagination. Imagine, for instance, what that guy over there is doing. The one with the backpack. With the black clothes. With the red hair. With the skin color. Who doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t have any friends, right? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have any friends. In fact, it’s quite easy to imagine he’s diabolical. Demonic,
even. An aberration of nature. Someone you could imagine strangling.

There you have it. It’s that simple. Do you know someone who’s shy? Who’s isolated? Who’s a loner? Who’s a nerd? Who’s a smart aleck? Who’s failed at something? They’re everywhere, aren’t they? All you have to do is keep your eyes peeled. Keep away from them. All of them. All the time.

And if it gets to be too much, shoot them. All the loners. The whole fucking theater of them. The whole fucking lot of them.

Then everything will be fine. Imagine.