Victor Davis Hanson

The Demons of the Modern Rampage Killer

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

As of now we know little about what conditions drove, or proved useful to, the Aurora suspect to murder and maim [1]. But given the worldwide incidences of so-called “rampage killings,” the culprit was not the particular gun laws of Colorado. His dark counterparts exist in contemporary Norway, Uganda, Russia, and Latin America. I am sure there is a typology of the multifarious conditions that might prompt such demonic killers — workplace anger, spousal revenge, school-related grudges, religious fanaticism, race or ethnic hatred, political extremism, and abject insanity that offers no exegesis at all.

So far we have heard that guns did it; or that there were unfortunately not any good gunmen in the theater to stop him; or that the mentally ill are not closely enough watched, medicated, or hospitalized; or that we live in a “sick” culture;and on and on. [2]

One unmentioned fact is that rampage killing is not necessarily a modern phenomenon, although firearms as force multipliers facilitate it and up the horrific body count. Killers in the 19th century often shot down innocent bystanders. Yet I think there are some new developments that already have brought hundreds of millions worldwide into the horrifically demonic mind of the suspect James Holmes.

The first is modern global communications. In 1957, if a disgruntled Ugandan policeman slaughtered 57, to the degree anyone in Selma, my hometown of 5,000 at that time, knew about it, it was at best perhaps a day or two later and in a small column in The Fresno Bee. The same was true when a deranged German shot and killed 14 in 1913. Before the telegraph and telephone, did anyone, more than 100 miles distant from the scene of a crime, know that a Romanian or Japanese or Virginian carved up a dozen in the seventeenth century?

Today every rampage, everywhere, worldwide hits the internet and cable news, without wider thoughtful context, and yet with great detail of the crime. The graphic story is without valuable analyses, and so offers us little reminder that there are now 7 billion people on the planet — and in a nanosecond we are going to know the name and circumstances of any single one of us who that day goes on a rampage. The net effect is that the Bolivian worries just not about the mass killer in Lima, but the one in Miami or Ukraine as well.

Popular culture — particularly the visual arts of modern movies and TV, or the imagery on the internet — is far different from even the immediate past, at least in the sense of blurring reality with fantasy. In the old 1950s Western, the hero shot the villain, who grabbed his chest and fell, as if struck inexplicably by a heart seizure. We were told after Bonnie and Clyde [3] that such stagecraft was “fake”; people should die on screen instead like Clyde Barrow actually did — and we must as adult viewers appreciate the real effects of pulling the trigger.

The opposite ensued! There was far greater chance on Gunsmoke or Bonanzathat we had a few seconds to ponder the landscape of the occasional dying victim than amid the dozens who implode on Breaking Bad [4] or Spartacus[5]. How did it happen that by supposedly showing us exactly what a bullet does to flesh, we were thereby exempt from any human accounting — from the sort of explanation of a death that Doc, or Kitty, or Matt Dillon offered, when the latter shot one or two “bad guys” in an hour on Saturday night, or a “good guy” tragically died? Yes, it was phony when the gunslinger slumped over without a drop of blood on his chest; but it would be phonier still to have a smart-ass Marshal Dillon blast away ten in succession in slow-motion, flesh-exploding detail as if they were mere mannequins all, with no past, no present, no nothing.

Since about 1970, the cinema victim dies in the manner real people die (bloody trauma, the body contorting and in visible pain and shock). But here again is the dilemma — the hyperrealism still blurs reality. In an action-hero movie, a teen-horror film, a shoot-em-up crime show, lots of people perish in the manner in which real people would so die under similarly violent circumstances. But there is less, not more shock at the loss of human life.

When AlienPredator, or Terminator slice up or rip apart dozens, life just goes on. Bodies fly all over the screen and we are onto the next scene. Wondering about who actually was the 11th poor soul who had his heart ripped out by the Terminator is far less interesting than watching the latter utter some banality. The same is true of everything from Die Hard to 300 [6] — lots of real-life, graphic killing, but almost no pause and bewilderment over the staggering loss of life or the consequences of Target 12 or Victim G leaving life at 12 or 56. Killing is so easy not just because of robotic arms, RPGs, and computer simulations, but also because there are almost no emotional consequences from the carnage — a fact easily appreciated by the viewer, the more so if young or unhinged or both. The killer usually smiles or at least shows no emotion; the victims are reduced to “them,” anonymous souls who serve as mere numbers in a body count. Will Kane’s [7] victims, in contrast, were known — evil, but still not anonymous and not mere sets for the sheriff’s gunplay.

