In the aftershocks of the shootings at an Aurora theater that left twelve dead and dozens wounded, it's inevitable that the tragedy would evoke comparisons to the 1999 attack on Columbine High School. Certainly, the instant online speculation about the shooter and his motives is eerily reminiscent of all the (mostly bogus) chatter about the Trench Coat Mafia that emerged after Columbine. But these days, the rumor mill touched off by a horror like this is a much more accelerated -- and treacherous -- phenomenon.
Back in 1999, people still turned to something called "television" for much of their information. And Columbine was a made-for-TV event, a crisis that quickly turned into a siege thanks to slow-moving (and since abandoned) police response tactics, and unfolded over a period of hours leading into prime time. In addition, the well-stocked staffs of two -- yes, two -- daily newspapers descended on the school, as well as reporters from around the world.
The story that emerged over the next few weeks about what happened at Columbine was, for the most part, subject to the traditional gatekeeping and we-know-what's-best-for-you filtering of the mainstream media. That doesn't mean they got it right. In fact, much of the lurid reporting about Goths and the supposed influence of Marilyn Manson was shoddy and goofy. Some reporters didn't know how to access shooter Eric Harris's AOL profile, or how to distinguish authentic online work by Harris and co-killer Dylan Klebold from imitations and forgeries, including a bogus suicide note that is still cited by duped Columbine researchers to this day.
A true picture of the shooters and the why and how of the Columbine massacre unfolded over months and years, as more witnesses came forward and key documents in the official investigation were made public. That may also be the case in the Aurora shootings. But we're an impatient bunch, far more accustomed to instant answers than we were even a decade ago -- and far more willing, in the absence of hard information, to settle for gibberish.
A shooting at a midnight movie plays hell with the news cycle -- too late for the print edition of our surviving daily, too early for the local blogosphere. A police press conference scheduled for later this morning could shed some more light, but in the meantime what's trending online are the bare details of what's known, notably the arrest of suspect James Holmes, and a great deal of what is not known and could be quite wrong.
The answers to anything, as everybody knows by now, are to be found on Facebook. Pity every James Holmes in the vicinity of Aurora (or Tennessee, since Holmes's car had Tennessee plates) with a Facebook page; they're now being "outed" as possibly "the guy" by amateur sleuths everywhere. "Were I guessing, I'd say this IS NOT the page, but nothing else on Facebook that seems to fit well," reports one ace detective on Right Wing News. "All the guy is going to have to do to show it isn't him is update."
Elsewhere, the rumor mill is being rapidly stoked with vaguely sourced data concerning Holmes's background and motives. On the aptly named site Hot Air, a commenter posts something he says comes from YouTube but references something that allegedly first appeared on the inane social media site 9gag:
A few weeks ago, a man by the username of 'JamesHolmes154′ posted a thread on 9gag saying he was going to 'shoot up' a theater. He was clearly distressed and admitted he was suffering from PTSD. He said he was going to walk in and try to take as much lifes as possible. The whole 9gag community egged him on and give him tips on what to wear, etc. They give him tips on sharp-shooting and sent him messages on how to take as much lifes as possible. 9gag is a sick site and needs to be destroyed.
A gratuitous blast at 9gag, or the real deal? Set your search engines for JamesHolmes154, and get ready for the coming of the apocrypha.
Update: Here are photos of the shooter, James Holmes, 24:
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