Homeland Security and Public Safety

Dark Night in Denver: Performance Violence and the Aurora Massacre

The movie theater mass shooting serves as a vivid reminder that a lone offender can take many forms and wreak great havoc.

As the dust settles and the facts begin to emerge regarding the circumstances surrounding the deadly attack on July 20 during the premiere of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, in Aurora, Colo. — which claimed at least 12 lives and wounded scores of others — officials involved in various aspects of the homeland security enterprise are naturally asking themselves whether the purpose of the attack could be linked to some form of terrorism and whether the perpetrator acted alone or in concert with others who might pose a further threat. While definitive answers to these questions will take time, preliminary reports from the investigation have not identified any well defined political motive or message, suggesting that the impulses that produced this lethal behavior may well have been rooted in the murky depths of a disturbed mind more than in any radical extremist ideology or perceived political grievance.

In recent years, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have increasingly focused on the lone offender as a particularly elusive and challenging type of threat, as noted, for example, on the FBI home page on domestic terrorism. Should initial indications that the Aurora perpetrator acted alone be borne out by subsequent investigation, the movie theater tragedy will serve as a vivid reminder that the lone offender can take many forms and wreak great havoc.

The mugshot of James Holmes, who is suspected of killing 12 people and wounding 58 on July 20. Photo courtesy of the Arapahoe County Detention Center.

Let us consider some of the implications of the Aurora tragedy for public safety and place it in the context of some potentially relevant previous events. Given the relative youth and academic affiliation of suspected perpetrator 24-year-old James Holmes (a graduate student in neuroscience reportedly in the process of withdrawing from his studies at the University of Colorado Denver), previous cases of school shootings such as the Virginia Tech and Columbine High School tragedies readily come to mind. It should be noted that this event differs from those and other examples of school/workplace killing sprees in that the location targeted was not on campus or in any obvious way symbolically linked to the perpetrator’s educational or occupational life.

The choice of a movie theater (and one hosting the premiere of the latest Batman film) as the arena for the violent expression of the perpetrator’s aggression is significant in a number of respects. The most obvious is the link to the prominent superhero/supervillain theme running through the attack scenario. The perpetrator chose to equip and clothe himself like a supervillain and enact a “script,” which could have been taken directly from the darkest of graphic novels or film. In a macabre twist, the suspect — who had dyed his hair a shocking red/orange color — reportedly introduced himself to the arresting officers by saying, “I am the Joker.”

More subtly perhaps, a theater (be it a traditional Broadway style venue or a cinematic multiplex) represents a very distinctive form of public space. Theaters are places in which people retreat from their everyday lives in search of relaxation and/or stimulation. In the dark of the theater, people tend to become absorbed in the drama unfolding on screen and let one’s guard down. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by perpetrators of political violence. It was probably not a coincidence that John Wilkes Booth (an actor by trade) and his co-conspirators chose the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., for the site of their deadly plot against President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Theaters (and opera or concert venues) may also represent buildings of great cultural/architectural significance and/or draw an elite audience providing an attractive target for potential perpetrators of public violence. This was true of the Dubrovka Theater, which was the site of a spectacular hostage siege orchestrated by Chechen separatists in Moscow in October 2002. In such cases, as in Aurora, a far deadlier drama may play out in the VIP boxes or in the orchestra seating than the one portrayed on stage or screen.

It is chilling to note that the Aurora perpetrator appears to have been engaged in an act of “performance violence,” to use a term often associated with terrorism expert Mark Juergensmeyer. The term has traditionally been used to describe particularly dramatic, shocking and symbolically loaded forms of terrorism such as that orchestrated or inspired by al-Qaida. However, the Aurora case suggests that the term may also be usefully extended in order to cover other types of acts of sensational public violence arising from or couched in guises associated with film, literature or other forms of popular and fine art.

In a previous article, I explored some of the lessons of the Oslo attacks perpetrated by Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik of potential relevance to U.S. homeland security. Breivik also was a practitioner of the vicious art of performance violence: He altered his appearance and costumed himself — as a knight, commando and policeman — for purposes of propaganda and operational deception. While there are significant differences between these cases that occurred just 363 days apart, comparing and contrasting the circumstances of the Aurora tragedy with the Olso attacks of 2011 is instructive.

[Read more about what the U.S. can learn from the two-pronged attack in Norway.]

Breivik conceived his bombing of the Norwegian government buildings and shooting attacks on the political youth meetings on Utoeya Island in highly political terms. His acts of public violence were explicitly intended not only as a means to attack a government apparatus and the next generation of a political party he despised, but also as a vehicle to take his manifesto and political messages/images viral on the Internet. No such political intent has yet come to light in the Colorado case. Though we still know relatively little about how the Aurora attacks were prepared, there are strong indications of highly organized behavior, and the assault on the movie theater was creatively and efficiently conceptualized, planned and executed in several key respects. The perpetrator reportedly legally purchased at least four weapons (an assault rifle, shotgun and two automatic pistols as well as thousands of rounds of ammunition for them). He also was apparently able to acquire smoke bombs, elaborate para-military style protective gear, and the makings of a large number of improvised explosive devices in the months before the attack. This too is reminiscent of Breivik’s devastatingly sequenced attacks, which claimed the lives of nearly 80 people and injured more than 300. Breivik’s operation was the product of careful study, meticulous preparation and elaborate camouflaging of his activities, and were at least several years in the making, as documented in minute detail in the chronicle of his journey to infamy.