Did Liberals Make James Holmes a Mass-Murderer?

When tragedy strikes, we always, always, want to know why. If there's a reason, some one to blame, then tragedy is not mindless.

It fits into a pattern.

It makes some kind of senseless sense.

Why did James Holmes shoot 70 people last Friday?

I don't know why, and neither do you. The words of Alfred (Michael Caine) in The Dark Knight (2008) in relation to the Joker (Heath Ledger) have been bouncing around the Interwebs as we wrestle with the question: "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Why? We don't know why James Holmes did what he did. But we sometimes suspect that really terrible things happen because of people who are not like us, those people we don't like, the ones we have become convinced are f-ing up the universe. As we often do in trying to make sense that makes sense to us, some of us have begun to co-opt this tragedy to make it our own, have decided to ride this particularly violent hobbyhorse in spirited defense of our own particular hobbyhorses.

Liberals like me do this, of course. Bill Moyers and others jumped to blame the National Rifle Association for the attacks. Certainly the NRA's defense of nearly-absolutely freedoms to bear arms enabled Mr. Holmes' actions: it was easy for him to get his hands on the guns he employed in the attack, to order 6000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet, and to use an ammo clip that held 100 rounds and that has no useful application in hunting or target shooting.

But while I disagree with the NRA's insistence that legal restrictions are a slippery slope, the NRA did not encourage or brainwash Mr. Holmes into shooting those theatre-goers, and I know many hunters and other gun owners who use guns responsibly. If he hadn't gotten his hands on guns, Mr. Holmes might still have blown people up with those bombs he seemed to be so proud of.

The NRA may have contributed to, but they did not cause this tragedy. Neither did politically-conservative Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, members of the Tea Party, homophobes, hellfire and brimstone preachers, self-appointed spokesmen for God, or any of the other Americans with whom I sometimes have disagreements.

Some of them, though, are sure that they know who and what caused Aurora.

I did.

Fred Jackson, news director for the American Family Association, opined that liberals, liberal Christianity, the liberal media, and the supposedly-liberal American Civil Liberties Union are to blame.

(A necessary correction: while "ACLU" is often used as shorthand for "liberal," the ACLU is a nonpartisan organization that over the years has defended the freedom of all Americans to exercise unpopular liberties, including far-right institutions like the American Nazi Party, Rush Limbaugh, and the Westboro Baptist Church).

By the reasoning of some social conservatives, Liberal Christians like myself and my Episcopal denomination have created a climate where such horrific acts of violence happen because they believe we have de-emphasized the teaching of God, judgment, and Hell that could prevent this sort of behavior. As Mr. Jackson put it,

I have to think that all of this, whether it's the Hollywood movies, whether it's what we see on the internets [sic], whether it's liberal bias in the media, whether it's our politicians changing public policy, I think all of those somehow have fit together-and I have to say also churches who are leaving the authority of Scripture and losing their fear of God-all of those things have seem to have come together to give us these kinds of incidents.

It's a little different than Jerry Falwell blaming pagans, feminists, and gays because America was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists on 9/11. But not much.

Now I will admit that I got miles away from any religious institution that foregrounded Hell and judgment as the reasons we serve God, but I know of no liberal Christianity that excludes God from our prayers and service. Although we may focus less on a God of judgment than on love, justice, compassion, and service, I would be so bold as to suggest that these are qualities that should also make it less likely for people to kill each other in mass numbers.

But even if we agreed (we don't) that the only thing reinforcing decency is the fear of eternal punishment, does James Holmes seem, by any standards you recognize, sane? Even if he had been exposed regularly to "the God of the Bible," judgment, and Hell, would he would have acted differently?

7/25/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.