The devil in the details: Sensationalizing crime

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Article Scripture and Theology Spirituality
We shouldn’t let sensationalized crime become an occasion of sin.

I once heard a bishop explain to confirmation candidates what it means to, in the words of the baptismal liturgy, “reject the glamor of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin.” A white-knuckle flyer himself, he told the story of a colleague who refused to fly for fear of a plane crash, then wondered aloud if his friend, ever tuned in to media coverage of accident scenes, hadn’t allowed that possibility to decide where he went and how. “Rejecting the glamor of evil” meant not letting the vivid image of a fiery crash get in the way of living.

I thought of the bishop’s insight in the days after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, as the media produced profile after profile of its perpetrator, James Holmes, while other stories told of his victims and the small acts of heroism that saved this or that person from his murderous intent. From the color of Holmes’ hair and his vacant expression to minute-by-minute reconstructions and 911 calls, the coverage spread across cable networks, newspapers, Facebook, and Twitter. Try as one might, it was hard not to comment on the almost supernatural quality of the evil he perpetrated or become engrossed in the body count.

Evil of this type is hardly new. The Aurora shooting was followed soon after by an attack on a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. Last year began with the January rampage of Jared Loughner in Tucson, Arizona that killed six and gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, while 2007 was marked by the shootings at Virginia Tech that killed 32.

Though glamor might not be the first word that comes to mind when bullets fly, such crimes are indeed evil at its most mesmerizing, commanding public attention more powerfully than any royal wedding. It’s hard to imagine marrying a prince, after all, but everyone goes to the movies.

Indeed, the sensation built up by media coverage of tragic violence is dangerously distracting, tempting us to look deeper into the mind of the killer, to be drawn away from everyday life, even to be “mastered” a little more by fear. Fox News reported that applications for gun permits in Colorado jumped by 43 percent in the days after Aurora, with notable increases in other states. Largely ignored was an op-ed by a retired 30-year veteran of the Chicago police department, who in The New York Times wrote that “even a highly trained, armed police officer would have been caught off guard” in that terrible moment in Aurora.

As I read headline after headline about James Holmes, I wondered if the gory details of his crime were distracting Chicagoans like me from the fact that, as Salon.com writer Murtaza Hussain pointed out, my city is “Aurora all the time,” with more than 5,000 gun deaths in the past decade and a sky-rocketing murder rate this year, primarily among young people. As coverage of victims’ funerals claimed the front page, news of the renewed violence in Iraq and the exploding revolution in Syria languished in the back. Almost lost in my Facebook feed, filled with shared links and news of victims, was the invitation to a prayer circle for a high school friend and mother of three who had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age of 38.

It’s entirely understandable, of course, to be drawn to tragedy, to be absorbed by the details of some terrible crime, to wonder what was going on inside the mind of the perpetrator. But I think the bishop was right: The allure of such evil is a temptation, a distraction from the effects of everyday injustice and violence that kill and maim many more than James Holmes ever could. At best it draws us toward something not worthy of us; at worst it diverts us from the suffering at our doorstep.

The Aurora victims deserve our compassion, and the deep cultural rage, violence, and despair of which Holmes is just the latest expression demand our thoughtfulness, prayer, and action. But when it comes to the compelling allure of the details of this evil, the best advice for the baptized may simply be to look away.

This article appeared on the October 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 10, page 8).

Image: Richard B. Levine/Photoshot/Newscom