And mystified: Why does this happen? How can we stop it?
The statistics on mass murder suggest it is a phenomenon that does not track with other types of violent crime, such as street violence. It does not seem to be affected by the economy or by law enforcement strategies. The mass murderer has become almost a stock figure in American culture, someone bent on overkill — and, so often, seemingly coming out of nowhere.
The United States experienced 645 mass-murder events — killings with at least four victims — between 1976 and 2010, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. When graphed, these incidents show no obvious trend. The numbers go up and down and up again. The total body count: 2,949.
Beyond the raw data, there is the psychic toll. Mass murder, when amplified in the news media, turns a big country very quickly into a small one and turns faceless body counts into real people enduring real pain and real tragedy.
For some, the news bulletins from Aurora brought back difficult memories.
“This is personal to me,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was murdered in 1993 by a spree killer on the Long Island Rail Road and who is pushing legislation to ban large ammunition magazines such as the type used in Colorado. “When something like this happens, it brings us back to a terrible day that we can’t help but remember. It’s just something that will never, never go away,” she said.
Aurora’s nightmare defies comprehension, not only because of the scale of the carnage but also because so far there is no clear motive. Many killing sprees are driven by grudges or a desire for revenge. The victims are bosses, co-workers, family members or fellow students, as was the case at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Columbine High School in 1999. Some attacks are driven by a political ideology and can be properly described as terrorism.
At the moment, the Aurora massacre remains inexplicable even by the standards of other mass killings.
“It looks about as a senseless as you can get,” said Gary LaFree, a criminologist at the University of Maryland who tracks terrorist attacks. “It is spooky.”
The issue of motive may become clearer when authorities release more information about the suspect in custody, 24-year-old James Holmes. He said nothing in his one appearance in court, looking groggy and dazed. His classmates did not know him well. Any psychiatric history is unknown.