“How can we get away from this?” – Showtime’s Active Shooter: America Under Fire
When I can stomach it, and if the tone is right, I like reading true crime stories. And because I came of age in the nineties and went to college in the aughts, school shootings and other similar rampages have a luxurious, rent-controlled space in the anxious corners of my mind.
Last week, I decided to watch the first two episodes of Active Shooter: America Under Fire, a new documentary series from Showtime. The show is certainly compelling: each episode describes a different shooting rampage based on the first-person accounts from survivors and first responders. But the show is also a bit emotionally manipulative. In the second episode, which focuses on the 2015 terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, Sgt. Gary Schuelke detailed the pursuit of the fleeing terrorists and talks emotionally about confronting the terrorists alongside his son and fellow police officer, Ryan Schuelke. The father’s interview is intercut with other interviews with other first responders from different agencies over several minutes. Sgt. Schuelke gets more and more choked up with emotion as he describes his son’s bravery, and then the episode cuts to the younger Schuelke, after we as viewers are sure that the father is talking about someone who must have died while trying to subdue the criminals. I suppose the producers of the show are banking solely on our sense of relief as viewers when we find that both Schuelkes are alive and well, but I found the reveal to be callously deployed.
It would be one thing if relief was the only emotion of ours that Active Shooter toyed with, but unfortunately the show also trades on fear and vulnerability to the shock of its viewers by glamorizing the criminals responsible for these violent crimes. Nowhere is this more egregious than in the first episode, which details the 2012 shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. During one of the interviews, what appears to be a senior high school portrait of the criminal appears on the screen and the camera lovingly tightens on the strange expression of the murderer. It lasts for twenty seconds. I don’t necessarily recommend you watch the episode, but I do recommend that you close your eyes for that length of time to better understand how strange it is to devote it to a close-up of a creepy but humanizing photo of the criminal-as-youth.
It was wildly irresponsible, but all too common, even in well-intentioned reporting. And after two episodes, I’m inclined to think Active Shooter producers Eli Holzman, Star Price, and Aaron Saidman do have some good intentions behind the series. I suppose my primary concern is that good intentions can still be the wrong intentions, and that in our fixation to understand the reason behind crimes like this, we magnify the criminals to outsize proportion, increasing the likelihood of similar crimes.
The first episode is also bookended by interviews with Thomas and Caren Teves, whose son was killed in that movie theater. They created the “No Notoriety” movement to pressure the media to cover these kind of crimes and criminals in a way that discourages copycats. Some of their methods include not mentioning the criminals by name or showing their photos unless they are still at large, and not publishing or sharing any self-serving material that the criminals release to the wider media. A recent article from Katherine Reed, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, suggests that this challenge to the media has taken a slight hold. I hope the progress continues. As the title of her article states, Reed also insists we stop referring to these killers as shooters, writing,
Calling a mass killer a “shooter” is like calling a shooting victim a “target.” It has the ring of the video game world. It makes me wonder if we’re too desensitized to the true human cost of violence. The proliferation of guns and murder narratives in entertainment media adds to this numbing and is creeping into the way we write about actual violence. […] It’s far easier for us in the news media to make it all about the killers and the “mystery” of them and their derangement or their obsessions, looking for that one thing that lets us off the hook for confronting the terrifying reality of access to guns in this country.
I agree with the sentiment, which is part of why I’m glad this series devotes so much time to the stories of police officers and surgeons and nurses and paramedics, and less time to the criminals. That’s rare in true crime series. Our national fixation on the why leaves little room for substantive examination of how these crimes occur or even what the crimes themselves are. Do these crimes uniformly meet the changing standards of terrorism? Are they expressions of worsening social isolation; a newer, public form of suicide that demands an audience by widening the circle of victims?
Or, in the land of the free, are mass shootings just that—crimes of opportunity?
header image: "training exercise: active shooter," presidio of monterey / flickr