For the diseased mind that is saturated with such modern imagery, there is fascination aplenty with the drama of killing, but no commensurate lesson gleaned from its sheer horror—at least in human terms of the devastation that such carnage does to humans, both nearby and in the larger community. In the awful mind of the rampage killer, he always must be the center of attention in the manner of his homicidal fantasy counterpart, his victims of no more account than are those decapitated, dismembered, or shot apart by Freddy Krueger or Arnold Schwarzenegger. How odd that we rush to the emergency room for a cut finger in the kitchen—stitches, tetanus shot, pain killer, bandages, a doctor’s reassurance—only to matter-of-factly watch horrific wounds on television that night with no thought that a .38 slug to the shoulder entails something more than our split forefinger.

And there is a further wrinkle to these hyper-realistic cinematic rampages. The killer, be he an evil “Joker,” the horrific Alien, or a hit man in a mafia movie, has a certain edgy personality, even a sick sort of intriguing persona — at least in the sense that his evil is sometimes “cool” in a way that his plodding victims, who simply got in his way, are not. In the abstract, we sympathize with the good, who became his targets; but in the concrete, the film focuses more often on the killer’s emotions, his language, his swagger.

The Joker spits, he puns, he acts disengaged and “cool,” while his victims scream and panic; we want to know why he acts so, and are supposed to be fixated on his strange clothes, face, and patois, never on the series of Joe Blows that are incinerated by him. Is it any wonder we know all about the orange hair of the suspected killer, but very little about the hair colors of any of the poor victims?

Will this distortion of reality change? I doubt it, but I sense a great public hunger for the wounded victim, the near corpse, the dying to suddenly rise up and announce “I am a human being and I count,” as he either dies with a second of nobility or ends the rampage killer. One of the attractions of the violent film Dirty Harry was the utter disdain Clint Eastwood held for the perverted killer (“he likes it”), as he sought to remind society that in comparison with his victims, the killer’s feelings mattered little.

Yes, you say that the teary scene of the death of Boromir in Lord of the Ringsor a Kirk Douglas burning on the departing Viking ship was hokey. But I prefer them to the new normal of cinematic death as irrelevant — an indifference that ripples through society at large.

In The Dark Knight, when Batman chooses not to run over the Joker when he can, we are supposedly offered a number of valuable messages — the caped hero has not quite descended into the jungle of the vigilante; the rule of law and due process are upheld; saving the Joker ensures Batman is not the Joker; and even perhaps the misunderstood crime fighter senses a sick affinity with the similarly outcast crime perpetrator. But lost among the director’s messages is the simple fact that had Batman splattered the psychopathic mass murderer, dozens still alive in the remaining minutes of the film would not have been slaughtered. Or was that the director’s message — that Batman’s inflated sense of justice, his inability to terminate evil, ensures that evil will terminate others good but weaker than he?

All of which brings us to our third symptom of the modern age that makes the contemporary rampage killer somehow different. If the suspect is charged and found guilty, I have zero confidence that he will be hanged. I have a great deal of confidence that over the next five years, his awful presence will pop up on a news broadcast. We can execute bin Laden and high-five it; we can incinerate over 2,000 suspected terrorists by video-controlled Predators, and have the president brag about it in warning away suitors from his daughters at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner — but we cannot do the same for someone who was tried, convicted, and sentenced for horrifically destroying people.

For months to come after his trial there will be a “new” revelation in the case — an interview, a testimonial from a former friend, a novel twist about the evidence. The net effect is that we will know more about the killer and his crime, and each day ever less about his victims.

Tonight, I wish to know nothing about him other than the information necessary to try, convict, and punish him — and any data that might provide some sort of deterrence in preventing another such rampage.

In comparison to those he killed and maimed, and the legions of their relatives and friends, he is nothing. We the sophisticated with university degrees are supposed to know better: that hanging such a nightmarish criminal when convicted is both barbaric on our part and offers no statistical evidence that it will deter future such killers.

Perhaps. But society needs to be affirmed with a certainty that it has the clear sense of evil and good to try, convict, and punish the killer. Hanging Saddam or Eichmann, for all the controversies over their trials, at least offered some finality: they were evil and now are no more — and now we don’t worry whether Saddam was unloved, or the circumstances of Eichmann’s childhood.

In other words, I don’t care a whit whether the Aurora killer was a loner. I don’t care if he was unhappy or if he was on medication. Millions share such pathologies without killing a mouse. I don’t even know whether giving him swift justice will deter the next mass shooter. Yes, give the suspect expert legal counsel; call in all the psychiatrists imaginable; sequester the jury; ensure the judge is a pillar of jurisprudence; but if he is found guilty, I would prefer the gallows and quickly so, to remind us that we live in a civilization that prefers to remember the victims and to remember nothing at all of their killer.

URLs in this post:

[1] to murder and maim:
[2] and on and on.:
[3] after Bonnie and Clyde
[4] Breaking Bad:
[5] Spartacus
[6] 300:
[7] Will Kane’s:

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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