Reflections Blog

The Tragedy in Aurora

Like most people, I was horrified to learn of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on Friday, July 20, 2012.  It’s become evident in the days since that the killer carefully plotted his attack, prepared for months—stockpiling weapons, ammunition, and body armor for himself—and then methodically carried out his plan with ruthlessness and brutality.  He murdered twelve innocent people and wounded fifty-eight more.  And he rigged his apartment with explosions and sophisticated triggering mechanisms designed to inflict harm on the police officers who would go there to investigate.  In the days following this random act of violence, people have been struggling to make sense of what happened and why he did it.

My wife observed this morning that the killer was an intelligent, well-educated young man.  (So was the Unabomber, I replied.)  She was surprised that he could have done such a thing.  Her comment reflects the assumption many people make:  that intelligence and education should prevent people from committing acts like this, that they should “know better.”  I read in the newspaper this morning that the killer came from a middle-class, church-going family.  He was apparently not deprived in any way.  He appears to have had a normal childhood, although further investigations may reveal something out of kilter in his background.  At this point, he seems to have been a “normal” kid, albeit a bit of a loner. 

It’s natural for us to seek to understand this kind of aberrant behavior.  We need an explanation because the alternative—that his behavior cannot be explained—is even more disturbing to us.  We want to believe that he had an awful upbringing and was acting out against the abuse he received as a child, or that he used dangerous drugs that addled his mind, or that he had joined a terrorist group or become a religious fanatic and believed that God wanted him to kill unbelievers, or that he had a brain tumor that led to his antisocial behavior.  If any of these explanations were true, then we could neatly categorize this killer and be assured that random acts of mass violence like his won’t recur as long as certain conditions aren’t present.  In other words, we can feel safer because we understand.

But what if he is a “normal” young man, someone who doesn’t abuse drugs, isn’t a fanatic, isn’t mentally or physically ill, and doesn’t belong to a terrorist group.  One alternative explanation is that he is psychopath.  According to, a psychopath is “a person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.”  Psychologist Robert Hare explains in his landmark both on psychopaths, Without Conscience, that “psychopathic killers are not man, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards.  Their acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilling inability to treat others as thinking, feeling human beings.  Such morally incomprehensible behavior, exhibited by a seemingly normal person, leaves us feeling bewildered and helpless.”

Psychopaths lack empathy.  They cannot identify with others’ feelings—or even understand them—because they lack such feelings themselves.  Many are clever enough to mimic the feelings they think others expect to see.  So they may recognize that an occasion calls for sadness and fake what sadness looks like, but they really don’t understand sadness in the deeply felt way most of us experience it.  A violent psychopath can torture a victim or fire an automatic weapon into a crowded theater because he has no emotional connection with the pain and suffering he is inflicting.

According to one estimate, four percent of the population are psychopaths—that’s one person in twenty-five.  Most are not violent, but they are often ruthless, manipulative, deceitful, and uncaring.  There is some evidence that psychopaths’ brains are wired differently than a normal person’s brain.  If so, then that is at least an explanation for their antisocial behavior, but it’s hardly comforting.  They hide among us, like the Aurora killer, appearing to be normal (although a bit of a loner).  They can disguise themselves by mimicking emotions they don’t feel, and when they reach some critical point, they may decide to act on their impulses and start stockpiling weapons.

That critical point may be something as innocuous as being rejected by a member of the opposite sex, or being labeled average (psychopaths generally have grandiose views of themselves), or concluding that their life has no meaning, or deciding, as the Aurora killer may have done, that he was going unnoticed, that the acclaim he believed he deserved was not forthcoming.  So he decides to perpetrate an act that will garner all the attention he believes society owes him.  The trouble with this explanation is that, at any one time, millions of people around the world may feel this way.  Not all will become mass murderers, but some will.

The sad reality is that such people are always among us.  Acts of mass murder, brutality, sadism, and violence have occurred many times in the past and will occur many more times in the future.  And as much as we might desire logical explanations for aberrant behavior, the uncomfortable fact is that most such acts will remain inexplicable because we cannot enter the minds of psychopaths any more than they can enter ours.  They are like an alien species living among us that looks like us, talks like us, and, for the most part, behaves like us until, in one shocking moment, the truth about them becomes horrifyingly real.

Author’s note:  I did not use the Aurora killer’s name in this article because I did not want to dignify him by giving him a name.  I’ve also darkened his image in the photos to deny him one more publication of his photos.  If he craves the false glory of public attention, then let’s deny him that by, in effect, erasing him from our company.

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