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What Previous Massacres Teach Us About Aurora


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Yesterday, the people of Aurora, Colorado, gathered to remember the 12 people killed at a movie theater on Friday, and over the weekend, many in Norway paused to remember on the anniversary of the murder spree that claimed 77 there a year ago.

Awful events like these become indelible markers on a community and a nation, unique and very unusual yet so vivid we can sometimes seem overwhelmed. So far, we know little about the alleged shooter in Colorado, James Holmes, or the answer to the question that eats at us all: Why?

But maybe we can learn from history. If something similar happened in your town, a school shooting, a bombing, a terrorist attack, what did you learn? Our number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the NCAA's punishment of Penn State, but first an expanded version of our Opinion Page. Let's begin with a caller. We'll start with Sasha(ph), and Sasha's on the line with us from Oklahoma City.

SASHA: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, I assume you're calling about the terrible bombing there.

SASHA: Yes. When the Murrah Building bombing happened, I was very young, 12 years old, and my mother was a nurse. And we were downtown helping out as much as we could after that. And when you asked, you know, what we learned from something like that, I think what's so surprising is that it seems like many of us learn very little.

There was so much media and so much things that happened around that that the problem is, is that it doesn't answer any questions, and it doesn't - you know, you're still left wondering how something like that can possibly happen. And really I think the only thing you can hope to glean is how to grieve.

CONAN: How to grieve, and does practice help? Does practice help with grief?

SASHA: Yes, and it's - you know, it's one of those things that you think about that for the rest of your life, and you see things and experience things that you can't ever imagine you would have experienced. But it doesn't - you know, there are so few questions answered, and then even when they are answered, it's never - it's not enough. It can never possibly be enough to explain a tragedy like that.

CONAN: There is already talk in Colorado of seeking the death penalty. Obviously we are a long way from a court case, the first appearance in court today. But there has been that experience in Oklahoma. Did that change anything for you?

SASHA: No, not at all. I think that it absolutely changed nothing. You know, we've - for some people I think that that was gratifying I guess. But I know as far as I'm concerned, there was so much tragedy and so much loss, and more death didn't make that any better.

CONAN: Sasha, thanks very much for the phone call, we appreciate it.

SASHA: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is Ed Smith, he worked as an editor at the Denver Post during the Columbine shootings in 1999. He is now managing editor of State Legislatures magazine, with us by phone from his office in Denver. Nice of you to be with us today.

EDWARD SMITH: Thank you, Neal, nice to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder, what did you learn from Columbine that seems relevant today?

SMITH: I think one thing we learned from Columbine was that 13 years later, I'm not sure that the answers we have are any more satisfying than the answers we had on that horrible day in 1999. You know, I think that there's something about people who would do something of this sort that we never probably get a very satisfying answer.

And I think that maybe we need to look elsewhere, and that's what I wrote an op-ed piece about in Saturday's Denver Post, that maybe the best that we can hope out of something like this is to try to create a more compassionate community, to try to be better to one another.

CONAN: We're going to be reading excerpts from op-eds, I guess including yours, but some of them will argue for gun control, some against, some for various things and for others. But I thought you made an interesting point in your op-ed that this is not an occasion really to look at politicians or Washington, D.C., for answers.

SMITH: Well, I don't think so. I think that ultimately we have to look to ourselves if we want a better, more humane community. When I was a boy, and I was delivering newspapers in June of 1968, I saw that - opened one up one morning and saw that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, and I think I've been waiting ever since then for somehow our society to change so these things don't happen.

I don't think that's - I don't think that's likely, but I think that what is possible is that we as individuals and as communities try to come together and be more decent to each other, be more civil to one another, be more respectful of what other people think. And maybe that isn't the solution, but I think it probably would make us a better society.

CONAN: I wanted to read an excerpt from an op-ed by Dave Cullen, who wrote the book on Columbine, and the - he concluded in his article, titled "Don't Jump to Conclusions about the Killer," that one thing we want to do is wait. You've probably been bombarded with facts and opinions about James Holmes' motives.

He wrote: You are probably wrong. I learned that the hard way. In 1999 I lived in Denver and was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School the afternoon it was attacked. I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with.

We created those myths for one reason: We were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them. Not one bit of that turned out to be true. But the news media jumped to all those conclusions in the first 24 hours, so they accepted - they are accepted by many people today as fact.

