Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
– Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a
Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value.
These are platitudes, sure. But read them again, a few more times, until the words look weird, until they sound odd, until “life,” “matter,” and “value” float on their own, a little denatured, a little strange, and then sense how much you may feel a relation tugging the concepts together, an affinity pulsing between them. Maybe you don’t, maybe you won’t, but try it all the same.
Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters; a life has value. Lives matter; lives have value.
This seems profoundly reasonable, doesn’t it, these symmetries, between living and mattering, between mattering and having value? Your life matters, life in general matters, and your life and the lives of others have value. It would be vile for a third party to say otherwise, wouldn’t it? Likewise, isn’t it obvious that the things that matter to us in life, or that should matter to us, have some value, at least insofar as they deserve our awareness, if not expenditures of our dollars and votes, our care and our time? Life itself is precious, a thing to be cherished, and lives have value in and of themselves, on their own terms. These are premises that, to be sure, we can dishonor or forget, but which we presumably can be brought back to respect, or be educated to more compassionately and expansively recognize in the real world. Part of the power of #BlackLivesMatter, for example, leverages precisely this possibility, and pivots on our implicit equation of mattering with having value. To say that “black lives matter” is to state the obvious, or rather, to state what ought to be obvious, and thereby throw into sharp relief our gross social and personal failures to recognize that fact. Unarmed black people are twice as likely to be shot and killed by police officers than unarmed whites. These are human lives – they matter, they have value. Your brunch? Not so much.
Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters; a life has value. Lives matter; lives have value. Repeat this to yourself until it becomes a mantra; clutch it close. It is a life raft, a board to cling to in the horror of the headlines and the numbness of the day-to-day. But it can also be a plank, a gibbet, and a cry of despair.
After two years of legal wrangling, the James Holmes trial is finally well underway. His name may mean nothing to you, which is fine: in a world of limited economies of attention, that you do not immediately recognize the name of a yet another American mass murderer may well be a sign that your care is productively and righteously distributed elsewhere. On some level, James Holmes should not matter to you – or at least, he should matter far less than the dozen people whose lives he took, or the seventy he wounded. Arrested without incident despite wearing body armor and being holed up in a car with at least four guns and various grenades, James Holmes should certainly matter less to you than the toy-carrying children or the mentally ill individuals who pose no harm to anyone but themselves, but whom our nation’s police nonetheless seem disposed to summarily execute “in fear for their lives.” When so many innocents die apparently undeserving of media attention or public memory, dignifying a mass murderer with our attention seems perversely to focus on what shouldn’t matter.
And yet by some common metrics of value – education, prestige, and, above all, money – James Holmes certainly matters, or at least did. Before withdrawing from his studies, Holmes, now 27, was one of only a half-dozen applicants to make the cut for an elite neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Denver, and successfully applied for highly competitive NIH funding; he would later give himself the job description of “laborer.” Even after he dropped out, his cash was certainly as good as anyone else’s: he spent thousands of dollars on a pair of pistols, an assault rifle, a shotgun, body armor, a gas mask, 6,000-plus rounds of ammunition, tear gas, and bomb-making materials, all legally, and all without raising any red flags; unlike other mass shooters, he also appears to have had no compunctions about paying for sex. After dying his hair like The Joker and shooting up a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, Holmes and his mental state became the subjects of a series of legal inquiries and court hearings that cost the State some $2.2 million, all before his trial even began. Meanwhile, the cost of the ongoing trial is still unclear, the price tag of his defense remains uncertain, and the impact, financially and otherwise, for the families of those he killed, paralyzed, wounded, and traumatized, is incalculable.
Or so you would think. But against this horrifying accounting of who matters to whom, and why, and how much, we have a remarkably clear, methodically logical rejoinder from an unexpected source: James Holmes himself. Because, you see, Holmes says he knows exactly how much a life is worth. And while Holmes may be insane – and I certainly concur with clinical diagnoses that classify him as schizophrenic – his insanity reflects back to us a madness that is collective, presenting in stark, clear terms the true calculus of the value of a life, and of how much a life matters, that governs how we live now.
James Holmes has no problem endorsing the proposition that life has value, that a life has a value, that lives are valuable. As reported in the Associated Press, in interviews between Holmes and state-appointed psychiatrist William Reid, videos of which are currently being shown to the jury, the question of the value of human life is a recurrent theme. From the AP:
James Holmes believes he gained a specific amount of self-worth for each of the 12 people he killed in a Colorado movie theater, but he regrets that one of the victims was a child, according to a videotaped conversation between Holmes and a psychiatrist played in court Monday.
