Empathy for a Killer?

As the bizarre courtroom faces of James Holmes start appearing in newspapers alongside the beautiful lost faces of the twelve people he murdered, I wonder: is it possible for feel empathy for a person capable of such senseless violence?

I think the answer is that it depends, and what it depends on is the larger story of James Holmes, and what that story tells us about this 24-year-old killer, and, by extension, ourselves.

To be clear, there is no excuse for what people like Holmes, Seung-Hui Cho, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did. We all deserve to be judged by our actions, and there is nothing more damning than the decision to casually extinguish the lives of complete strangers. That fact is beyond debate.

Yet it is also true that too often, we reduce the most violent among us to two-dimensional caricatures, and allow ourselves to create a safe distance between what they did and what their actions say about who we are as a people, and what we allow to endure.

Take the killers at Columbine. Dave Cullen was among the first wave of reporters to cover that story. He spent the next ten years investigating the event, and the teenage boys that caused it.  As he wrote in the New York Times, “Perpetrators of mass murder are usually nothing like our conceptions of them. They are nothing like a vision of pure evil. They are complicated.

“Mr. Harris kept a sort of journal for an entire year, focused largely on his plan to blow up his school and mow down survivors with high-powered rifles. Mr. Klebold kept a more traditional journal for two years, spewing a wild array of contradictory teen angst and deep depression, grappling seriously with suicide from the very first page.

“Audiences are never surprised by the journal of Mr. Harris,” Cullen points out. “It’s hate-hate-hate all the way through. He was a coldblooded psychopath, in the clinical use of that term. He had no empathy, no regard for human suffering or even human life.”

But Mr. Klebold’s journal tells another, more complicated story. He was tormented, confused, and ferociously angry – not at jocks, as the traditional reporting of the event suggested, but himself. “What a loathsome creature he found himself. No friends, no love, not a soul who cared about him or what became of his miserable life. None of that is objectively true. But that’s what he saw.”

It’s still unclear if James Holmes entered that theater in Colorado because he was mentally ill, like Seung-Hui Cho, because he was psychopathic, like Eric Harris, or because he was consumed with anger and self-loathing, like Dylan Klebold. Yet one thing is painfully clear: while we mourn the dead in Colorado and wonder how such evil can exist in our midst, this tragedy must spark more in us than mere anger at the killer. It must remind us that we as a society are the ones who made it possible for an individual to acquire 6,000 rounds of ammunition without notice or concern. It must remind us that there are many whose illnesses, left untreated and untended, could lead them down the most destructive of paths. And it must remind us how explosively hopeless and isolating the feelings of invisibility and voicelessness can be.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, violence is the language of the unheard. I say it’s time we accepted the responsibility of listening with a more empathetic ear.

Categories: Voice

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One Comment

  1. Shawna Multon
    Posted August 2, 2012 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    I have read many posts, blogs, and judgments being made all around the world. I must say that I am impressed with your article. I am a very liberal individual believing in innocent until proven guilty right. What people seem not to understand is that more than James Holmes is to blame here. You can’t tell me that sending 3,000 rounds of ammunition to one address is not suspicious. These ammunition companies gained nothing but profit off this man. Yes, I do agree that James Holmes shall have consequences for his actions. But on the other hand I feel deep empathy for not only James Holmes but his family also. I do believe that Holmes feels remorse just that he is just trying to grasp the concept of reality as to how he got to where he is today. James is likely beating himself up inside and figures that what’s done is dine and he will never beable to take his actions back. James knows he is doomed, he is not a stupid man by all means. I hurt for his family and the hurt that they must feel. Torn between their son and the person who committed such a tragedy. I stress to those I speak to that they need to look at the muck larger picture. Nobody knows the truth behind his actions yet judgments are made as if his actions have been explained. His parents how devestated they must be. I cannot imagine what it is like to hear and read such harsh judgments about their son who once led such a promising future. I stand by both his parents and James included. I remain to put myself in their shoes. I could not live knowing that my son is the most hated in the U.S today and everyone only wants to see their son dead and many more terrible actions should be done to him. It is sickening and I am ashamed that the world is full of so much hatred and disrespect for all who are involved not only the victims but the Holmes’ as well. James Holmes was failed somewhere and he was an unfortunate individual who has slipped through the cracks. I remain to keep an open mind about James Holmes and his family and I refuse to state any form of bad judgment until a verdict has been read. Thats all I am saying. Your article was great reading and your statement are accurate and yes it is possible to feel empathy for James Holmes and his family as well. Thanks for the great read.

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