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The Dark Mind Descends: The Aurora Movie Shootings

Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-07-21
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Accompanying images collected on the Internet. Unless noted, sources undetermined.

Within moments of the awful shooting spree in which 71 people were shot (12 fatally) as they watched the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, in Aurora, Colorado, news had taken wing and spread across the Internet.  A rushing wave of incredulity and sorrow swept across social media networks like Facebook and Twitter as those of us still up after midnight read with heartache and horror what transpired in the flickering darkness of Aurora’s Century 16 Theater.

Once again, as with the watershed April 1999 Columbine massacre, and as with the shooting of children in a Los Angeles Community Center in August 1999 and in a peaceful Amish school house in October, 2006, the shooting of college students studying for futures they would not have at Virginia Tech in April, 2007, in a popular summer camp in Norway in July, 2011, and oh so many other mass or spree shootings in schools, places of work and worship, shopping malls and elsewhere in the years since, I am at first rendered speechless.   I try and make some clarity out of my thoughts and feelings about this latest act of murderous outrage, but mostly fail to do so. I grieve for the victims of this latest human atrocity, guys & gals and parents & kids who were out to enjoy themselves and be entertained and engaged by watching a drama played out on the silver screen – ironically one involving a masked hero who decried the use of guns – who were instead gunned down in the confusion and chaos of a movie theater overcome by panic.   (See these Wikipedia pages for a summary of school shootings in the US and spree shootings worldwide.)

Massacre and the Movies: Our Shared Experience

The massacre was awful enough – the latest spreading shadow of an epidemic of spree shootings in public places that have increased in intensity in the dozen years since Columbine, but to have occurred in the public intimacy of a movie theater, where we meet as a community of filmgoers to share the experience of watching a cinematic fable brought to life on the big screen, made it all the more devastating.  My own keen interest and connection in my other life as a film and film music journalist makes the circumstances of Aurora’s shootings hit close to home.  As Star Trek’s George Takei put it in an eloquent Facebook posting, “Many victims of today’s tragedy were fans of science fiction/fantasy.  They stood in line to be the first to see, to be inspired, and to escape.  As a community of dreamers, we mourn this terrible tragedy and this senseless taking of innocent life.”

Takei’s sentiment was echoed by Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight Rises and the previous two films in the Dark Knight trilogy.  “Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community,” Nolan said in a statement to the media.  “I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.”

“I can't help thinking about the kids at last night's The Dark Knight Rises screening in Aurora, Colorado,” wrote “Nordling” in Ain’t It Cool News, pop culture’s premiere news and blog site.  His understanding of the likely mindset of the victims in Aurora’s tragedy prompt us to focus not so much on blame, even not so much on trying to understand what ticked (or didn’t) within the perpetrator’s unbalanced mind, but upon the victims of his explosive and premeditated wrath:  “How excited they must have been – perhaps they were anticipating it all day before loading up into the car and going to the movies.  We've all been there… This tragedy has struck the heart of our community.  These people are us”

[update: for more on this train of thought, see filmmaker Deane Ogden's blog The Aurora Tragedy: A Temple Defiled but not Destroyed. - rdl]

Politicizing Tragedy

In the midst of these heartfelt and sincere expressions of condolence come the inevitable commentators whose self-serving attempts to connect the tragedy to their political or personal platforms once again belittle the dignified sympathy with which most of us regard the massacre.  I feel disdain for the politicians who leap onto their personal soapboxes to use this tragedy to gain mileage for their own causes and to further their own agendas, whether it’s for more gun control (Keep guns out of the hands of everyone and thus out of the hands of outlaws and the mentally ill!), less gun control (Arm everyone so they can shoot back and protect themselves!),calling for an end to violence in movies, even calling for an end to midnight screenings of movies, others asserting that the shooting is some kind of divine justice rendered by their angry god of choice or that it’s another example of persecution of their religious rights or cultural group of choice, rather than the unspeakable act of a person whose mental fabric has come terribly unstitched.  Search around the news sites and you’ll see plenty of this self-righteous drivel. As Jeff Bryant, a Facebook friend of mine, so succinctly put it, “It is sad when people are so wrapped up in politics they forget how to mourn.”

I read another Facebook poster who suggested that health care, not gun control, is the more significant issue.  “Perhaps mental health care is not taken as seriously as it could be in this country,” she asked.  I’m not sure how the shooter’s mental capacity manifested itself in the days or weeks prior to Friday’s assault on the innocent, but reports suggest clues may have been overlooked.  Reports early Friday after the arrest of the shooter [may his name be unremembered in history], indicated that he thought of himself as Batman’s arch nemesis, “the Joker.”  He clearly wasn’t paying attention to the way the character was portrayed in the movie series, especially the previous film, The Dark Knight: a villain who has no motivation but "to watch the world burn."  Or perhaps that’s what he set out to do when he entered the theater via a back door and released teargas before starting to shoot. 

