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On Drones, James Holmes, and Concentrated and Diffused Violence


In the aftermath of the most recent mass murder in the United States, the killing of twelve and the wounding of dozens of innocent moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, one hears repeated expressions of bewilderment.

Beyond the calls for the execution of the perpetrator, and the pronouncements of his apparent insanity, beyond the stories of grieving families, the calls for stricter gun control laws, and pronouncements of sympathy for those suffering in Colorado, one sees above all the search for some type of explanation. People want this tragedy to make sense somehow, to understand it, and to thereby regain some measure of control over the situation and return to normalcy. The norm, of course, is the problem in the first place.

One unfolding story recounts the efforts of police to enter the killer James Holmes’ apartment. Believed to be booby-trapped, police hope to find clues among his effects that point to Holmes’ motive. Once revealed, his motive can be regarded to some degree as the cause of the event. If such is the case, the cause can then be dismantled and order can be restored. But such is not the case. James Holmes is not the sole cause, or effect, of this violence, for this violence is not confined to Aurora, Colorado.

Once regarded as extremely anomalous, these mass killings now seem to occur somewhere in the U.S. every few years. And while these mass killings are notable for their concentrations of violence, to understand them it must not be overlooked that they arise from a social context in which violence, while often diffused and less dramatic, is nevertheless normal in this country. Beyond the mere representations of violence that one encounters in art and pop culture, which often are treated as scapegoats, daily life in the U.S. is organized according to degrees of pressure that amount to systematic, physical and psychological violence.

Among the calls for heightened gun control laws, it should be pointed out that far more lethal things than guns permeate our society. While it is widely recognized that these things cause vastly more harm than guns, for some reason the violence and death they wreak is considered somehow legitimate and acceptable. As such, even though car accidents, to focus on one quotidian example, daily produce on average numbers of fatalities that are the equivalent of the fatalities of six or seven Aurora-sized mass murders – and these occur every single day of every year – very few talk about initiating any type of ‘car control.’ Such a suggestion would most likely be met with ridicule and dismissed as unrealistic.

Traffic deaths, it will be pointed out, are distinct from gun deaths in several key respects. Among other things, the former are considered to be mere accidents while the latter are seen as intentional and, are therefore thought to be more egregious. A closer look, however, reveals that the relationship concerning intent is to some degree the reverse. On the level of policy making, for example, traffic deaths are, if not intentional, at least foreseeable, and could be prevented by specific policies, e.g. maximum speed limits of something like 10 miles per hour. Mass killings, on the other hand, though they may be committed intentionally by murderers, are, on the level of policy, less foreseeable and, as such, less preventable.

When one adds to the number of traffic fatalities the thousands who die annually of heart disease and cancers caused by traffic pollution – not to mention those who are injured in the oil extraction and production industry, including its military dimensions – the number grows substantially. These deaths, however, arise from violence that is even more diffused and, so, elicit minimal outcry, if any. But the fact of the matter is that these deaths occur not by accident so much as by a latent, de facto policy that sees such levels of violence as acceptable side effects of our economy’s normal functioning.

A profoundly significant aspect to the distinction between concentrated and diffused violence is the role the mass media plays in presenting information. Indeed, we largely see the world through this mediation. And the violence involved in a given story may be concentrated further or diffused further depending on the manner in which the story is framed. For example, the United States carries out regular drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, among other places throughout the world. That many of these drone attacks kill civilians, causing just as much destruction and death as James Holmes’ recent mass murder, are well-documented. Indeed, photographs of the shocked and traumatized people grieving in the immediate aftermath of these respective atrocities are remarkably similar. And it leads one to wonder whether it is not merely coincidental that the same culture that produces unthinking, unfeeling killing machines like drones, also produces unfeeling killers like Holmes. However, while the news industry concentrates a great deal of attention on the killings in Aurora, further (psychologically) concentrating the (physically) concentrated violence there, there is no comparable psychological concentration of the physically concentrated violence inherent in drone strikes. Rather, the relatively meager attention devoted to drone strikes serves to diffuse the physically concentrated violence involved, and rationalizations for their deployment diffuse the violence even further.

None of the above should be construed as providing any sort of justification for the gross horror of James Holmes’ acts. Indeed, if there is anything to be learned at all from these murders it is perhaps that in general people are disgusted by violence in all of its manifestations. To be sure, in many respects it is only by way of complex ideological socialization and disinformation processes – further forms of diffusion – that this disgust of violence becomes disfigured from a rejection to an acceptance of violence. Those pronouncing their eagerness for a return to normalcy must recognize that this violence, both concentrated and diffused, is the norm.

Elliot Sperber is an attorney, writer, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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