In a flat, emotionless voice, Holmes tells psychiatrist William Reid he collected one “value unit” for each person who died.
“I was worth 12 more people than I was before,” Holmes says.
Did the wounded count? Reid asks.
“I only count fatalities,” Holmes replies.
A life, a “value unit.” The erstwhile young scientist who conducted neuronal mappings of finches and ultra-high resolution photographs of the muscles involved in the flight of hummingbirds offers us the weight of a life in a simple, tautological equation. One equals one. A life has the value of one unit of life. Of course, the “value unit” of a human life, Holmes goes on to elaborate, is not a matter of inherent dignity, but rather an existential opportunity cost:
On another part of the video, Holmes tells Reid that human life has value, and by taking lives, he added to his own worth.
“Anything they would have pursued gets canceled out and given to me,” he says.
Asked by Reid if that calculation still makes sense to him, Holmes replies, “Yeah.”
The cool, quantifiable observations of a scientist overlap with the grim and inexorable efficiency of the free market, of professional precarity, of a worldview wherein life is win-lose and always zero-sum. A document in his writings, titled “Insights into the Mind of Madness” and scrawled in a classic lab Computation Book, Holmes reiterates this cruel, unflinching logic. “What is equal equal to?” he asks. “All men are created equal,” comes the first response, written in tiny letters. But this is clearly only a prima facie answer, marked as provisional by a tiny asterisk. The real answer follows next, larger and more authoritative. “All men are uncreated equal.” A diagram fleshes out the corresponding calculus: one stick-figure killer turns ten standing (living) stick figures into ten stick-figure corpses (laying sideways, eyes X’ed out), followed by a “= ?” As to the value of that “?”, Holmes notes, it could be “1 or 11 or -9” but, “Regardless, value of murderer ≠ 1.” And whereas all the victims are only “1s”, being anything other than that, even a negative number, must presumably be better – ergo, kill as many people as you can, to your own greater glory.
Holmes does not “count” non-fatal casualties, even the people who testified in front of him, including a recent father whom he had shot through the eye, and who told his story, haltingly, from a wheelchair. These folks are “collateral damage,” not his problem. “I didn’t figure the collateral damage had anything to do with me after the crime.” Although Holmes does “count” the child he killed, he has indicated that he chose a late-night showing of a PG-13 movie precisely in order to avoid killing children. The child he did kill, Veronica Moses-Sullivan, was six at the time. According to reports, “The 58-pound child was shot four times before she died. A bullet tore through her liver, spleen, kidney and pancreas. Another went through her right buttock, her hip and her bladder and remained lodged in her 4-foot-4 frame.” Holmes supposedly regrets this death, although he does admit, when pressed, that he would have done the same thing anyway even knowing that children were there: “I think I still would have carried it out.” For Holmes, Moses-Sullivan’s life did matter, a bit, but not so much that he won’t not take credit for killing her in his tally.
At this point, setting aside the complexities of mens rea as a technical legal matter, one wants desperately, in plain language, to insist that Holmes must be insane, since only someone who is something other than sane would methodically plan to massacre strangers based upon their notebook calculations whereby the value of a human life is a singular, numerical quantum. But, the thing is, Holmes’s logic, however insane, converges with the logic of the State precisely insofar as they deploy shared vocabularies of value, even if what “value” denotes for the law, the everyday speaker, and James Holmes are not at all the same. When the courts make determinations of value, it’s frequently in terms of damages: statutory, nominal, or otherwise, value is quantifiable. When it comes to punitive damages, judges or lawyers may also come close to speaking about values qua principles the significance of disrespecting which monetary fines or years in jail can only gesture to, but never encapsulate, repair, or make whole. This latter use comes close to what ordinary speakers frequently denote by “value” when they speak about human lives: an absolute, indivisible value that inheres in every human being above and beyond quantifiable determination. This value is understood to be universal, but also unique to the person in question, as irreplaceable as they are; it is the value that animates slogans like “People, not profits!” Holmes’s worldview at once appears to come close to each of these senses, but is in fact radically different: as he states, all lives have value, and equally, but that value is determinate. It’s singular, but not in the sense of being related to uniqueness or individuality; rather, it is, quite literally, a unit of one. And these units, like people, are, for Holmes, interchangeable, liquid, and disposable. Everyone may be “created” equal, but the value of a person can be taken from them by “uncreating” them, that is, by taking their life, at which point its value becomes yours, and no one can take it from you. In other words, the lives of other people mattered to James Holmes only insofar as he could gobble them up like Pac-Man eating dots. And thus, under questioning from the District Attorney, the psychiatrist observes that “Whatever regret [Holmes] had, he makes it clear that getting the points and killing the people was worth it.” In the eyes of the law, this is both a sane-enough acknowledgement of the “value of life” and the sign of a premeditated plan to disregard it nonetheless. It only follows, then, that the State, in full realization of the principle of an eye for an eye, seeks to take Holmes’s life in return. But of course, since the State cannot kill him a dozen times, Holmes, who acknowledges that what he did was “legally wrong,” will nonetheless see himself as the winner to the end, as always more than just 1. For him, life is an integer, positive or negative. It may be measurable as an absolute value in the narrow mathematical sense, but this is the exact opposite of what we mean, in a moral sense, when we say life has absolute value, when we say a life has value, that each life matters.
