I shared my piece on James Holmes and white privilege over at The Daily Kos. At this point, it has about 550 comments. Do check it out and chime in. Of course, there is racism denying and deflection among the comments; but many of the most common observations involve the claim that James Holmes is a "sociopath," "crazy," or a "psychopath." As such, that should be the framework through which his deeds are viewed.
Consequently, we must a priori grapple with questions surrounding mental health and personal responsibility. I absolutely agree. However, there could be a more basic fact which drove Holmes' behavior that the general public and the pundit classes are loathe to acknowledge.
Moreover, James Holmes' deeds make the rest of us feel "good" and "normal" because such conclusions identify murder, mayhem, and violence as "unnatural" acts. In this framework, to kill at will is therefore made "crazy." Many people would not want to admit that violence is perhaps something natural for humans given that we are apex predators, and our history is one of blood and destruction.
Until the premier headshrinkers get access to The Batman Shooter and practice their craft, we must entertain the fact that Holmes simply killed at will because he could. Nothing more, nothing less. The banality of evil is real. They are not all bogeymen, some killers are pedestrian, boring, uninteresting, opportunists. Some of these killers are just run of the mill bureaucrats.
Richard Overy interviewed Nazi war criminals before their trials at Nuremberg. His book, Interrogations: Inside the Minds of the Nazi Elite, is a tour through the wickedness that is man given the opportunity to kill with impunity. The subjects of Overy's interviews--SS soldiers, guards, and others--are true sociopaths.
For example, here is an interview between one of the guards at Auschwitz and his interrogator:
Source: (HQ BAOR, interrogation reports from No. 1 Sub-Centre, 10 Dec 1945. (D) Taped conversation held on 3 Nov 1945 between Ernst von Gottstein and Eugen Horak - Document 13 in Interrogations: Inside the Minds of the Nazi Elite, Penguin, 2001, pp. 371-74.
Comment: Ernst von Gottstein (Hauptbauleiter OT, Gauamtsleiter fur Technik, Gau Karnten) and Eugen Horak (interpreter in Gruppe VI/C of the RSHA). If any subsequent information about Eugen Horak's service record and how he ended up in Auschwitz has come to light, I am not aware of it. Department VI/C was responsible for espionage and counter espionage abroad, C was responsible for Russia and Japan.
Horak: I was present in Vienna when they were loading up people for one of those mass evacuations. Hundreds were crammed into wagons, which normally took a couple of cows. And they were thoroughly beaten up as well. I went up to a young SS man and asked if the beating up was really necessary. He laughed and said they were only scum anyway. You know the whole thing was so unnecessary and one could well have got on without it ... what was the purpose of all that beating up? I have nothing at all against the gas chambers. A time can come when it is useful to the race to eliminate certain elements. Extermination is one thing but there is no need to torture your victims beforehand.
I saw some incredible things at Auschwitz. Some SS guard personnel could not stand it any longer and had to be sent to a nerve clinic. When my party arrived we were divided into two sections: those who were really keen on the whole affair, and those like myself who were continually asking for something to distract us. .... One SS company actually mutinied and tried to get themselves posted to the front. But they had to carry out their orders. It was just at the time that Ogruf [sic] Dix gave the orders to increase the death rate.
Von Gottstein: The motto of the SS ought to have been 'Meine Ehre ist Gehorsam' (My Honour is Obedience).
Horak: You're quite right. .... These people lose all feeling. Roschke for example once told me quite callously that he had volunteered for duty in the crematorium because they got so much time off afterwards. This duty was absolutely repulsive. One had to stand the whole night in the crematorium. There was only one door and no windows. The two sentries had to go in, lock the door and pass the key through the peephole to the officer outside. They were only connected to the outside world by telephone. An NCO and a private were normally on duty, but in a concentration camp experience counts a good deal more than rank. The one with more experience generally had a pistol and the other a rifle. There were nine people on duty in the crematorium, themselves known candidates for the gas chamber. They knew too much and were eventually exterminated as opportunity arose.
There were four ovens on the left side of the crematorium and the gas chamber was on the right - a normal size room with a narrow door and no windows. They did not use gas but a powder which at a certain temperature gave off poisonous fumes. It must have been quite agreeable because the people never made a mess. The sentries had to see that the nine people on duty didn't escape through the ventilators. And they watched them pulling the bones and the pieces of flesh which hadn't burned out of the ovens, or dragging the bodies from the gas chamber and cramming them into the ovens. There was only room for one body in each oven. There was a horrible smell of lime and burning flesh, something like the strong smell of urine ... (both laughing). But you get so used to it that you could eat your sandwiches in there too.
I do not know if James Holmes is part of Horak's tribe. We must wait, gather evidence, and let the experts do their work before coming to such a conclusion.
The more comforting decision rule has us lumping The Dark Knight Rises mass murderer in with sociopathic Hollywood characters like Hannibal Lecter, or real life monsters such as the SS guards at the Nazi death camps, or those men who ran the slave ships during The Middle Passage.
We can sleep easier that way.
We can sleep easier that way.
It is more frightening to accept that James Holmes could just be the killer next door. Am I wrong? Given the right combination of circumstances, are we not all capable of mass murder like James Holmes?