That's the script. When heinous monsters kill people with guns, we tend to talk about the problem of guns. Or rather, people in Washington, New York and other big cities tend to talk about the problem of guns, because they think guns are the problem. There's an irony there, of course, given that such cities tend to have the worst gun-related murder rates -- Chicago these days has the equivalent of an Aurora every month -- and they are the places where guns are hardest to come by, legally.
Regardless, the gun debate flashed for the briefest of moments, like a round of heat lightning that fails to herald a storm, and then disappeared.
Instead, the conversation has moved to other familiar topics. What to do about the mentally ill? How much blame does our violent popular culture deserve? Etc.
These are good questions. But you know what debate seems conspicuously absent? Should we execute James Holmes?
Death penalty opponents are fairly mercenary about when to express their outrage. When questions of guilt can be muddied in the media; when the facts are old and hard to look up; when the witnesses are dead; when statistics can be deployed to buttress the charge of institutional racism: These are just a few of the times when opponents loudly insist the death penalty must go.
But when the murderer is white or racist or his crimes so incomprehensibly ugly, the anti-death-penalty crowd stays silent. It's the smart play. If your long-term goal is to abolish the death penalty, you want to pick your cases carefully.
But the simple fact is, if the death penalty is always wrong, it's wrong in the politically inconvenient cases too.
The standards of newspaper writing and civic discourse require that we call Holmes the "alleged" culprit in this horrific slaughter. That's fine, but if the facts are what we've been told they are, then we know this man is guilty and the jury will not have a hard time saying so.
We don't know whether or not he's mentally ill, but odds are he isn't. Indeed, criminologists and psychiatrists will tell you that most mass murderers aren't insane. But the public debate is already caught up in a familiar tautology. What Holmes did was an act of madness, therefore he must be a madman. And if he's a madman, we can't execute him because he's not responsible for his actions. And if he's not responsible, then "society" must be. And we can't execute a man for society's sins. So: Cue the debate about guns, and funding for mental health, and the popular culture.