And of course much of his book about Columbine is about what he did learn in the diaries of the two killers. And in a sense, Ed Smith, I wonder, we want to know more about this person and why he did it, yet there will be those who say wait a minute, you're glorifying this killer.

SMITH: I'm not sure it's glorifying. I think it's understandable that people want to understand why this happens. But when you open a window into madness, I'm not sure that you ever understand it. I'm not sure that all the explanations of why the killer in Norway a year ago committed that horrible slaughter that 20 years from now we'll really know more about why he did that any more than he simply lost his grasp on what the rest of us consider reality.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Emily's(ph) on the line calling from Denver.


CONAN: Hi, Emily.

EMILY: Hi, well, I just agree a lot with Sasha, that in these cases we really don't learn things. I think it's more reminders. I know when I first heard the news, I just thought immediately about, you know, if my loved ones were connected with it or who I could possibly know who might be affected by this and just really about the fragility of life.

I feel like there's so many instances where, you know, just to cope, we have to move through life without thinking about death, but these awful events are just such a big reminder that, you know, not to be morose but death is imminent and that we really have to just appreciate every single chance we get and really, you know, let the people we love know and really just tell everyone and do all that we can for others and hope that that can create, you know, a better society, a better world where perhaps we can transcend these things so they won't happen anymore.

CONAN: Did you happen to know any of the people who were in the movie theater that night?

EMILY: To be honest, I still don't know. News is still coming out, and I haven't really been able to access all of it because I've been traveling. But as far as I know, no. But there's still been such an outpouring of love from all of my friends and family towards, you know, everyone who was in Aurora that night, and I have tons of friends who went to the ceremonies last night and everyone on Facebook, you know, texting everything, has just been very concerned and very loving for each other.

CONAN: Emily, thanks very much for the phone call, and we certainly hope all your friends are OK.

EMILY: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: Ed Smith one thing that has changed in the past 12 years since Columbine, the prevalence of social media.

SMITH: Well, that's absolutely true, and I think any of us who work in the media or work online are just immersed in that. I'm not enough of an expert to tell you whether that is going to make us a better, more compassionate society, the way the last caller was just saying, but it certainly allows people to be more in touch with one another about it and to maybe feel and connect with people more quickly.

CONAN: And when you talk about being a more compassionate, other than attending a memorial service in Aurora, Colorado, what are you talking about?

SMITH: I think I'm talking about trying to make a difference in our individual lives. Governor Hickenlooper was at the prayer vigil last night, and I thought he made a poignant point, which is that we want to remember these people, and one way that we can remember them, one way that we can make a difference, is simply to be better people. And we can all interpret that in different ways.

But I think just small acts of kindness, compassion do make a difference. It makes us a better people. I said in my column that 30-plus years in the newspaper business, naive is not a word that people would use to describe me, but I think that it's not entirely naive to say that we need to take into our own hands making ourselves a better society and stop blaming other people, stop pointing our finger at others and say they're the problem or they're the ones who are supposed to come up with a solution.

CONAN: And speaking of history, you went a little bit past Columbine to the pre-Civil War era to look for lessons.

SMITH: Absolutely. I think that we are a nation that has gone through convulsions of vitriol toward one another. And certainly the pre-Civil War era is a time when that occurred. And it seems as though in the last 10 years or so, the last 15 years, that the level of discourse in our country has become so polarized. And the point I make in the piece is that we've begun to not just disagree with people, we've begun to think that how other people think, and if they don't agree with us they're not simply wrong, they're just - they don't really even have a right to exist. They're the other. And we - I think that's a bad place to go in this country, and it troubles me a great deal.

CONAN: And do you see that emerging in the discussion about what happened in Aurora?

SMITH: Well, I looked at a bunch of the comments on various pieces, on the Denver Post particularly, and just a brief smattering, I saw one person who said that the problem with Columbine and Aurora was that Californians had moved to Colorado.

I saw another piece that said the problem that not enough people had guns. Another one, of course, said that we didn't have strict enough gun laws. I had other people comment to me: So do you think we should just be nice to each other? Is that your solution?

So I think that the finger-pointing has started, the sense of - and of course the calls for the death penalty and that sort of thing, which seem to me a bit premature. So I think that the people are looking for someone to blame, and certainly there's plenty of other places to have that discussion, but I think for my purposes, I'm simply suggesting that if we want to have a better society, it's our responsibility to make it a better society.

CONAN: Edward Smith, thank you very much for your time today, appreciate it.