In a story by Jennifer Waite for the online newspaper examiner.com, she notes that “Batman has always been a story full of anti-gun messages and crimefighting, specifically because Batman witnessed the murder of his own parents as a child. Batman's parents were shot in a botched robbery, and it devastated him. As he grew up and matured into the superhero we all know and love, Batman's mission was always to protect the people of Gotham from the evils lurking in the shadows, armed and ready to fire on the innocent.  In the new Dark Knight Rises movie, there is scene where Batman tells Catwoman something along the lines of, "No guns, no killing." Unfortunately, this message was allegedly lost on this perpetrator, who committed the ultimate act of evil on unsuspecting victims held captive by the shadows of an ordinary, everyday setting like their local moviehouse.”

The Dispatcher's Perspective

I especially sympathize with the public safety community of Aurora, Colorado from the first responders and their dispatchers who took the 9-1-1 calls and tried to sort out the chaos and get help there quickly, safely, and properly informed, who assured panicked callers that help was coming, and who coordinated an expanding response of local police, fire, and EMS agencies, and made the dozens of calls to notify additional networks of outside governmental responders and investigators, choreographed media inquiries, and did it all with the kind of calm clarity and in-control confidence that emergency dispatchers excel at, and which their responders depend on, every day.

Kicking into high gear with professionalism and confident yet attentive deportment, these dispatchers controlled the radio, coordinated the response, documented everything in their dispatch computers, relayed the necessary facts to supervisors and management and allied agencies and governmental higher-ups, and got the job done.  Infrequently-heard radio transmissions from officers on the scene – things like "Hundreds of people just running around,"  "Somebody's spraying gas in there too," "We've got rifles, gas masks and... an open door near the rear of the theater," "Behind the theater... a suspect in a gas mask" - were acknowledged, addressed, and handled quickly, with assurance to the field units that they were in good hands on the other side of their radios.

You can listen to the police audio from the incident online at these web sites:

Police Radio: http://www.lawofficer.com/video/news/audio-aurora-theater-shooting

http://www.policeone.com/active-shooter/articles/5841833-Colo-shooting-police-radio-Need-rescue-now/

Abridged compendium of PD radio: http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/us/2012/07/20/natpkg-co-shooting-911.aurora-police-dept-liveatc-net

Fire/EMS Radio: http://www.jems.com/video/news/audio-colorado-theater-shooting

I wrote about the Columbine murders in my July/August 1999 Editor’s Desk, and what I felt and said a dozen years ago is, sadly, just as applicable for this latest eruption of violence in Aurora: “And as crime perpetuates crime and the darkness that exists in so many young souls prepared no doubt to writhe into another tragedy someday yet to come, we [dispatchers] grieve for Jefferson County, we pray for our own children, and as we wonder just how recklessly this world is spinning out of control, we vow to remain mentally and emotionally prepared when it happens – as it surely will, someday – in our own communities. And we vow to offer support, kindness, and healing to the victims – the direct victims as well as the indirect victims, and thanks to the intimate immediately of television news we have all become emotional victims of this senseless tragedy.” [read entire July/Aug 1999 Editor’s Page here].  Exchange Columbine for Century 16 Theaters and Jefferson County for Aurora and the sentiment is just as terribly apt.

And as I regard this latest tragic explosion of human fury, once again targeting the innocent, in a place of escape and enjoyment, I am troubled by the probability that either the event or the constant coverage it has entertained in the media will inspire similar outlets for frustration and rage.  As reported by The Huffington Post, The New York Police Department had already beefed up police to “provide coverage” of screenings of The Dark Knight Rises as a result of the Colorado shootings; perhaps a knee-jerk reaction but one made in awareness of the reality of copycat crimes.  Other agencies are surely doing or considering the same, staffing permitting.

The more these kinds of events occur and the way every controversy surrounding them is saturated and bled across print, online, and televised media all hours of the day, soaking up tentative evaluation and viewpoint from one talking head after another, one alleged subject matter expert after another proclaiming to proclaim their perspective on motivation, causation, and what he she or it should have done to prevent this awful trying from happening, replaying the same footage over and over until we’re virtually anesthetized to the awfulness of it all, that still more mentally unbalanced men (and it’s usually men who perpetrate these kinds of spree killings) will be inspired to choose this kind of an outlet for their rage, as our society and our culture continues to spin dangerously out of control.

[Note: Aurora's 9-1-1 Dispatch Center was selected as an Outstanding Call Center last year - and certainly proved worthy of the award on 7/20.  Read the story here. - rdl]

[Update 7/23: See this powerful tribute to the Aurora PD dispatcher handling the call]

[Update 7/23 Colorado's 9NEWS visits the Aurora 9-1-1 Dispatch Center to air a segment about the dispatchers who handled the shooting calls]

image from Visions In Sound Fan Page on Facebook

 

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