GeekOut

After Aurora shooting, a nerd braces for impact

A man opened fire in a crowded theater during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, killing 12 people and wounding 59. Along with the alleged shooter’s family and the NRA, I expect nerds and other outcasts will get some unwanted attention today.

My stomach dropped when I heard news of the mass shooting for the same reasons everyone else's did.

But as a nerd and CNN's resident expert on geeky subcultures, I readied myself for pointed questions which I expected to get from outside the geek community: "Why 'Batman'?" "Is the shooter a nerd?" "Why is it always the loner?"

There's a precedent for labeling people considered nerds or geeks or outsiders as potentially dangerous individuals who might snap. After the Columbine shootings, Goths were given a wider berth than usual. Post school shootings, video gamers get to field a slew of weapons-related questions. Now my gut tells me comic book fans and movie geeks might face closer scrutiny even though there's no evidence the alleged shooter was either.

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But if the public shooting incidents of the last twenty years  - Columbine, Virginia Tech, D.C. sniper, Gabby Giffords - have taught us anything, it's that people who decide to kill innocents are many things. They are students, veterans, children, parents, jilted lovers, video game enthusiasts and rock music fans.

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Suspected Aurora, Colorado, shooter James Holmes was a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Denver who was in the process of leaving the graduate program. Though little is known about the alleged killer, he has been labeled a "nerd" by an uncle who spoke to the press. A  neighbor pegged him a loner. And already a former FBI profiler speculated he might be a "dark, Trekkie-like person."

Whether the Colorado shooter or any other killer considers himself a nerd, mass murderers are, above all else, mentally imbalanced. It is not normal human behavior to conduct a shooting rampage.

We nerds are also considered "not normal" by our peers, and are often stereotyped as socially awkward. Many of us are, indeed, awkward. And it's not unusual for highly intelligent people to have emotional problems. The stereotype of an anxious, obsessive, type-A nerd or even the dismissive, controlling, know-it-all comic book nerd exists because there are plenty of people who prove the rule.

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But the nerd community is not hiding berzerkers. There is no secret handshake that lets you know, “This person is a fan of 'Portal' and is really good at math. Hey, he must be dangerous.”

Commentators and observers are sure to ask, "Why Batman?" today, likely because the comic book portrays maniacal villains who are chaotically destructive and murder people. Holmes told arresting officers that he was The Joker.

Fans of the comic book do, in fact, gravitate toward iconic villains like The Joker or Bane. But the artistic point of such villainy is to prove - through depraved acts and through the motivation of the hero, Batman - that harming other people is evil. That crimes have repercussions that reach far and wide, and it's never just about one victim.

Why did the shooter choose a theater showing a midnight premier of "The Dark Knight Rises"? No reasoning has yet emerged. But from a practical standpoint, the location allowed the shooter to easily wound and kill dozens of innocent people. It was dark and crowded. There were children in the audience. An action movie may have been more likely to mask the noise of gunshots.

Is it easier to wrestle reason from this tragedy by those facts? What would it mean if this happened in an adjacent theater which was showing "Ice Age: Continental Drift" or "Katy Perry: Part of me"?

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"Is the shooter a nerd?" No one knows for sure, but I don't think it will explain much if that's the case. In my experience, nerds are generally sensitive souls. They suffer the loneliness of being cast as outsiders. They long for acceptance and to be valued for their abilities. Nerds may be pushed to the margins of society, but we know the difference between right and wrong. This is a deplorable tragedy – anyone, outcast or not, would agree. There is no excuse, ever, for a crime like this.

Less significantly, this horrendous act could besmirch a franchise that comic book fans and movie geeks hold dear. Batman/Bruce Wayne is a vigilante. He embodies a base, emotional cry for justice. He catches the bad guys because a bad guy killed his parents, right in front of him. The audience that reads "Batman" comic books and goes to see "Batman" movies finds catharsis from this story line. They do not arm themselves and seek revenge for their grievances.

This crime has wounded the country. As we try to make sense of this tragedy, we will turn to the news and watch as the facts unveil. We may have to deal with the fact that the only reason someone chooses to open fire in a crowded Colorado theater is because he or she feels like it. But after documenting nerdy subcultures for years, I can offer this much: this isn't what being a nerd is about.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ann Hoevel.