One of the most disturbing classes I ever took was simply called “The Holocaust.” Utilizing documentaries, diaries, and propaganda from the era, we spent a semester diving deep into the experiences of European Jews during one of the darkest chapters of world history. Reading firsthand accounts was jarring —particularly when those accounts ended abruptly, signaling the author’s death or arrest—, but the most unsettling moment occurred on the last day of class. Having spent a whole semester reading the accounts of victims and survivors, our professors wanted to spend that last class session decompressing and assessing how they might teach the course differently in the future. As they went around the room getting student feedback, one thing was said again and again and again:
We want to better understand how the Nazis could think and do these things—
how everyday people could just go along with genocide.
The professors grew visibly uncomfortable as student after student gave the same answer. Finally, one of the instructors broke the increasingly tense repetition. “Let me get this straight: you want to know more about the perpetrators? One of the greatest targeted atrocities in history, and you want to know more about the people who carried it out?” This was met with an uneasy yes from the students, and the class was dismissed.
Whenever there’s a tragedy, whether it’s something like last Sunday’s shooting in Las Vegas or an international atrocity on the scale of the Holocaust, there’s always an unnerving fascination with the assailants. I’ve seen independent news sources (Philip DeFranco for example) push back on this, saying they won’t give murderers the publicity, and while I appreciate this approach, I can tell it’s a struggle for reporters and viewers alike not to discuss the killer.
Take for instance James Holmes.
While the name might not mean much to us anymore (since many news outlets rightly chose to display his victims’ names more prominently), the orange-haired, bug-eyed Aurora shooter is still engraved in our minds, and we still wonder about the nature of his particular darkness. Rather than denying our perverse fascination with these people, I wonder if we might be better off admitting it and digging deeper into the horror we feel.
Why do monsters draw us in and etch themselves into our brains?
Why do we have such a need to figure out their motives?
Deep down, I think all of us are a little afraid we’re capable of horrific actions too. Maybe, as with the Germans in WWII, propaganda and charisma could lull us into genocide. Maybe, as with the Charlottesville white supremacists, our underlying biases could be stoked into something murderous. Or maybe, as some theorize happened with the Las Vegas shooter, we’ll just snap, lose our grip on reality, and attack. To ease our fears of this happening to us, we analyze these killers’ histories, looking for something we can blame— some triggering condition or trauma we can use to distance ourselves from them. Once we pinpoint the prejudice or psychosis or whatever else we can blame, we reassure ourselves: “That won’t be me. I could never do that.” And then nothing changes.
We study monsters so we can write them off as outliers,
and when we write them off, we feel better about ourselves and our culture,
and when we feel better, we can avoid making real systematic change,
but real systematic change might be the only thing that stops us from becoming monsters ourselves and repeating the cycle all over again.
So maybe it’s time we stop trying to make ourselves feel better,
stop moving on once we’ve pinned the violence on an outlying factor,
and focus on changing ourselves and our culture.
As of this writing, there have been 346 mass shootings (i.e. at least four people injured) in 2017, and that’s not even counting demonstrations that turned violent like in Charlottesville. I’ll say again what I’ve said already:
If you want to blame this on our limited mental health resources, fine,
but let’s try to fix our limited mental health resources.
If you want to blame this on the ease of obtaining absurdly lethal firearms, fine,
but let’s try to make it harder to obtain absurdly lethal firearms.
If you want to dismiss these domestic terrorists as monsters, fine,
but let’s try to figure out why we churn out so many monsters.
Let’s not waste our fascination with these monsters on making ourselves feel better;
let’s actually try to get better.