Tag Archives: OIS

Life is Not an Integer: On Aurora and James Holmes

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

From the beginning of James Holmes notebook, via The Denver Post

From the beginning of James Holmes’s notebook, via The Denver Post

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.

Dead Man Running

Reading the official St. Louis County Michael Brown autopsy, it’s hard not to feel the limits of what laypeople can glean from a forensic pathologist’s report – and to feel a corresponding temptation to rely instead on vague memories of CSI episodes and to tweet about gun shot residue and powder burns as though we knew, for sure, what we were talking about. It’s also hard not to feel that many of the talking heads on TV springing into action either to give credence to or discredit the report are speaking first and foremost to audiences who have already made up their minds about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I imagine, too, that for some, it’s likewise hard to avoid the temptation to let the whole mess of competing voices drown one another out, shrug, and write off the entire affair as somehow inscrutable, turning whatever actually happened on that Ferguson street this past August into a 21st Century St. Louis Rashomon. This last reaction would, I think, be a tragedy – and I hope that pressure from both media and protestors will lead to substantive, public inquiry and to an open, transparent treatment of Brown’s death in a court of law (beyond the ongoing Grand Jury proceedings).

But still, we have this new autopsy, newly and dubiously leaked, as have been so many other elements of this case. I’m not a forensic pathologist, and so will leave its more technical nuances for others to pick apart, although I will eventually give it a more thorough reading alongside the findings of the family-requested autopsy and with my copy of Brian Heard’s Handbook of Firearms and Ballistics in hand (and will do the same if and when the Department of Justice’s autopsy is released).

For now, though, since I am trained to read texts closely, to pay attention to how we use words to describe events, and to reflect on how descriptions of one event resemble those of others, I do have some thoughts on this document. Specifically, I hear echoes of two other texts in it: first, Radley Balko’s excellent Op-Ed, “The Curious Grammar of Police Shootings” and second, Rei Terada’s brilliant reflection on the “superhuman strength” (so-called “Excited Delirium syndrome”) that police and media reports regularly attribute to unarmed people whom cops shoot dead.

Balko’s piece makes clear how official documents regularly obscure the agency of individual police officers in favor of bloodless, passive constructions. One episode Balko relates is officially described as follows: “Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named, was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy.” The contorted passive construction here not only renders the killing of a living, breathing child into a hard-to-parse syntactical trainwreck, but also works to absolve the individual (unnamed) officer of even grammatical agency, not to mention moral culpability. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, we’re so often told – except, it seems, when it’s a police officer’s gun that does the killing. Then it’s just the gun.

It’s impossible not to think about such Orwellian ethico-linguistic obfuscations when, reading the Mike Brown autopsy report, you come across sentences like this: “During the struggle the Officer’s weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle. The deceased then ran down the roadway.” The weapon discharged. The deputy’s gun fired one shot. Mistakes were made. A child is being beaten. The torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

“The deceased then ran down the roadway.” What a strange sentence this is. A dead teenager runs. Although already shot at least once, he is still alive, and running. But he is also already deceased. Dead man walking; deceased teenager running. Michael Brown was dead even as he was stepping back from the car, already dead even as he was running. Of course, while witnesses claim that Brown ran away from the car, and then turned to surrender (an account which the previous autopsy arguably supports), the official narrative accompanying the new autopsy claims that “Officer Wilson then began to chase the deceased…. [and then] the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer Wilson.” This reading of events, of course, jibes with the argument of Right-Wing pundits who have argued that Brown was not actually unarmed, because in fact his very body was somehow a lethal weapon. It’s here that I think of Rei Terada’s essay, on so-called “Excited Delirium Syndrome” – the “superhuman strength” exhibited by unarmed people who can (supposedly) only be stopped by deadly force. These people, we are told, are mentally ill, perhaps high on drugs of some kind – PCP, “bath salts,” LSD, what have you. They are irrational, “impervious to pain.” As Terada writes:

“The phrase ‘superhuman strength’ reflects police discomfort with mental illness–or even just ‘irrationality’–on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other…Superhumanity is invoked to explain their choice not to give themselves up, making it sound less like an ability and more like an involuntary condition. (Police officers themselves never show superhuman strength, even when they’re agitated by adrenaline in struggle; they show fortitude and tenacity—at least when they don’t cut matters short by shooting.) From the perspective of the police, resisting arrest is necessarily irrational: they perceive irrational people as resisters, even if that isn’t their intention, and resisters as definitionally crazed… You don’t have to be Foucault to see that superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman.”

One could note here how much coverage of this latest autopsy emphasizes that Michael Brown had marijuana “in his system” when died. One could also note that Officer Wilson was not drug tested after killing him. One could further remark on the similarity between these circumstances and those surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin – whose body was tested for drugs post-mortem even as George Zimmerman (who appears to have been regularly taking a cocktail of amphetamines and benzodiazepines) was not. But instead, let’s focus on what I take to be the upshot of Terada’s piece. In many cases, the institutional logic runs as follows: if you were shot, you must have been resisting – and if you were resisting, you deserved to get shot. It’s a perfect, hermetically closed circle.

But what is “resistance”? What does it mean to “resist”? In many technical vocabularies (in physics, electrical engineering, etcetera), resistance means blocking the flow of power, impeding its free operation, obstructing it. Recall why Michael Brown was accosted by Darren Wilson in the first place – for (supposedly) walking in the street, obstructing traffic. In other words, by simply walking where Wilson didn’t want him to, he was resisting. Now, I’ve never been called over to a cop car for being in the street, and I’ve jay-walked right in front of dozens of them. But Michael Brown’s mere presence in the street – that was resistance. Not coming over promptly when Darren Wilson told him to? Resistance.

What does it mean when simply walking about, minding your own business, and not coming-hither immediately when ordered to do so, equals “resistance”? It means that just being in public space can be construed as an obstruction, a resistance. Resistance to what? To power. To white supremacy. In other words, for some people, simply existing equals “resisting.” And it’s very clear what happens when those folks “resist.” They wind up arrested, beaten, or worse. For them, the demand, “Stop resisting!” is more or less the same as the injunction, “Stop existing!” and that injunction produces, very frequently, the outcome of their no longer existing at all.

There are some things the autopsy can tell us, some things it can’t, and some things we will hopefully learn more about down the line and in a more public way. But for now, I can’t help but dwell on this scene: “Stop resisting!” yells the police officer, a man with a badge and a gun, at a teenager. And Michael Brown runs, very much alive, and yet already deceased – it’s just that the adjective hadn’t caught up with him yet, erasing his name, much like the remainder of Darren Wilson’s bullets hadn’t yet caught up with him, obliterating his body.