SMITH: Thank you.

CONAN: There's a link to Edward Smith's commentary, "Colorado Needs an Act of Kindness," at our website, npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. The suspected gunman behind the mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater made his final - his first appearance in court today. James Holmes will be formally charged next Monday. This is hardly the first time we've confronted an event like this, even as the FBI reports violent crime on the decline in the United States.

In just the past seven months, there have been at least six other mass shootings in this country. Earlier last week, a gunman in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, shot into a bar and injured 17 people. In April, a gunman fired on a classroom at Oikos University in Oakland killing seven. Other shootings in Seattle, Tulsa, Pittsburgh and Ohio together cost the lives of nearly a dozen others.

If something similar happened in your town, a school shooting, a bombing, a terrorist attack, what did you learn? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're also going to be reading excerpts from op-ed pieces and this piece of analysis from Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post, in his column called "The Fix." The piece is called "Why The Aurora Shootings Won't Likely Change the Gun Control Debate."

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April of this year showed that 49 percent of the people said the right to own guns was more important while 45 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership. These numbers were unchanged from a Pew survey conducted January 13 through 16, 2011, just days after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in Tucson.

That the numbers on gun control remain steady even in the aftermath of such high-profile events like Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Giffords shooting suggests that people simply don't equate these incidents of violence with the broader debate over the right role for guns in our society. They view them as entirely separate conversations, and that's why the tragedy in Aurora isn't likely to change the political conversation over guns either.

We'll read more editorials a bit later, but joining us now is Mark(ph), and Mark is on the line with us from St. Petersburg.

MARK: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

MARK: My nephew is one of the people who was a shooter. He was fired from his job. He went home and got an AK-47 that he had acquired at a gun show a month before, went back to school, shot his headmistress and then shot himself. He was a very disturbed young man. He had - he was bipolar, and he had paranoia that was getting worse and worse as time went on, and he kept sinking deeper and deeper.

CONAN: And we have to remember there's no indication or no real indication yet that mental illness played any part whatsoever in Aurora...

MARK: Right, I understand that, and I'm not saying that. But what I'm saying is this: I'm a gun owner. I own three weapons myself. My family has been hunters for three generations. What we need is sane gun laws. I'm not saying take guns away from people, I'm saying that the loophole in gun-show law that the NRA has forced through is allowing people who shouldn't have them to walk into a gun show any place and buy a gun no questions asked and walk out the door.

This loophole is allowing domestic terrorist groups, which can be tracked on the Southern Poverty Law Center, to buy weapons to arm themselves. It's allowing people like my nephew to walk in and buy a gun no questions asked. If he had had to go through a five-day waiting period and a background check, chances are he and the headmistress would still be alive today.

And this fiasco at the border, trying to...

CONAN: Oh, the Fast and Furious case, yes.

MARK: Fast and Furious, if there were a gun-show law that required people to wait five days and go through a background check, we wouldn't have Fast and Furious, and we wouldn't be denying any people that had a legitimate right to a gun the opportunity to purchase one.

CONAN: Mark...

MARK: And again, I'm saying I talk to you as a gun owner and a hunter, and I'm - you know, I seriously think that one of the most dangerous domestic terrorist groups we have right now is the NRA because they refuse, they absolutely refuse to allow sane gun laws.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for your call, we appreciate it.

MARK: Thank you very much. I appreciate the forum.

CONAN: And here's an editorial from the Washington Times, which cited an incident in Ocala, Florida, in which 71-year-old Samuel Williams broke up an armed robbery attempt at an Internet cafe using a legal concealed handgun. The event was vividly captured on store security cameras and became an Internet sensation and showed what can happen when people have the means to defend themselves and the gumption not to be victims.

There was no return fire in the theater in Aurora because apparently no one other than the shooter was armed. While Colorado has good concealed-carry laws, the Washington Times continues, Cinemark cinemas don't allow guns on their premises. The Cinemark massacre illustrates the ineffectiveness of this private gun-control policy.

Granted, the editorial continues, the circumstances of the two events were different. The cafe robbers came to steal, not slaughter. They were teenage punks, not psychopaths. The Batman shooter was wearing body armor, and the scene in the theater was dark and chaotic. An armed audience member may have shot another patron by mistake.

But he may also have found his mark, and the shooting rampage could have ended with far fewer casualties. Those who argue that tighter gun control would have prevented this tragedy should consider the possibility that gun control made it as deadly as it was.

