With Aurora Massacre, Memories of Columbine Stir

There was a sense of inevitability about comparisons to the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School that circulated as news spread Friday morning of the shooting that left at least 12 dead and 59 injured at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

As thousands have noted on social media outlets in the hours since the shooting made national headlines, Littleton, Colo. — where two teenagers murdered 12 of their classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives at Columbine High School — is less than 20 miles away from Aurora's Century 16 cinema, the site of Thursday night's bloodshed.

The Aurora massacre, in which James Holmes, 24, is accused of barging into a midnight screening of the much-anticipated Batman sequel in riot gear before opening fire on audience members, is Colorado's worst since the Columbine school shooting.

Even as dozens of patients were still being treated for injuries at local hospitals Friday, the memory of Columbine was invoked in countless tweets and Facebook posts, many wondering if Colorado had been cursed.

Superstition of that kind can be damaging for those affected by the Columbine tragedy, said Frank Ochberg, a Michigan State University psychiatrist who served as a consultant for Columbine High School as it sought to manage the impact of the shooting on the school community.

Ochberg said the reawakening of the traumatic events of April 20, 1999 — the day Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's fatal rampage struck fear into the hearts of parents with school-age children nationwide — can undermine recovery from traumatic stress injury made by survivors and victims' relatives.

"They sometimes think, 'I'm back to square one,'" he said.

The Columbine legacy, which has faded but decidedly not disappeared from the suburban Denver area, may have enticed Holmes as an opportunity for greater notoriety, said David Cullen, the author of the best-selling book "Columbine."

Aurora police say when they apprehended Holmes near his car in the theater's parking lot, he sported red-painted hair and claimed to be the Joker, the Batman movie's mass-murdering villain. The high-profile nature of the movie premiere may have provided Holmes with an additional platform for publicity, Cullen said.

"It could have been a twofer — he had the Batman legacy and the Columbine legacy," he said.

The psychology of mass murderers is complex, said Kenneth Lanning, a former FBI behavioral scientist, but it usually boils down to one of two basic motives: a desire for revenge against a perceived enemy or the notoriety gained through press coverage.

Columbine was by far the worst in a series of school shootings in the 1990s. In its wake, schools nationwide improved security measures and provided local police departments with floor plans to use in case SWAT teams needed to pursue an active shooter inside. Meanwhile, the intensity of the shooting's media coverage provoked widespread worry that troubled children at other schools might be encouraged to turn to violence.

While there is no evidence that the frequency of school shootings rose as a result of Columbine, the same concerns remain relevant as the story of the Aurora massacre explodes on national media outlets.

"The media has a real dilemma that I don't know the answer to," Lanning said. "I'm not going to suggest they don't cover it, but this will be all over the place, and that fuels the problem of this happening again. It guarantees that one guy with problems will say that's what I want."

Columbine also sparked renewed fears about the exposure of children to violence in video games, television and films — not unlike the speculation now percolating through the Internet about whether the bullets in Aurora, which fired on moviegoers just as a shootout broke out on screen, could have been in part caused by fictional portrayals of violence. Then as now, violence rekindled the debate over gun control laws.

The question of what effects such exposure might have on children remains controversial, said Ochberg, a former associate director of the National Institute for Mental Health, but it is clear that acts of violence such as the Columbine and Aurora shootings have their roots in mental disturbance. On-screen violence probably has its greatest effect on what method killers choose, he said.

As details about Holmes begin to emerge, Cullen said it is important not to rush to judgment about his motives, as he said was widely done in Columbine's aftermath. Assumptions that the teenagers were driven to murder by bullying have been largely discredited, in part because of Cullen's book.

It would be a mistake, Lanning said, to look for a "reason" for the Columbine or Aurora tragedies.

"As if there could be a reason you go to a movie theater and shoot 60 people," he said.

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