What if Batman shooter James Holmes had been a seminary student instead of a science student?
The horrific shooting at a Colorado cinema on Friday has led to an understandable search for meaning. Why did this man allegedly storm into a movie theater and open fire, killing twelve total strangers and wounding dozens?
We here at ILYBYGTH have a different question. In our quest to understand Fundamentalist America without prejudice and without smug presumption, we must ask: What if Holmes had been a deeply religious person? What if he had been a student at Liberty University or Bob Jones University instead of the University of Colorado? How would the media have reported this story?
As it is, as details of Holmes eccentric history have been uncovered, coverage has often noted that Holmes was a scientist, BUT he still engaged in this bizarre atrocity. The Huffington Post headline, for example, reported the following: “James Holmes, Theater Shooting Suspect, Was Brilliant Science Student.” ABC News framed the story as an utter mystery. In its report, ABC said police were “hoping to discover there clues to what would make a young man recognized as one of the nation’s ‘outstanding neuroscientists and academicians’ unleash a storm of terror in a packed movie theater.” USA Today made this distinction explicit. They noted that “Two Portraits” of the alleged shooter have emerged, one as an intellectually gifted neuroscience student” and another as a “suspected mass murderer.”
Here’s what we have not seen: “Science Drives Student to Murder;” “Fanatic Scientist Kills Twelve;” or “Science Killings on the Rise.” We will not likely hear calls to limit the amount of neuroscience young people can study. We will not listen to talking heads discuss the dangerous way scientists promote their ideas on young and impressionable minds. We will also not see a rehashing of every story about violent scientists in recent years. At least in the mainstream media, we won’t hear discussions of the ways a scientific worldview encourages this sort of nihilistic atrocity.
Yet it does not take an enormous leap of imagination to picture what journalists might say if Holmes had been instead a brilliant student at a conservative religious school. There would doubtless be talk of “American Taliban,” or perhaps “Fundamentalist Massacre.” The teachings of the religious school would doubtless be used as headlines, such as “Holmes’ School Taught Literal Interpretation of Bible, Young Earth” or some such. Perhaps the diaries of the student would be plumbed eventually for religious references, such as God’s call to purify the earth. If we recognize our prejudice against Fundamentalist America, we should recognize that such connections between one mentally troubled murderer and the education and training of that person are not necessarily causally linked. In other words, if we don’t blame Science for the Colorado shootings, we should not blame religion for every atrocity committed by a religious person.