James Holmes: Mass Media and Uncovering a Motive for Murder

Another mass shooting.  Another day of agony for our country.  A time for us to question, debate and jump to conclusions.  And ultimately, another lost opportunity to learn lessons from a tragedy that will get overshadowed by more recent news and shocking events.  Except of course, for those who suffered through the unimaginable; they will never forget.   

In March 2005, I was the FBI Special Agent in Charge of the mass shooting at Red Lake High School, leaving 10 people dead.  After my news conference, I was contacted by people from all over the world.  For a few weeks, the event, its aftermath and the ensuing investigation were headline news.  Six months later, Red Lake had disappeared from our collective memory. Our memories are short.

The same questions tend to arise after a mass shooting: Isn’t there a profile of these shooters?  Aren’t there red flags?  Usually, the answer is yes.  There is a basic profile of mass shooters.  Certain life events and changing patterns of behavior often unfold prior to the shooting.  These are not hard and fast rules, but generalities that are frequently present.

Reports from family and friends of the alleged shooter James Holmes describe him as shy, but otherwise unremarkable – not the kind of person you are concerned about “going off the edge.”  Yet, some neighbors have described him as a loner – a clear inference to someone who is odd and socially inadequate.  Had this horrific event not occurred, would they still describe him that way, or is this just the effect of the commonly held shooter profile?

When the recent life of the shooter is examined, as is already happening, we often find stressors and triggers.  These are the negative events which make one’s life unhappy and possibly unbearable.  These stressors can be real or imagined.  The triggers are the events that bring the shooter to the point of committing mass murder.

Holmes recently dropped out of his Ph. D. program, according to news reports.  That could have been one red flag.  By itself, it would not signal impending violence.  Were there other signs?  His mother was reported as saying, “You have the right person.”  If a mother can readily accept that about her son, then there must have been other warning signs.  These warning signs will be uncovered.  His accumulation of weapons and ammunition should have been red flags.  Did anyone else know about this?  As of now, the police are confident he acted alone.  That does not mean someone did not know something.

Mass shootings usually occur at school or the workplace as the shooter is seeking revenge against specific people or a group of people he sees as the source of his misery.  School and the workplace are usually where these stressors are most intense.  So, why the movie theater?  Yes, he referred to himself as “The Joker.”  Did he have some fascination with Batman, or did he seek a venue for inflicting maximum damage?
These events often end in suicide by the shooter’s own hand or by forcing the police to shoot him – suicide by cop.  That did not happen; he readily surrendered.  Why?

I suspect that he knew his life and story would be in the headlines for the next few weeks; he wanted to see his story told.  As always, I must point out that Holmes is the alleged shooter; his guilt has not been determined.

Why do we tell the story of the shooter?  We justify that by saying we need to understand; we need to recognize the warning signs; we need to discuss mental health issues and intervention and we need to re-visit the gun laws.  These would be important conversations if we actually accomplished anything.  But we don’t.
Holmes is not cooperating with law enforcement at this point.  I think eventually he will.  That will be the only way to bring his name back in to the spotlight after our attention turns to the next tragedy.

Maybe we should not give any coverage to the life and times of mass murderers.  Do we really need to provide them with any more motivation than they create for themselves?

This post is contributed by Michael Tabman. It originally appeared on his Crime Scene Blog and is republished here with permission. Michael is a retired FBI Agent and the author of several books. He is also the founder of SPIRIT Asset Protection, LLC where he provides services in security and risk management. You can find out more about this author and his books by visiting his website, following him on Twitter or joining him on Facebook.

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