And this is a piece from the Washington Post by E.J. Dionne, who says: The massacre at the Colorado movie theater demands we rethink our approach to the regulation of firearms because those who advocate it are accused of exploiting the deaths of innocent people.

He says that, of course, is a big lie. Nobody who criticizes a botched response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a natural disaster is accused of exploiting the victims of a hurricane or a tornado. Nobody who lays part of the blame for an accident on insufficient regulation of, say, the airlines or coal mining is accused of exploiting the accident's victims.

No, it's only where a gun massacre is concerned that an absolute and total gag rule is imposed on any thinking beyond the immediate circumstances of the catastrophe. God forbid that we question even a single tenant of the theology of firearms.

Let's see if we can go next to Nicole(ph), and Nicole is on the line with us from Tucson, Arizona.

NICOLE: Hi, everyone. I am somebody who committed myself to public service in part because of the aftereffects of violence and, you know, trying to cope with that. The recent shootings in Tucson and all of the similar situations are just incredibly traumatic, and I get so tired of hearing the same conversation each time.

I do think that there is a lot we can learn. I don't support jumping to conclusions, as your panelist mentioned.

CONAN: Dave Cullen, yes.

NICOLE: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, you know, I think that I'm not personally committed just to fighting against violence. You know, it is about connecting to people and being there for people. But the continued lack of action after initial dialogue is incredibly frustrating.

CONAN: I can hear the emotion in your voice. Clearly there is conversation after an incident like the one in Tucson, in which Congresswoman Giffords and so many others were killed and injured, but you say very little happens after that?

NICOLE: Yes, I do - you know, I do believe in not just political and legal change but in starting to look more at ourselves as communities. And obviously there's so many circumstances that might lead to these horrible events, but we can address them one by one and start changing ourselves and seeing where this comes from. I think that, like, after Columbine, we do have a better idea of what happened there.

CONAN: Nicole, thank you very much.

NICOLE: Thank you.

CONAN: This email is from Hans(ph) in Kirtland, Ohio: Not my town, but Chardon, Ohio, is the next town over, and I know so many people there. In February, TJ Lane shot and killed three Chardon high school students and injured many others. What did we learn? That there is no why, that this sort of thing just happens. People go berserk and kill people. You have to be tough and move on.

It's hard at times because there are black and red hearts with Chardon all around on local roads. So we're constantly reminded. TJ is being treated with compassion. He will be in jail for the rest of his life, but even the victims' families are showing compassion and forgiveness. You can learn how truly good people can be because of something like this.

Let's go now to Carrie(ph), and Carrie's on the line with us from Littleton, Colorado.

CARRIE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: Hi. I'm calling being intimately related with the Columbine issue that had happened, and my significant other is law enforcement, actually in Jefferson County. And conversations that we've had since Columbine and since Platte Canyon and now the Aurora shootings, what we have discussed is how the training exercises have changed to how to make response times better, to help make - and needing to think of the dispatch traffic and how the dispatcher that was calling to the emergency personnel was really just on the ball and getting everybody communicating, you know, on the same page to get everybody where they needed to be, to help as many people as fast as they could.

CONAN: And do you think those lessons have been put into practice?

CARRIE: I think so. And even speaking with my significant other about this, you know, we talked about how certain training of certain calls that are made and setting up checkpoints and this and that, you know, after it has been assessed - has been, you know, was used in the Aurora situation.

CONAN: So practical, practical steps, those are things we have to learn too.

CARRIE: Correct.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for reminding us.

CARRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from an op-ed in USA Today by Dave Kopel, who's an adjunct law professor at Denver University, research director of the Independence Institute, formerly columnist for the Rocky Mountain News: Inside the papers, running a single, small picture of the Aurora killer is sufficient for showing the public what he looks like. His image should not be run day after day, accompanying the follow-up stories. Likewise, the media should refrain from giving the crime a catchy nickname. Refer to the crimes as the Aurora movie killings or something similar, not the Batman murders.

Showing cell phone videos of the crime in progress will attract viewers and therefore advertising dollars. It will also help incite other potential killers. I'm skipping down. Amongst the readership of any large newspaper and among the viewership of all major TV news programs, there is a tiny fraction of sociopaths and the violently mentally ill. Responsible journalists must keep this fact in mind. Evil thrives when good people, for short reasons - sighted reasons of expediency, allow themselves to cooperate with it.