If Colorado prosecutors succeed in their objective of getting Holmes the death penalty, and current challenges to the death penalty in state courts are overcome, the mandatory appeals and cost of the execution will likely run in the tens of millions of dollars. If Holmes’s own accounting is a sign of insanity, this seems like a different order of insanity, a different species of madness. Commit a massacre, and Colorado will spend tens of millions of dollars prosecuting and then (maybe) executing you. Meanwhile, if Aurora police are found legally liable for the shooting death of Naeschylus Vinzant, a 37-year old unarmed black man whom local officers killed this March, one might well wonder how much any trials involved might cost, and how much the municipality might pay his family in damages, and what could be inferred, from that, about the comparative value, in dollar terms, of the life of an unarmed black fugitive parolee gunned down by police while “resisting arrest” versus that of a white mass murderer whom the state will quietly tie to a special bed in an brightly lit room and inject with a sodium thiopental cocktail before an audience of witnesses.
But there is yet one last bit of madness on display in Aurora. Jessica Redfield Ghawi was 24 when James Holmes killed her in Aurora. In an eerie prefiguration of events in the theater, Ghawi had missed being present for another mass shooting in Toronto by a matter of mere minutes only a month before. When Holmes shot Ghawi six times with his Smith and Wesson M&P15, an AR-15 style assault rifle, a friend tried to administer first aid to her until he discovered that part of her skull had been blown apart, exposing her brain – at which point, unable to do anything else, he prayed as she died in his arms. Two years later, with help from lawyers from the Brady Center, Ghawi’s mother and stepfather, Sandy and Lonnie Philips, brought a suit against several of the online retailers from whom Holmes had acquired his ammunition, body armor, high-capacity magazines, and tear gas grenades. This suit did not ask for damages, but instead sought an injunction to stop the retailers’ “negligent and dangerous business practices.” This suit entered into complicated legal territory, involving not only the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields ammunition and gun manufacturers and retailers from suits by shooting victims, but also several Colorado statutes. The merits of this particular suit, and the issue of online retailing of guns and ammunition are topics worth discussing another time, but what matters for our purposes here is the outcome of the Phillipses’ effort: not only did a US District Judge throw out their suit, he ruled that the Phillipses should be on the hook for the online retailers’ legal fees. The total amount? Some $220,000.
Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value. But how much? The parents of the victim of a mass shooting owe the people who supplied the shooter with his gear just shy of a quarter of a million dollars. The police officer who killed Naeschylus Vinzant in what coroners have since ruled a homicide is back at work, albeit confined to desk duty; the coverage takes pains to observe that he “has been honored for helping save lives during the Colorado theater shooting.” And the Colorado theater shooter himself will consume our attention and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, sitting there, implacable, as his victims and their families lay out how much the lives he ended mattered, trying to express, impossibly, the value of the lives he took. And if Colorado does ultimately kill James Holmes, returning to him what he visited on others, he will leave this earth in confident self-vindication. For the State will have not just ratified that he matters enough to prosecute and to kill, but, in so doing, in his eyes, it will let him walk away with the balance sheet in his favor.
Life matters, life is valuable. A life matters, a life has value. Lives matter, lives have value. We will tell ourselves and each other these things, and we must, even though we know the words mean everything, and yet nothing. And James Holmes may well be telling them to himself, too, and to anyone who listens. But when he says them, he will speak neither from hypocrisy, nor from heartbreak, but from triumph.