I think that is premature.
We don’t have a lot of information on the gunman yet, so it remains a possibility that he actually was a terrorist of some kind, acting out of evil but rational motivations. And, yes, I’m using the term “rational” broadly. I’ve often stated at this blog that Tarkin was insane, but that’s a hyperbolic figure of speech. Tarkin made a cold, rational calculation that destroying a living planet would advance a political agenda whose importance he felt transcended ordinary morality.
But the weight of evidence so far in this Colorado case is that the gunman was completely off his nut. And that’s why I think “tragedy” may, in fact, be precisely the correct word.
In the Greek tradition, the tragic hero started with the best of motivations, but his flaws — of which the most important was always hubris, overweening pride — let to a kind of madness, ate, that in turn led to catastrophe, nemesis.
The gunman is an incidental player in the tragedy being played out here. The tragic protagonists are those whose best impulses led them to demand more humane treatment of the mentally ill than was provided by the traditional insane asylum. But these protagonists, in their pride, carried the idea to the insane extreme of massive deinstitutionalization of people who really were better off locked away. Rules for habeas corpus for the mentally ill became much stricter, to the point where mere mental illness, even scary paranoid schizophrenic mental illness, did not warrant involuntary commitment if the madman had not (yet) hurt anyone.
And nemesis follows, in the form of massacres by gunmen whose family and acquaintances have long been aware of their madness but who were powerless to have them locked away.
The evidence that this gunman is such a case is provided by his own mother, whose most telling statement to law enforcement was “You have the right person.” It’s possible he’s a (nominally sane) terrorist whose mother knew of his political views, but it’s far more likely he’s a nutcase whose mother knew of his mental illness but couldn’t get anyone to do anything about it.
Clayton Cramer has written a book on this phenomenon that I suspect will show a spike in sales.
So, Mona, I respectfully disagree. It appear that all the elements of classic tragedy are here. Except one: It is not the tragic protagonists themselves who are reaping nemesis from the ate arising from their hubris. They’ve got standins for that part.
UPDATE: The gunman told police he was the Joker. I think we can definitely rule out any rational motivation at this point. I’m not sure what diagnostic label we put on someone who identifies completely with a psychopathic villain, though.