In the wake of the shootings in Colorado, there is a lesson for us all — one we should have learned a long time ago.
The first lesson should have sufficed, at Columbine high school in 1999, when two students killed 13 and left many injured. We learned again at the terrorized campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 that left 32 dead and 17 wounded. And again at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011 where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was set to speak.
On Friday, we were faced with the lesson at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where a gunman killed 12 people and left scores wounded.
Dozens of dead and wounded by a handful of apparently unbalanced individuals bent on murderous obsession. The common thread: lots and lots of guns.
As Michael Moore told TheWrap on Friday: "We are a violent nation."
Now, like everyone else, I want to understand what happened to James Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado rampage. How did a highly educated, intellectually gifted young man fall down the wormhole of fantasy and emerge as his own scarily, twisted version of "The Joker," as he reportedly told Colorado police.
We will never know for sure. But we should not dodge the socio-cultural component of a tragedy such as this.
Movies are not the cause of real-life violence. But that does not mean they have no impact on us. We love the movies because they affect us deeply – often to the good. But if that is true, than so must be the reverse.
We should not pretend that films do not move us. That fans sometimes become obsessive and live in worlds that can be all-enveloping. That playing shooter games touches some primal urge in the human psyche, not necessarily our most civilized impulse.
And since Columbine, movies and videogames and television shows have only become more violent.
It is fair to ask that moviemakers and their studios, that game developers and their distributors, take some accountability for the impact of their work.
At the same time, our contemporary entertainment reflects a society that has gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and sent many soldiers home mutilated beyond recognition and others with massive psychic trauma. And our culture reflects a government that decided to torture perceived and actual enemies of the state and hid behind legal niceties to do so.
For all intents and purposes, we have abandoned the discussion over guns. Holmes had been buying guns for months. Now we learn that his assault rifle jammed during the assault in the theater, meaning there might have been even more casualties.
So what else should we expect?
Hollywood insiders I've spoke with since the shooting are in shock. But they decline to draw any connection to movies or television shows or videogames. They raise the issue of guns and how prevalent they are, how easy to buy, how unregulated.
I cannot argue with them. What possible reason can there be for an individual to be permitted to buy an assault rifle in the state where Columbine occurred?
Sadly, this debate is not new. It has been visited and revisited and ushered out the door by politicians who refuse to touch it and lobbyists who make sure they don’t.
It may seem that the tragedies that befall innocent victims in public spaces are to continue to pass with no greater response than the arrests of a few perpetrators and the burial of others.
What are the chances of a real conversation about the impact of violent films on society, some may ask?
I'd reply: What are the chances of a real conversation about the wide-open access to guns of every stripe in American society?
I fear that we have learned nothing from Columbine, which took place a decade ago and is 20 miles away from Aurora. I fear we have already shouted at each other over these issues, and chosen willful deafness.
We’ve been given another wake-up call. Let’s not waste this one.