'Columbine' author Dave Cullen examines the Aurora tragedy
'Columbine' author Dave Cullen on how best to understand the Aurora shootings and the lessons that such catastrophes have taught us.
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A: Every case is different, and it's a little difficult to generalize. And I think "publicity" is the wrong word.Skip to next paragraph
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They are reaching for attention in a lot of cases, lashing out and wanting the world to see their pain. It's like "goodbye cruel world" – "you'll see now what you did to me and you'll understand." It's a different emotion than we get from the word "publicity." It's not so much a celebrity thing.
But I do like the idea of mentioning their names as little as possible. I'd like to see more people take that up and see where we can go with that.
Journalists have pooh-poohed it to me, saying the names are out there. That's misunderstanding the point.
We're not trying to hide their names, and we're not going to keep anyone from finding them out. The point is to use them as little as possible, so the act is known and talked about but the names are not recognized. That's pretty doable.
Q: Still, in this case, the Aurora suspect's face has been all over the media. I found myself staring into it intensely on the TV screen and trying to figure out what I could discover about him. Is that OK? When do we go too far in trying to comprehend someone like him?
A: That's national human curiosity and also intellectual curiosity, wanting to know. That's normal and there's nothing wrong with it.
When you start making guesses about what's going on in his head, that's OK at the water cooler and around the dinner table. But not so much on TV.
Q: You write in your book about how a myth of Columbine – that two young men were bullied and in turn targeted jocks – turned into the prevailing story line, even though it wasn't true. Why is that a problem?
A: Once the public believes something, there's a window where everyone is paying attention and they're riveted to the information, and after that they stop paying attention. It doesn't really matter what you tell them anymore.
Once we get it wrong, it's with us forever. There's no untelling the story.
Now, in Aurora, we're getting close to the end of the window of the first phase.
If we think we don't know why [the shooter] did it, and we're waiting for the trial to find out, that's healthy. If we're collectively made up our mind that it's XYZ motive, we'll be stuck with that. And if it's wrong, we'll learn inappropriate things from it.
Q: As the parody site The Onion noted in a mock story with plenty of truth in it, these kinds of incidents follow a kind of protocol: calls for gun control, the presidential visit, inappropriate comments from dingbat politicians, and the slow fade of interest. It's clear that gun control isn't going anywhere. What else can we do as a society to make these incidents less likely?
A: The answer is in understanding why we got things like Columbine wrong so badly.
We never got to the understanding that there were two killers there: one was a psychopath and the other a deeply suicidal depressive.
We don't have a solution for psychopathy, and we don't have any treatment for it. We don't know what to do with these people except to lock them up. But we could listen to the people who study this who are clamoring for more research dollars so we can find some treatments.