And let's go next to - this is Gretchen. Gretchen with us from Granite Bay in California.

GRETCHEN: Yes. Hi. Good afternoon. I just love your show and thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Thank you.

GRETCHEN: I'm calling because I just wanted to say back in the early '70s, I was involved in an attack on a downtown Howard Johnson in New Orleans. My two brothers - I was 12. My two brothers and I were there having breakfast, and, you know, over the years, I have described this event to many people, and I have yet to run into anyone who has ever heard of it...

CONAN: I was going to say this is unfamiliar to me.

GRETCHEN: Oh, this is - look it up. This was just such a dramatic situation. Many, many policemen and firemen lost their lives. A hotel manager was shot in the stairwell. It was a full-on terrorist attack. It was just that it didn't happen, you know, that - this type of thing didn't happen then. But anyway, the reason I'm calling is for two reasons is just to say this kind of thing has been happening in our country for a long time. This - whoever perpetrated that situation was fully armed, set the whole place on fire, you know, killed many police and firemen, which I witnessed. It was a terrible situation.

The other reason I'm calling is because my primary memory of that situation was that a young couple, who were both medical students at Tulane University, left the safety of their apartment, which was a few blocks around the corner, to come to this horrific scene and see if they could help. And they did find my brothers and I cowering across the street from this assault on this Howard Johnson's, walking the firemen, climbing the building, being shot, running across the park, being shot, falling, people jumping, flames everywhere.

And this young couple came down to find out what they could do, and they actually brought us to their apartment and took care of us until my parents returned - they were actually house hunting. We were moving to New Orleans at that time And just took care of us. And they called the radio station. They called the police to say, hey, these kids are safe. They're OK. There were no cellphones then.


GRETCHEN: So no one had any way of contacting my parents, and this young couple came and just really took care of us and...

CONAN: No Internet then. We did check, though, on the Internet - 1973, Howard Johnson's in New Orleans.


CONAN: Ten people killed.

GRETCHEN: Yes. Anyway, you know, I just wanted to say that I was listening to President Obama last night and the story that he told of the friend helping her friend, and I just think that their heroics in those situations should be recognized.

CONAN: Yup. Thanks very much.

GRETCHEN: All right. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: I'm glad you survived.

GRETCHEN: Oh, well, yeah.


GRETCHEN: Thanks to the Tulane medical students.

CONAN: Gretchen with us from California. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to read this email from Ty(ph) in Blacksburg, Virginia: What did I learn from the mass shooting in my hometown? That the right to own a gun is more important than the right to life. And this is from an editorial in the Los Angeles Times by Paul Whitefield, an op-ed piece. He concludes: We don't need to disarm Americans, but neither do we need to arm Americans with assault rifles. We can respect the Second Amendment and respect the right of young people to go to a theater without having to survive a fusillade normally reserved for a battlefield. So how about it, fellow parents? How about giving some meaning to the lives of those killed in Colorado? How about making America just a little safer for my kids and your kids? How about a No More Assault Rifles Act of 2012? Yes, it's just a small step. But really, isn't it the least we can do?

And I wanted to end by reading from this editorial op-ed piece from the column by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times this morning: The great failure of the - excuse me. He's writing about, of course, this happened at a screening of the latest "Batman" movie. The great allure of the superhero, of course, is that he has the tools necessary not only to fight the more elemental forms of evil but also to preempt them: to sweep down, cape flying, whenever ordinary law enforcement fails to anticipate or reckon with a threat.

Indeed, for all the famous grittiness and violence of the "Batman" movies, very few innocents perished onscreen. In real life, matters are tragically different. Yes, sometimes vigilantism saves the day. Sometimes people working on the outskirts of the law can protect those of us who live within it. Sometimes the law itself can prevent evil men from gaining the tools to wreak destruction. But often, the most important defense of civilization takes place only after tragedy has struck and innocents have perished and the real heroes are neither police nor politicians nor imaginary, bat-suited billionaires but the people whether in Columbine or lower Manhattan or now Aurora, Colorado, who carry one another through the valley of the shadow of death and by their conduct, ensure that the Jokers and James Holmeses of the world win only temporary victories.

Our thanks to everybody who wrote to us and everybody who called. We're sorry we couldn't get to everybody's call. When we come back, Mike Pesca joins us to talk about the punishments levied today by the NCAA against Penn State University. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.