Latest Shooting Tragedy in Aurora, Colo., Won’t End Until We Stop the ‘Let Boys Be Boys’ Stereotype

AURORA, COLO. — JULY 23: Movie theater shooting victim Gordon Cowden’s daughters embrace at the makeshift memorial built across the street from the Century 16 theater July 23, 2012 in Aurora, Colo. Two of Cowden’s teenage daughters were with him in the theater when he was killed. Suspect James Holmes, 24, allegedly went on a shooting spree and killed 12 people and injured 58 during an early morning screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

After a massacre, as in the Aurora, Colorado Theatre, people at first are stunned, and then they ask the most natural question, “Why?” They search for a motivation, scan the shooter’s computer, his notes, his purchases, and his apartment. They talk to his friends to determine his mind-set, locate his parents, girl friends, or acquaintances.

One gentleman had coffee in a café a couple of days before the shooter killed twelve people and injured more than three dozen. “I only just saw him that one morning,” the man said.  “Seemed perfectly normal to me.  Friendly. No way could I know he was a killer.”

Motivation is an interesting pursuit, and for the people who are suffering, it keeps them occupied and gives them pause from their gripping pain. The first words out are usually, “He’s crazy. That’s all there is to it. Nobody would do that if they weren’t crazy.”  It gives, at least temporarily, slight relief.

In a non-political random killing, the motivation is simply the horrendous need for attention, for that so-called fifteen minutes of fame. Except for the random shooter in Norway, who believed the people he shot were enemies, no random shooter in history has escaped conviction with an insanity plea.

As for being crazy, that’s what Hitler was called after World War II when the world finally learned what had been suspected for several years, that Hitler was methodically murdering Jews. “He’d have to be crazy to do that. That’s just insane.”

But Hitler was no more  crazy than James Holmes, the Aurora Theatre shooter. The criterion for determining legal insanity is if the suspect knew right from wrong, and if they knew what they were doing in the planning and executing of the murders. Obviously Hitler’s extensive and years’ long planning answers one of those questions as it also answers the question for the Aurora Theatre shooter who purchased guns, ammunition, and  body protection months in advance. The question of whether Hitler and James Holmes knew right from wrong is answered in the secretive methods for their plotting. If they believed without question that they were murdering rodents who were infiltrating the community and were the cause of death, then they would be insane.

As for knowing right from wrong, Hitler’s insistence on secrecy, not being open about what he was doing attests to his knowing right from wrong.  Many neighbors of his death camps were not aware of his murderous actions down the street. James Holmes’ actions, were unknown to his neighbors who would have been blown to the skies had any person unknowingly opened his apartment door. His rooms were criss-crossed with wires, booby trapped and set to kill many in his apartment building.

So if James Holmes is not crazy, and all he wants is fame, what do we do about that? Not much if anything. But there is something more afoot here.

Why is it that all mass murderers are male? Why is the randomly killing of men, women, and children exclusively a male phenomenon?  Of course not all boys grow up to be random shooters, but all random shooters are male. Why?

When I asked myself this question in my book,  Shooters: Schoolyard Shooters, Relationship Shooters, Workplace Shooters, I looked at the difference in the way we raise boys and girls. There is no question but that the United States is the most violent country in the world. And having a cultural basis in The Wild West, there is a heavy emphasis in masculinity.

Girls have a much easier time of being their gender than do boys. Girls can switch gender garb without criticism when they wear jeans and cowboy shirts. But a boy, almost on pain of death, dare not wear a dress or nylons.  A high school student recently committed suicide when he was perpetually mocked for wearing lipstick and other feminine attire. Yet a girl can get a boyish haircut, wear boy’s style clothing and just go about her day.

Those are the visible differences. Other differences are more subtle. Girls are permitted to display their empathy, to cry in a sad movie, to gush over a cute baby. A boy dare not cry. He had to give that up when he became “a little man,” which was when he was nine or ten years old. At that time, over a gradual process he was weaned from his babyhood habits of going to his mother, sitting on her lap for comfort when he needed it. Unconsciously he had to force back some of his basic yearnings, and he had to repress tears at all cost. So what comes as a substitute?

That of course depends on each individual family. Most boys survive this transition completely unaware of the change in the mother-son relationship. At about this same time in a boy’s life, fathers usually step further into the parent-raising than before, taking their sons to male oriented sports, taking them fishing, or tossing the football on the front lawn.  Where boys had previously played childish games with both boys and girls, now their games are almost exclusively with boys, reinforcing the masculine side of their lives

Is this bad for boys? Of course not as long as there is balance. We are all born androgenously, that is the psyche of a person with a healthy personality has both male and female qualities. The major ingredient lost in people who become random shooters is empathy, stereotypically known as a feminine trait. People without empathy lack caring for most other people.

One could refer back to Hitler and say he cared for Eva Braun. Yes, but he hid his relationship with her and offered to marry her when he was about to commit suicide and she said she would die with him, which was a restricted kind of caring. So if empathy is missing in random shooters, is this something we can do something about?

Yes, there is. We can ease up on boys. Let them cry if the hurt is so bad. It has been said that if men were permitted to cry, they would never stop, their tears have been bottled up for so long.

Another thing is the separation from mothers could be easier, if at all. Making a comparison with male and female offspring of an animal family may be offensive to some as many people do not like to be reminded that we are related to the ape family. But we are primates and we share ninety-nine percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. So an interesting comparison of child-rearing can be made here.

Regular male chimpanzees are quite violent. They often kill their offspring and beat up on their mates. Their sons learn how to be fathers and mates this way. Their group is patrilineal, that is the males rule. However, there is an off-shoot species of chimpanzees discovered in the 1970’s called Bonobos. They are slightly smaller and have a different approach to raising their offspring.  Their groups are  matrilineal, that is the females rule the group.

Distinctively Bonobo females keep their male offspring with them for life. The male adolescents are not shunted off to join a pack of other male adolescents. The female mate comes to live with the mother of her mate. Male Bonobos are not violent. The female influence is paramount.

There is a lesson here, far-fetched however, to think that a wild-west, gun-toting culture can be changed to one that emphasizes empathy over mastery of others. But at least we know there is such a culture of which we share most of our DNA.


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About June Stephenson

June Stephenson is the author of 20 books about women’s issues, parental responsibility, the humanities, philosophy, comparative religion, music, architecture, parenting, sexual abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, incest, crime, women’s studies, aging, tyranny, family, marriage, and divorce. The accomplished author has a degree from Stanford in economics and a Ph.D. in psychology with 25 years of teaching experience in history and English. Stephenson’s well-researched and documented approach combined with an easy-to-read style, offers readers enrichment and enjoyment. She also is an award-winning artist with many red ribbons from juried art shows throughout California. Stephenson has two daughters and two granddaughters, and lives in Palm Desert, California, with her Labradoddle named Happy.

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